Recently, I, a mild-mannered, queer, legally blind, writer morphed into a ticked-off diva.
I was invited to an event held at the Library of Congress on Dec. 3. Because my vision’s impaired, I asked LOC’s Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) coordinator Eric Eldritch to have someone escort me from the Library’s entrance to the gathering. Eldritch said LOC would accommodate my request if it could – but that the Library might not be able to assist me. I didn’t have a problem with this. Here’s what angered me: If LOC couldn’t accommodate me, Eldritch said, I could get to the event by following his directions. “Just go toward the elevators in the middle,” he said.
Like many blind people, I walk most places by myself. But, as Penny Reeder, who has a master’s in special education from George Washington University told me, “few visually impaired people could follow directions in a building as labyrinth-like as LOC.”
Eldritch, who’s committed to working with the disability community, later apologized to me for his insensitive (though well-meaning) comments about directions and my fangs disappeared. The event — “Portrayal or Betrayal: People with Disabilities in Film and Media” — was engaging. Sponsored by LOC’s Motion Picture, Broadcast and Recorded Sound Division and the American Association of People with Disabilities, the panel discussion was an eye-opener on the ways in which disabled people have been excluded from and stereotyped in the media. Yet, I couldn’t help thinking: how ironic to encounter ableism (insensitivity toward people with disabilities) when trying to get to a gathering on issues of inclusion of disability in the media.
Why am I telling you this? Because my story isn’t unique. Daily, the 20 percent (according to the U.S. Census Bureau) of Americans who have disabilities experience exclusion – from wheelchair-inaccessible bars to workplace discrimination to being nearly invisible on TV. Three to five million people with disabilities in the United States are LGBT, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
My experience coming to an understanding with Eldritch reminded me that many of us aren’t members of just one community. Millions of us are not only LGBT, but Latino, African-American, Asian-American, Jewish, disabled, young, old, married, single, parents, childless — any permutation of humanity — you can imagine. We live in the sometimes conflicted, sometimes parallel intersections of our communities.
Carolina V. Alcalde, Latina and lesbian, became a paraplegic at age 37, when a tree fell on her back while she was riding her motorcycle in Washington, D.C. “This disability is the most apparent part of me that is susceptible to discrimination and I need to educate myself about my new extended family,” Alcalde emailed the Blade, “just as I consistently do with my Latino and LGBT communities.”
“The issues of discrimination are all the same,” Alcalde continued, “it takes a community and allies to help bring these issues to light.”
Both the LGBT and disability community have been portrayed inadequately by the media, Ray Bradford, a gay man and former national EEO director of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, emailed the Blade. “Because these communities are at the forefront of civil rights in the workplace and across the land,” said Bradford, a national executive board member of Pride at Work, an AFL-CIO group, “the ties that bind are more apparent than most may think.”
Just as with LGBT youth, “young people with disabilities increasingly feel a sense of disability pride,” said Tari Hartman Squire, CEO of EINSOFcommunications, a company that works with marketing and diversity, in a telephone interview. “Increasingly, LGBT groups such as GLAAD and the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce are working as allies with the disability community.” (GLAAD includes disability in its “Where We Are on TV” reports.)
Living in the intersections of communities is a hard, but vital part of our lives. Let’s work as allies to meet, and even savor, this challenge.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.