Feature Article

Crashing the Party: Challenging Ableism in Gay Men’s Health

Written by Jonathan Degenhardt

I am someone who has a disability that severely impacts my life. At first glance it’s not obvious. Walking down the street I can pass as a ‘normal’ person but once I open my mouth to speak I am uncovered because I suffer from a speech disorder, commonly known as stuttering.

Growing up I was teased mercilessly. Not only did I stutter but I was also gay, and chubby. But it was the stigma of stuttering that controlled every aspect of my life. I attempted suicide for the first time when I was 13 and when I woke up from it I decided the best way to cope was to stop talking altogether. I carried around a pen and a note pad and started to learn sign language. I gave in to the kids who tormented me and I was miserable. 

A few years later, after an intentional drug overdose, something inside me finally snapped. I was at the end of my rope and realized I was suffering from prejudice and intolerance because of my disability. This form of social discrimination against people with disabilities is called ableism and it was affecting me deeply.  I knew that one day I would kill myself if I continued on my current path so I decided to shed the shackles and do something that I truly wanted. I applied to university to become a social worker.

I started this new path with the naive assumption that I was entering a field of compassion but there were several bumps along the way. On my very first day I had a meeting at the campus disability resource center. After five minutes the counselor strongly recommended I choose another program because of my stutter.  I was overwhelmed with despair thinking I had made the biggest mistake of my life. I had moved to a place where I knew no one to start a career that I was destined to fail.  But I stuck to my guns and I continued with my social work studies.  I wanted to prove that I could be successful and I knew I would have to work much harder than my peers to be seen as any kind of equal.

During my first social work practicum I fell into the field of gay men’s health at the Gay Men’s Sexual Health Program at the AIDS Committee of Windsor. Things went well there and they agreed to hire me after I graduated. But this acceptance was short-lived. My new job required me to travel to Toronto to attend meetings and it was here that the ableism I had faced before reared its head and smacked me right across the face. It was time for round-table introductions and I was dreading it. The second I opened my mouth I hit a huge block. The words would not come out and I well remember the looks of confusion, surprise, and judgement from the people around the table. It was very painful and I wanted to disappear.

I was devastated in that room of my peers. I wanted nothing more than to be accepted but instead I felt like I was back in elementary school. This experience caused me to fall back into some old coping strategies. I perfected the mask of laughing it off but inside I felt that I would always be a failure. Slowly, I allowed my disability to control my life again. When I was in large groups I stopped talking; I would pass on the introductions and I would let other people speak for me when I had something to say. I was in the room but I was not really participating.

When I was laid off because of budget cuts I applied for jobs at several other AIDS service organizations in Ontario but the answer was always the same. They had decided on someone else. I could never prove it but I always felt it was because of my stutter. I was very discouraged and then I decided to try for some jobs in my home province of British Columbia. I really liked working in gay men’s health and I was fortunate enough to get some interviews. I didn’t get the first job I applied for but I did get a job at a different AIDS service organization and I was very grateful that they were willing to give me a chance.

My first task was to attend the Gay Men’s Health Summit in Vancouver. I knew no one and I was worried about experiencing ableism here so I did my best to blend into the background. It was there that I met someone who confirmed that my stutter was the reason I didn’t get the first job I applied for in BC. I finally had proof and I wanted to scream. After considering lots of options, including a formal complaint to the BC Human Rights Tribunal, a close friend suggested that the best revenge would be to make them regret not hiring me. I realized that my stuttering was not going to go away and that I was going to have to work really hard to give myself a voice.

To this end I started to become my own advocate. I requested accommodations so I could fully participate at meetings, I became a presenter, and I started taking space in places where I was not necessarily comfortable. I still face stares and stigma but I no longer internalize it and I no longer feel that I don’t belong. It has been a long road but I have finally embraced my disability as part of who I am and I know that my fight against ableism is something I will always do.

My story is unique but there are many people in the Queer community who feel left out because of their disabilities. I have made my own seat at the table and will continue to make space for other people like me.  As a community of mostly able-bodied gay men we need to be willing to make our spaces, our meetings, and our lives more accessible to people living with disabilities. This may seem hard because each disabled person has their own accommodations but all we really need to do is extend a hand and say, “Welcome.”.