My disability, sexuality, and gender all share one particular feature; it’s quite easy for me to pass as “normal”. I can stand & walk unaided (albeit not for long), I’m clearly AFAB (assigned female at birth), and I have a husband. Being covertly abnormal has its disadvantages, namely disbelief and a constant need to prove myself to the world as meeting the tick-box requirements to be both a cripple and queer. However, it has also allowed me insight into how people’s treatment of me differs when they don’t know about my circumstances and apparent aversion to doing anything by the book.
One of my favourite games to play when I meet someone new is to talk to them about my husband and mention that we’re both queer in the same sentence. I don’t specify any more details than that, and see how long it takes for them to figure out that bisexual people do, in fact, exist, and sometimes they even get married. On more than one occasion I’ve had to provide them with the answer to this incomprehensible riddle. This trickery might seem a little cruel and insensitive, but it just goes to show how heteronormative our thinking can be, nor is this way of thinking limited to straight people. When I met my friend, I thought that they were straight, they thought that I was straight, and we both thought that our mutual friend was gay. We were wrong on all three counts as we are all bisexual. The moment of realisation looked something like this:
Giving the impression that I’m able-bodied is much harder, as the wheelchair tends to be a bit of a giveaway and is difficult to cover up. However, when working with external staff to conduct clinical trials, the nurses and doctors I commune with daily may not know that I’m disabled for months or even years. Last year, when we hosted an annual meeting to encourage teams to keep recruiting to the trials and update them with changes made to the trial, I lost count of the number of medics who were surprised to see me involved at all. They were even more surprised when I was introduced as the Data Management Assistant who had been answering all of their questions, and not one of the patients come in to give their stories of patient engagement for the trial. In some cases, I have seen a tonal shift in how people talk to me; some seem to have more respect, and some seem to be more patronising. Those that didn’t attend that meeting continued as they had been without any noticeable change.
Then, when you’re at an intersection of protected characteristics like I am, assumptions will still be made. I’m assumed to be cis-gendered and straight in disabled groups, and the inaccessibility of some LGBTQAI+ groups speaks for itself.
The simple fact is that the assumptions we make about someone when we meet them, whether that be in person or remotely, are usually wildly inaccurate. Unless we are given reason to think otherwise, we assume that the person we are talking to is male, white, straight, and able-bodied, and we all fall foul of this way of thinking from time to time. Changing your inbuilt unconscious biases is immensely difficult, which only makes overcoming these unseen biases even harder.