Feature Issue on Sexuality and Gender Identity for People with Intellectual, Developmental, and Other Disabilities
Little, Not Less
The author, at the Minnesota State Capitol. Photo by Connie Burkhart.
When I was a child, disabilities were not a “thing” to me, though I was born with multiple physical disabilities. I was raised to believe that I was just like everyone else and that going to doctors' appointments on a regular basis were normal. Everyone went to specialists, right? I was in all mainstream classes throughout my education. The only thing different I had was a few stools throughout the classroom. All of these things have to do with my parents raising me just like an average kid. They put me first instead of my disabilities. I grew up with two average-size parents and an older average-size brother. Everything was average, except for me, but I hadn’t realized that. When I started getting into my teenage years, I started realizing I was not average. These years can be tough for anyone as they struggle with acceptance in sports and dating, for example, but for someone with disabilities, it can be much tougher. I had friends, I had many friends, but my friends were the ones who were dating, making the sports teams, and not having those specialist appointments. I started seeing these differences, which can also be seen as barriers. These barriers became bigger and tougher when I went to college.
My high school and college years were also when my mental health barriers started shining through. Between the physical medicine specialists, I started seeing mental health specialists and was diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and ADHD. Anxiety and depression are very common diagnoses in people with disabilities. In a way, it makes sense, because people with disabilities have barriers and struggles that the average person does not have. When I got these diagnoses, things started making more sense as I looked back at some of my struggles. At that time, though, my physical health always had to come first.
When I came out, I found myself a part of yet another minoritized group.
Another common barrier that many people with disabilities face is bullying. Sadly, it doesn’t stop for us during childhood, but continues throughout adulthood. The stares, the laughs, and the rejection continue, but I like to think these negatives can help one become stronger in terms of self-advocacy and assertiveness. Some say these experiences make one have thicker skin. Besides standing up for myself, I’ve also always had an army behind me sticking up and protecting me. I always tell folks not to shield me from these bullies, but rather help tackle these issues directly and let me stand up for myself. I also like to use those negative situations as teaching moments of acceptance and being different. People often stare or make unkind comments because they don’t understand. I feel as a person with multiple disabilities, it is my job to educate others about disabilities and how a disability is not something that makes one less-than.
Finding “The One”
Dating can be a barrier for those with disabilities. I didn’t date as much as the average person, but I did date. I believe that because of this barrier, it took me awhile to find “the one.” After dating several men, my “forever” person was a woman. After getting to know Erin, it started to become obvious she was the one for me. Because I had never dated a woman before, I took time to identify if this was a relationship I wanted. She accepted me right away, seeing beyond the disabilities. She sees me as a partner, not her disabled partner. Like any partner, she challenges me to be the best me that I can be. Years later, we are happily together and raising two teen girls.
When I came out, I found myself a part of yet another minoritized group. Being a part of two minoritized communities can bring on more barriers. As I explored my own identity, I started exploring and researching others who are members of both communities. I’ve found that people with disabilities are often misunderstood as they are trying to explore their sexual identity. Potential romantic partners without disabilities, for example, may rule out dating someone with a disability before even meeting them. Using a person-first lens is crucial in seeing and being attracted to someone’s strengths, interests, and beliefs.
My identity at work, and what’s ahead
After college, I started navigating the employment world. I found through my own experiences and other’s experiences that this can be another barrier for people with disabilities. Sometimes people aren’t fully seen for their abilities for a potential job because their disabilities are getting in the way. It has been said by many that people with disabilities sometimes must work harder during an interview to show they are the right fit for the job. I have lost out on jobs to people without disabilities who had less experience and education, and I have not been considered for promotions for which I was clearly qualified. Although I’ve experienced these barriers, I’ve also been fortunate enough to have worked for multiple non-profit organizations for 15 years, and most of them were focused on working with the disability community. I’ve had the joy of helping others within the disability field become stronger self-advocates and help them tackle similar battles that I have faced. I am one of many examples of successful professionals who are thriving at work with needed tools and/or accommodations.
After many years within the social services field and seeing the need for more disability advocacy, I began dreaming of starting my own business. I want to provide training and education for community members and provider agencies about disability inclusion and equality. I want to work on tackling those societal barriers around the disability community and helping the disability community feel more included. I want to help others with disabilities become stronger self-advocates for themselves and help them discover their own voices. I also hope to reach people with disabilities who also are members of the LQBTQ+ community. I recently created Little.NotLess., a limited liability company that I hope to turn into a non-profit organization focused on civil rights, inclusion, and equality for all people.
People with disabilities deserve to be heard and seen beyond their disabilities. My dream is to work myself and others in similar positions out of jobs because society gets to that level of being a fully inclusive society. Until then, I will keep working.