Don Dew is the president and founder of ReachOut USA, a Kansas-based organization that advocates for LGBT disabled people in the United States. ReachOut USA provides services for LGBT disabled people as well as trainings for agencies and businesses. GLAAD is currently working with Mr. Dew to increase media visibility of LGBT people with disabilities.
Can you tell me how ReachOut USA came about? What was your motivation for starting this organization?
I became disabled with intractable epilepsy in 2003. I filed for Social Security Disability, which took two years to obtain. While searching for services in Oklahoma, my partner was told that the best thing would be to put me in a nursing home. We were just looked at as just “roommates,” like my partner had no responsibility for me. I thought this was unacceptable.
We moved to Kansas in 2005 where I began volunteering at a Center for Independent Living to advocate for services for people with disabilities to have a choice to remain in their homes and communities. During this time I noticed a lack of outreach and services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, LGBT people with disabilities, their partners, and their families. There was also a stigma associated with being LGBT by many of the professionals in the medical field and social service arena. This kept many LGBT people, disabled or not, from obtaining services they needed. That is why I started ReachOut USA in 2007.
What would you like to see in terms of representations of LGBT people with disabilities? Besides, obviously, seeing more representations period – what kind of stories would you like to see out there in LGBT media as well as mainstream media?
Awareness - a lot of people in the LGBT community do not realize that LGBT people with disabilities are a big part of their community. 1 in 5 have a disability or chronic illness. Remember that number, 1 in 5. It is more than you would expect.
But disability does not mean just using a wheelchair, scooter, or even a cane, like I do. A chronic or debilitating disease, even if controlled by medication can be considered a disability.
There are no stories about disabled gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people to help our youth that are trying to cope with the added depression and anxiety of being disabled and coming out at the same time. Disabled LGBT people also face an increased risk of violence. Being LGBT and disabled is daunting sometimes and you need positive role models and mentors that can inspire people of all ages.
October is Disability Employment Awareness Month as well as being LGBT History Month. Federal law protects disability, but people with disabilities have a high rate of unemployment, even though they want to work. They have problems being hired or having a workplace that is suitable for them. The same is true for LGBT individuals.
We need stories about the lack of accessibility in the LGBT community to help bring about change. Imagine that you finally get the courage to leave your abusive partner but you get to the LGBT anti-violence shelter to find it is gated and has a steep set of stairs to reach the buzzer and you’re in a wheelchair.
The lack of accessibility is one reason you see less LGBT disabled individuals. They cannot participate in activities or events in their own community. Many have become accustomed to living life just inside their own home.
Accessibility is a Federal Law, and organizations and stores or bars who want to reach out to the disability community should contact a Center for Independent Living near them or ReachOut USA to obtain guidelines for their businesses. Events and other venues must always consider alternate formats, for people with low vision, the blind, and the hearing impaired. Even going scent free, which I know is hard for our community, but many people are allergic to scents and become terribly sick.
We should see stories of life from around the country of LGBT people with disabilities. How are things different in different areas of the country? Is there an advantage living in the city as opposed to the middle of the country? How is it to try and date when you are LGBT and disabled? What do partners go through with a disabled spouse? LGBT people with disabilities are the same as the rest of the LGBT community. And the rest of the country, for that matter. We want the same rights, and we want to feel equal, especially in our own community.
Are there particular tropes or defamatory stereotypes that you would like to see addressed or erased?
Let’s get rid of the good looking, model stereotype and start showing real people, and real bodies.
I know that whether someone is LGBT or not, if they are disabled, people think they are not very smart. Not true. Some of the smartest people I know are leaders in the Disability Movement.
ReachOut USA is going to the National March for Equality this weekend and you’ll be holding a Town Hall and a Mixer for the LGBT and disabled community. What sort of things do you hope to accomplish? Do you have any other plans for the march?
I hope that by bringing together the two communities we will see what we are both about, and see that the similarities in many of the causes we are fighting for will be stronger if we work together.
I will be monitoring the march and events to make sure ASL interpreters are in place and during the march that anyone who needs a wheelchair has access to one. Also, it will be important to make sure people at the march keep curb cuts clear for people in chairs or scooters.
Don Dew was employed in the hotel management field for 11 years before becoming disabled with intractable epilepsy in 2003. In 2006, he began advocating for services for people with disabilities to have a choice to remain in their homes and communities. Don is the treasurer and secretary of the Statewide Independent Living Council of Kansas (SILCK). He is also the co-facilitator of the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) GLBT Caucus and the Secretary on the Northwest Kansas Domestic and Sexual Violence Services in Hays, Kansas. He founded ReachOut USA in October 2007.