This post was written by Astrid. Astrid (she/her) is a queer disabled woman living on unceded Gadigal land
With 20% of Australians identifying as having a disability, even if we’re not disabled ourselves, most of us have a friend who is disabled. We might also have a romantic or sexual relationship with a disabled person.
Being part of the LGBTQ+ community, we appreciate our allies. So how can you be an awesome ally to a friend or relationship partner with disability?
Just like anyone else, people with disabilities desire and deserve meaningful relationships. But dating and relationships can be something people with disability have to navigate differently.
To give an example, it can be exhausting for disabled people to constantly have to wonder if venues will be accessible, if events are suited to their needs, and having to explain their limitations to people.
The social model of disability sees disability as a result of the barriers that cause people with impairments to be unable to fully participate in society. Disabled people don’t need to be fixed or cured – society needs to remove the barriers!
Remember that not all disabilities are visible. People may live with mental health challenges, intellectual disability, or chronic illness. Some people have more than one disability. You may have a disability yourself, but your partner has a different disability. Remember that your needs may not be the same – even if you have the same disability!
Being an ally to your friends
To be an ally to your friends with disability, you can do the work in helping to remove the barriers and offer to do things like:
- Offer to be the one to call venues and check that they are accessible. If your friend uses a wheelchair, ask the venue about seating arrangements and toilets.
- Looking out for your friend. Are they experiencing burnout? Would they appreciate some time out at a busy event? Offer to go with them to a quiet area to decompress.
- Not everyone communicates by talking. Other ways of communicating include texting, writing, using sign language (Auslan), facial expressions and gestures. Some people use a number of different ways to communicate. It can help to be aware you might need to change your communication style when meeting with different people.
- If you’re not sure what ‘to do’ when it comes to offering help or inviting people to things when you know they might not be able to come – just ask! This can be as simple as something like ‘When you’re having a flare up, do you want me to still be sending you invites to things? I never want to exclude you, but I also don’t want to put you in a position where you feel even worse saying no- what do you want me to do?’
Before doing anything on behalf of your disabled friends, remember to ask. People with disability are used to micro aggressions like someone talking over them, moving their wheelchair without asking, or leaving them out of social plans because they assume they don’t want to do it or wouldn’t want to or be able to attend. Disabled people have a slogan – nothing about us without us – don’t make decisions without asking people first, or make assumptions. When unsure, it is always better to ask!
Being an ally in intimate relationships
All of the advice on how to be a good ally to disabled friends also applies if you’re in a relationship, dating or casually seeing a person with disability. Some other things to be aware of are:
- Educate yourself by reading blog posts or other resources on dating disabled people – especially ones written by disabled people themselves. Disabled people are constantly needing to educate the world around them on how to accommodate their disability, which can be exhausting. Rather than adding to the burden, take time to understand the experiences of disabled people.
- Be aware of ableism – both your own and the ableism of others. We’re all subject to ableist tropes in the media, like that disabled people are “brave”, or “overcome their challenges to live a normal life”. Think about any ableist tropes you’ve seen, and how you can move past them. When dating a disabled person, you also get a view of their world – a world that unfortunately may include rude comments, stares, and inaccessible venues. Talking this over with your partner might give you a connection and help you to overcome any ableist views you hold on to.
- Consent is essential in any sexual relationship, every time you have sex; so make sure that if you’re initiating, you do or say something to find out if they’re into it.
- You may be unsure about the physical aspects of a sexual relationship. Remember, sex is different with every person. If you and your partner are considering a sexual relationship, talk with them first. Disabled people are just as keen to explore their desires as anyone else, so don’t assume someone is not interested in sex – as always, communication and consent are the key!
How to support a disabled friend experiencing relationship violence
LGBTQ+ people with disability experiencing relationship violence face additional barriers; services may be unsuitable for their needs, or lack accessibility. There may be a lack of understanding of LGBTQ+ relationships and chosen families.
Understanding how to be good ally to disabled people can help you support a friend with disability experiencing relationship violence. For more info on how you can help, please see our resource here.