Disability, queerness and COVID-19: Living proud in a quiet world
By: Charbel Zaba
As a raging homosexual who is also Hard of Hearing, I’m sorry to tell you that disabled people and queer people have once again been failed by our society. Not for the first time, we have been overlooked and left behind.
It seems to be a never-ending cycle to me – we argue for our humanity to be recognised, we are fed promises that things will be better, and when this fails to eventuate we argue again, and again, and again.
Image: Tai’s Captures
COVID-19 has put this marginalisation on display. For the average person, COVID-19 is a nuisance: wash your hands, work from home, complain online about being bored. If only things were ever that simple for queer and disabled people.
Our challenges are hard enough in an ableist world without Coronavirus, but with COVID-19, these challenges have become near impossible to overcome.
I suffer from mild to severe sensorineural hearing loss, a little genetic present given to myself and my siblings from my mother. I wear hearing aids and have a slight deaf accent. I knew how challenging things were going to get when COVID-19 made its way through Australia.
The first challenge I knew I was going to be confronting was speaking to people with masks. I’m fully aware that masks are an essential part of PPE in workplaces and medical settings, but imagine the struggle I face in attending health appointments. As someone with a substantial hearing loss, I have always relied greatly on lip reading.
For anyone with hearing loss or an auditory processing disorder, lip reading is perhaps the most important tool for us. During the COVID crisis I have chosen to forego or reschedule most of my urgent appointments, simply because I would have no idea what doctors were asking of me through their masks.
My experience is not unique – there is a high percentage of queer and disabled people who have multiple health conditions overlapping with their disabilities.
This makes sense. Those with disabilities tend to have poor health outcomes, because accessing important health services is nearly impossible in this ableist world.
For the health appointments I considered too vital to reschedule, I went in person when they offered no other alternative in attending. That’s where the deepest irony lies: I was so desperate to protect my health that I was going to compromise it by going out to see a health specialist. Ableism kills.
So few people in positions of privilege realise the self-perpetuating nature of poverty. Everyone with a marginalised identity faces challenges, but with the intersecting identities of disabled and queer, these challenges are compounded.
Our physical capacities are limited and our emotional and mental capacities are almost always greatly diminished, especially in a capitalist world that says your greatest value is in how productive you can be for others.
Few of us can find sustainable modes of income and when we do, we face a combination of ableism and homophobia or transphobia, making working life even harder.
It’s hard to “work your way out of poverty” when you are taking days off for expensive health appointments and for mental health self-care, or if – as was the case for a of friend of mine who uses a wheelchair – the elevator is broken, making it impossible to even access their workplace.
For me, isolation during COVID has been compounded. Whilst others move their weekly catch-ups to ‘Zoomtinis’ and online trivia tournaments, video calls and phone calls just don’t work for me.
As queer people or as people with disabilities, we already face isolation whether it’ll be from our family, friends or our peers. It is hard for us to build these connections. As someone who’s both, that isolation becomes much more pronounced.
There’s intense anxiety in taking phone calls, especially when you’re deaf. There’s a fear you’ll mishear someone, added with the embarrassment of publicly getting it wrong, plus the annoyance with yourself for not getting it right.
This became a regular thing for me while looking for a job during this time, especially with phone interviews. It cost me countless job opportunities. It’s not a good look when you’re constantly asking the interviewer to repeat themselves.
What frustrated me was, with just a bit of flexibility, some of my challenges could have been averted. It’s not hard to email a list of interview questions to be answered and sent back in a video or email – but according to our ableist world, it’s impossible.
What is worse is the ongoing conversation in the public sphere about the worth of disabled people. Once again, we have been arguing for our right to be seated at the same table as everyone else.
There isn’t enough space for me to explain how soul destroying it was to watch those on the Disability Support Pension be excluded from the Coronavirus Supplement paid to those on JobSeeker payments.
Nor do I have the capacity to convey the anxiety I had in being someone at high risk, and having to pick up hearing aid batteries that couldn’t be delivered in time before my supply ran out.
It’s a difficult time to be someone with a disability. COVID-19 has really showed us just how much Australian society values its most vulnerable people and unfortunately, it’s left us disappointed.
Charbel Zaba (he/him) is a proud gay middle eastern man with a genetic hearing disability. When he’s not being the co-founder and runner of the Sydney Queer and Disability community group, he works as a disability support worker while studying to become an accredited counsellor for queer youth.
For more information on how COVID affects people with disability, go to www.pwd.org.au/covid-19-hub/