Disability and Intersectionality: Not the “Default Disabled Person”

by Cori Frazer

When I was initially asked to write about intersectionality in the context of disability, I was excited. Intersectional disability justice is incredibly important to me. But the more I thought about it, I wondered where I could add to the fantastic work of the queer black and brown disabled organizers who developed this framework.

Then, last weekend, my chosen family member, Zoey (name changed for privacy), was admitted to a eating disorder residential treatment center after months of working to get her needs met. We live in this soupy mess at the intersection of queer, transgender, Autistic, and physically and psychiatrically disabled, so shit gets complicated. But I usually forget just how complicated it really is. It is the only life I have ever known, so explaining it feels like tautological nonsense.

But I have spent enough time on the phone with advocates, providers, and loved ones in the past weeks to realize that many people are unfamiliar with the tightrope disabled people are asked to walk when we are not the default disabled person.

See, the default disabled person is convenient. They share the characteristics of the dominant groups of society in every way except that they have a simple, nonobtrusive disability. They are white, cisgender, straight (if they are sexual at all, but they are also not loudly asexual), and an adult. They do not have physical or medical needs that require anything more than a cane or manual wheelchair. They are not emotionally, cognitively, or psychiatrically disabled. They communicate using verbal speech and navigate the world using vision. They are not traumatized. They work at a job with no accommodations, and they earn enough to make a decent living.

Theoretically, this disabled person probably exists. After all, there are a lot of us disabled folks. But they are certainly not the typical disabled person. The problems start when we realize that every system we have built for disabled people has a default disabled person in mind. Maybe not the one I’ve listed above, but a similar one. Once you change any variable to deviate from this default, it starts to get muddy.

When I was originally helping Zoey look for an eating disorder specialist, I emailed a provider looking for a referral. I asked about individuals that would also know how to relate to Zoey’s queer, trans, and Autistic identities. The specialist sent a referral to our local LGBT counseling center and adult developmental disability outpatient, stating that they didn’t know anyone locally who could treat such a complex case. I can read between the lines. My friend isn’t a default disabled person. This system expects one dimension of difference. She should have chosen anorexia OR autism OR gender dysphoria. But those are not the lives we live. Instead, those of us living at the intersection of multiple identities find ourselves choosing between ableism from LGBT providers, transphobia from autism providers, and panic from providers who specialize in neither.

Several weeks later, I found myself outside the eating disorder outpatient, cleaning up after that panic, talking the police down as Zoey sat inside, curled in a ball, overstimulated by the fluorescent lighting and her own trauma. The provider had panicked and called 911 because of Zoey’s Autistic shutdown, unsure of how to handle what they interpreted as a catatonic state. But like in most cities, the expected paramedics were accompanied by armed police officers. The numbers had been running through my head since I walked past the flashing lights. Half of all people murdered by police are disabled people, and at least 30% of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in this country are disabled. Even police officers with autism competence training often misinterpret Autistic behavior as noncompliance or disrespect.

As I spoke with the police, I presented myself carefully and put on my best cisgender, nondisabled face, leaning hard into my social work education privilege. Eventually, they left peacefully, paramedics in tow, but the vestiges of systemic violence continue to linger, even weeks later. The provider continued in their cycle of confusion, deciding they could not provide adequate services for Zoey’s “complex needs,” and that we should consider residential treatment. Now, if you have a developmental disability or love someone who does, you can likely imagine that this was not a welcome suggestion in the context of the threat of institutionalization that has hung over the heads of many of us since childhood.

Further, residential treatment implies a level of surveillance that leaves no choice but to disclose transgender status, completely stripping away the protective assumption of default disabled person. Given that transgender people have legal protections in less than half of the states and a handful of major cities, this treatment suggestion, which may have been reasonable for a default disabled person, meant that we had choose carefully between the risk of anti-transgender violence and discrimination, and the complication and mortality rates of anorexia nervosa.

Zoey was ultimately admitted a few days ago, to a small residential setting across the country, balancing her access to her informal support system with access to competent care. She is fortunate, at least, to have the resources to obtain treatment, even if it comes at the risk of violence and the historical trauma of residential settings for people with developmental disabilities. Many of the people in our community with the same intersecting identities live their lives besieged; the programs that get them a base level of care they need to survive also condemn them to poverty in order to maintain eligibility.

I don’t write this as a call for pity, but as an example of the realities of living at the intersection of multiple systems of oppression as people with disabilities. Zoey, my chosen family, and I make decisions every day to resist or comply with systems that are directly exploitative and traumatic in order to survive this world and have our needs met.

Beyond the statistics, that is what intersectionality means: That we cannot understand these choices, choices we are all forced to make every day, in the context of any single system of oppression; it is all these systems working constantly and inextricably that form our experiences of oppression and trauma. And it is only through this intersectional understanding that we can begin to dismantle these systems and heal.


coriCori Frazer is the Executive Director at The Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy

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