I remember when I turned 29, I had just gone through a couple major life changes. I had recovered from a hellish few months of hospitals, complications and issues as part of my disability, and gallbladder disease. I moved from my college town to be closer to my family, leaving ten years of academia behind me with no job, and no prospects. I hadn’t yet started my work as a Disability Awareness Consultant. I was disabled, depressed, and I felt so alone. I had no one to really talk to about what it was I was feeling -- what it was I was going through.
I would have days where I would do absolutely nothing; laze around the house and watch Netflix, talk to nobody and wallow, and I’d have days where I would just cry uncontrollably for no reason whatsoever. I kept telling myself that nothing was wrong - that I would be okay - and pull through. I kept forcing myself not to be depressed. People couldn’t see me upset; as a disabled man they expected that reaction from me already. I had to put on a smile and power through.
For a long while, that’s just what I did. I took a deep breath, got up every single day, got in my wheelchair and moved on with my life. Let me make clear before I go any further, these feelings I was having had everything to do with my relationship to my disability, and they DID NOT have anything to do with the fact that I am disabled. I came to terms with my disabled reality when I was 6 years old, and the physiotherapist handed me a toy car license for my chair. It was one of those moments that you just inextricably understand as final, as real. I got it. Right in that moment. So, no, I was never an angry person over my being in a wheelchair. The anger came when I started trying to share that reality with others who were too stricken with a disease called ableism to see what I was offering.
These feelings were there the first time I met a boy I liked, and wanted to ask him out, and he nervously said that he couldn’t. I remember that the first couple times I got these reactions after putting myself out there. I shuffled them off as we’re taught to do. My friends told me that this is what happens, that it was “normal”. For awhile, I believed them. The more and more stuff happened though, I knew it wasn’t okay anymore.
I was tired of having people ghost me online. Cancel on me last minute. Promise to hang out and not ever follow-through. Fuck me, and then never see me again, making me feel horrible about my body, my disability, and myself. I had gone through years of this self-imposed torture, trying to make my mark somewhere, trying to connect with someone and show them who I was.
So, a week after my 29th birthday, there I sat in the therapist’s office. I watched her furiously writing everything I was telling her. I didn’t even know where to start. I wanted to shout, scream and deconstruct every time a guy had been rude to me over my chair, every time I had fallen in love with the thought of a guy, only to know deep down that he would never go for a guy like me. I wanted to tell the therapist that I used sex as a tool for connection, and all that I wanted was intimacy. I told her all that, and SO MUCH more. I laid it all out. Every single time that I had encountered ableism as a queer cripple, every single time I was left to pick up the pieces of my own heart. After all that, she put her pen down and looked me in the eyes. Okay, this is it. She’s going to help me here. (Full disclosure, I never expected her to fix things in our first session, but what she said in that moment was extremely telling.) She looked at me and said, “Oh. I never thought of it like that.” I was confused. What did she mean? I pressed her for an answer, some context. She continued, “I never considered all of the things you bring up with respect to disability.”
I understood where she was coming from, not being disabled, but I was angry now. I had come for help. For some level of guidance. I told her things that I had kept inside for a very long time, told no one. I learned very quickly that this space, one designed to help people work through their shit, was ableist too. Over the next few months, I taught her about my experiences as a queer cripple, and each time she would be stunned by her own ignorance.
She would advise me to go to events, and try to meet people. I tried that, and each time I would be met with some level of ableism; a rude comment, inaccessible spaces, etc., and again when I would tell her, she would have no concrete solution for me.
We need to start talking about the very real effects of ableism, ignorance and prejudice levied against the queer crippled community. This is a type of depression that cuts deep and long across our communities. It happens constantly. It makes us feel unworthy, disenchanted and unimportant.
When I was a young disabled kid, I was told by everyone around me to speak up for myself, and to go after what I want. I learned that I had to do this, to be seen and be heard; to be taken seriously as a disabled person, I had to be obtuse about it. I had tried to apply this same principle of directness to dating dudes while disabled. I was dismayed to learn, almost every time, that asking for what I wanted, standing up for myself as a young queer cripple, didn’t work in this arena. I was knocked down by ableism time and time again. Each time, the guy couching his ableist rhetoric in “unawareness” and “honesty”. They would tell me that they were telling me the truth, and being real with me about how my disability affected them. They’d say this in easy tones, as if I should be thankful to them for hurting me. They could care less about how their words affected me, leaving a scar bigger than the last.
This kind of subversive ableism that runs rampant in our community is not okay. It is dangerous and divisive. Moreover, the disabled individual dealing with this has nowhere to turn. No one to talk to. Our friends, no matter how kind or empathetic, “just don’t get it”, and therapists are ineffectual, and altogether financially inaccessible to the queer cripple. C’mon, would you want to pay $150 an hour to have the person charged with helping you, tell you that they never even thought of how things might affect people in your circumstance? Yeah, didn’t think so.
We need to talk to queer communities and remind them that their honesty about disability is actually ableism, and that pretending like you just didn’t know any better, no longer gets a pass. At least not in my book. We need to create spaces for the queer cripple to share their stories and be validated. We need to create spaces where the queer cripple can feel safe to breakdown, a place where they can put down their armor and simply let go.
We need to realize that disability and queerness make depression look different. We handle it differently. We feel it differently. The intersectionality and linkages between queerness, disability and depression are complex. But they are there. We have a responsibility to give them space, educate ourselves on what they are, and where they are, and where they came from. We need to show they queer cripple they are not alone, and that for once, we have thought about them.