Australia’s Disability Discrimination Commissioner Alastair McEwin has met with many LGBTI people living with a disability.

Matthew Wade caught up with him to find out the most important issues facing the community, why health professionals are lacking, and about the recent ‘Living and Loving in Diversity’ Conference.

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What are some of the biggest issues facing LGBTI people living with a disability?

The biggest one is probably visibility, and not feeling part of the community. From the consultations I’ve had, we clearly have a long way to go when it comes to LGBTI people who have a disability feeling like part of the wider LGBTI community. Often they have been victims of bullying and harassment at school, and coming to terms with their sexuality just adds another layer.

You’ve got many people with a disability—particularly those with an intellectual or cognitive disability—who are bullied quite mercilessly at school, and that’s the environment they grow up in. So trying to come to terms with being part of another perceived minority can be even harder.

Do many members of the LGBTI community reach out to you?

Not every day, but quite often. I ensure I’m meeting with as many members of the community as possible, including LGBTI people. Based on my talks with them, they’ve told me visibility is important, as well as the desire to feel safe and secure when accessing mainstream services like education and health.

One of the biggest gaps we see is in respect and dignity; when professionals have never had to deal or interact with people with a disability, it makes it problematic, especially when the people have queer sexualities on top of that. The people I’ve spoken with feel they can’t communicate their needs properly.

Why is visibility important?

What I’m seeing is the role social media can play when it comes to this. There are many disability activists who also identify as LGBTI, and I see them talking openly about the issues they face. They’ll tell their stories and really help break down a lot of barriers.

It’s important for health professionals to understand that just because someone has a disability, it doesn’t mean they don’t have things they want to say.

What did you address at the recent Living and Loving in Diversity Conference?

I recognised the bullying and harassment young LGBTI people experience in society. The more I hear about the experiences of people in the community, the more it helps my work. My work is influenced by issues in the community, and if there are service providers at the conference, I hope they’ll be able to take some of what’s spoken about at the conference on board and work out how they can apply it themselves.

Why is it important to focus on the intersection between disability and race?

Anecdotally, I have met with LGBTI people with a disability who have come from ethnic backgrounds or families where religion forbids homosexuality as a sin. The [Living and Loving in Diversity] conference is critical in enabling people to have safe spaces to feel secure.

I have seen many young people whose families have rejected them but they’ve managed to find family and community at events like these. Sadly, we still see many dramatic situations like depression and suicide because people with disabilities don’t always get the information they need.

What do you want people to know about disability?

Never assume anything about anyone. Just because a person with a disability looks a certain way, don’t assume there’s not a living, breathing person behind the facade. They want to have sex like anyone else, they have sexual desires, and they still have all the same fundamental needs.

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