Anecdotes of a Disabled Gay: inclusion, advocacy and employment

Wayne Herbert is a disability professional, LBGTIQ activist and author. This is a lightly edited version of his speech given at TedX Canberra (2017) and to be given at the 2018 Canadian Association of Supported Employment Conference. Wayne is contactable through Libby Henderson-Kelly at ICMI.

I am here to change the way we think about disability, sex, and sexuality once and for all. To explore the power of social labels how they can affect one’s life in both positive and negative ways.

I would like to take this opportunity to dispel some myths about me and perhaps many people like me. What is the first thing that comes to mind when you saw me make my way to the stage this evening? Or perhaps when you first heard me speak?  Despite what you may think or perhaps have already assumed. Did you assume correctly?

I can confirm I am a proud gay man. I am also an occasional drag queen, a leader in the Disability Employment Services sector, and, just for balance (although to be honest I do not have much of that), I have Cerebral Palsy. I alone can tick almost all those diversity boxes.

OK I can feel the tension building, you are all looking at my butt and you are all falling in love. Listeners, it’s because of this I give myself the title of Australia’s cheapest and most convincing drunk. I cannot tell you the number of times I have been refused entry to pubs and nightclubs just based on the way I walk. Now I know what you are thinking I am completely disadvantaged aren’t I? While sometimes, I have been faced with relentless discrimination and homophobia. Labelled things like:

  • Poofter
  • Faggot
  • Spastic
  • Retard

Just to name a few. 

Today I need to make an apology. #Sorry.

Because today what you will discover is I am not inspirational. I am not outstanding. I am not exceptional.  I have the biggest desire to be anything but exceptional. There is the greatest chance that what you will discover nothing except I am just like you. I’ll let you in on a secret, I do everything you do. Everything. For example I regularly masturbate. I have sex, and with men.  

In Australia, we are obsessed with labelling people. This has happened to me all my life.  In fact, if society and successive governments did not constantly remind me that I had a disability and was gay, I would most probably forget about it. I mean I am a busy person, I’ve got stuff to do. To demonstrate to you how important these two attributes are to me I created a list of 50 things about me. Here it is;

1. Britney Spears fan – she’s a diva just like me

2. Several celebrity crushes – they just have not noticed me yet.

3. University graduate...

49. Person who is gay

50. Person with disability

Yet I am fascinated by the fact that governments, policy makers, and sometimes members of the community are so busy focusing on what makes us supposedly ‘different’, or ‘other’ all the while at times ignoring the opportunity to realise the attributes and traits that unite us. I do everything you do. I have sex. I get up every morning and go to work. To some this is amazing. I earn a wage and experience the same financial freedom as you do. I even walk myself to work. I know, right, even with Cerebral Palsy I walk myself to work! Some people view this as incredible, super human almost.

I can tell you it is not. It’s just typical. I am not sure how as a country we have got to a point where we tell people with disability that doing what every other citizen typically would expect to do is somehow ‘amazing’ or inspirational …  But then I go to thinking if I were to be the Clarke Kent of Disability.

More often however, people like me are described by many with highly negative language. how many times have you heard terms like this to describe people like me:

  • Reduced capacity
  • Limited
  • Impaired
  • Deficient?

Every time I hear people (including highly paid government officials and sometimes government ministers) describe people with disability like this, I think “that is me you are talking about”. How about asking how I and many others like me describe ourselves? Because, I am sure I would not use the terms I just mentioned.   

I want you to think for just a moment that if tomorrow you woke up, your life had changed drastically, and you were labelled a ‘person with disability’ think about how you would feel. Because to me I am proud to be me. But how would you want to be seen by your friends? By your community? And how would you expect to be treated? Because although we can acknowledge much positive change - the NDIS for example and marriage equality - we are not there yet. Let us look at where we are in Australia in 2017:

  • Almost half of all gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people hide their sexual orientation or gender identity in public for fear of violence or discrimination.
  • Same-sex attracted Australians have up to 14x higher rates of suicide attempts than their heterosexual peers.
  • 2.2 million People of working age have a disability.
  • 46 percent of working age people with disability were not in the labour force significantly higher than 17 percent of people without disability.
  • Ninety percent of women with intellectual disability will experience some form of sexual assault in their life. 
  • Australia is ranked 21 out of 29 OECD countries for the employment participation of people with disability.

Let us talk about the cup of coffee in the room. That is right, there are no elephants here. Thousands of people with disability are in employment and working for less than $3 per hour – less than you pay every day for your cup of coffee.  Even after a high court decision that ruled this to be discriminatory.

Why are people with disability denied the same financial freedom that you and I take for granted. If I asked you to do your current job under these arrangements would you. If not why not? Then why are we willing to accept this for the most venerable in our community?   

These statistics paint a very bleak picture. At many points in my life, I could have been many of these statistics.  I am sure you could forgive people with disability for thinking they have little or no hope to dream big when it comes to many areas of life including employment. Life would seem shit, right?  All because of the power of a label.

What amazes me most is that we continue to fail to recognise the importance of diversity in all its forms. Why has it taken so long to realise the potential of people like me? I can tell you why. It is because of the ever present weight of low expectations that is present for every person with disability today. We don’t want something different, special, or amazing, just the same. The same as you.

To change this I wrote a book Anecdotes of a Disabled Gay.

The book challenges the many and varied attitudes and perceptions of me that I have experienced both personally and professionally to date. I affectionately know my book as my own personal collection of what people say to a thirty something disabled gay man. Because not only have I been the subject of exclusion based on my disability, I see it every day in my work. Highly skilled, dedicated people excluded, shut out, over looked everyday within our workplaces.

That’s why I am proud to work as a leader in the Disability Employment Services sector - we are the only sector fully focused on people being recognised for their capacity to contribute to the best and fullest of their potential.

I stand before you today a product of homophobia, bullying, harassment, physical and emotional abuse and disability discrimination. I am sure I could be forgiven for being sad and cynical. However, I am not.  Despite this, I am hopeful for the future. What I discovered is that there is a power in a willingness to be open and honest and laugh at myself and the inappropriate things people say. I have come to understand this is a conversation we all need to have. I have just started it. While for the longest time, all I was to many people was a faggot, poofter, retard or spastic. Because that is what they labelled me. It has never been, nor will it ever be, how l see myself.

My parents taught me a very valuable lesson as a young person. Just be. Just be me and never apologise or compromise that for anyone.   I am going to hold a mirror up to the community and ask why we feel at times so uncomfortable to engage with people with disability. How do we as a society value people with disability and members of the LGBTIQ community? What does this say about us as a country? I have mentioned leadership a number of times during my talk. I understand that what comes with leadership is responsibility and as a leader I will always be a voice for the voiceless and power for the dis-empowered and a change agent for everyone.

If I asked you all I wanted was to be equal, would you now think that was too much to ask? I fundamentally believe that if we can change minds we can change lives. Have I changed yours?