Did you know as many as 5 million LGBTQ+ people live with a disability? Plus, over 38% of LGBTQ students were bullied or harassed at school because of a disability, according to The 2017 National School Climate Survey.
But I don’t want to just talk about numbers. I want to talk about how this affects kids and their mental health.
Many kids and teens struggle with their identities as it is. Now imagine identifying as LGBTQ+ and having a disability. People already treat kids with disabilities differently – in the way they act and talk to them. Then add the fact that they also identify as LGBTQ, it’s easy to see how difficult it can be.
Many people are afraid to truly see a person’s disability. They might not know what to say or how to act around a person with a disability and in turn then look past them. We count them out rather than acknowledge them for the entire person they are.
People also want to make a person with a disability out to be “just like us” so, often kids and teens with disabilities feel invisible. And, how could they not? When people ignore their disabilities, they don’t feel seen for their whole person, for who they are and how they identify.
Many queer kids and teens already feel this way – invisible. So, when a LGBTQ+ child has a disability, the feeling of being invisible or not being seen for who they are can be compounded. According to MAP, LGBTQ people struggle to have their identities fully recognized. When they’re in a space focused on disability, they don’t feel their LGTBQ identity is often recognized and vice versa.
Only their “difference” is seen
One common thing that happens with both kids with disabilities and LGBTQ kids are that the part of their identity that makes them “different” also becomes the only thing that people see about them.
For example, once a child comes out as transgender, they worry that everyone will just see them as the “trans” kid, and not the kid who is a good actor, basketball player, friend, student, etc. Similarly, kids with disabilities often feel that others define them by their disability. They become the kid in the wheelchair or the kid with autism, rather than the kid who loves baseball or the kid who is awesome at spelling.
A good example of how we do this as parents and pediatricians is failing to acknowledge that kids and teenagers with disabilities have sexual feelings and identities. I once took care of an almost 18-year-old teenager who used a wheelchair due to his genetic spinal cord abnormality and I was the first pediatrician in his life to ask if he was attracted to girls, boys or both, how he identified his sexual identity and what relationships and sexual activity he had participated in. He told me no doctor had ever asked him these questions before and in fact, he had a lot of questions about his own sexual exploration and functioning that intersected with his disability that he had been wondering who to ask for years.
So how can we work to make all kids feel seen? Here are a few ideas:
- Acknowledge a person’s entire identity. Ask them how they identify and ask how they’d like to be seen.
- Accept them for who they are, how they identify and who they want to be.
- Talk to kids about their disability and their sexual and gender identities.
- Remember that all kids have sexual and gender identities, and likely questions about dating and sex, including those who have disabilities.
- Keep in mind that not all disabilities are visible, and making sure we are inclusive in our accommodations for school and social events is important.
- All kids have so many things that make up who they are, and their disability and sexual and gender identities are a part of who they are, but do not define all of someone’s identity.
Let’s make sure that all of our kids, and all of the wonderful qualities that make them vibrant and unique, feel seen, safe and are able to thrive.
Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd, (they/she)
Chief education officer, chief of staff and medical director of the Gender Health program
Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd, (they/she), is the chief education officer, chief of staff, pediatrician and medical director of the Gender Health program at Children’s Minnesota. Dr. Goepferd is an advocate for advancing equitable health care for all children – including trans and gender-diverse youth. They have been named a Top Doctor by both Minneapolis/St. Paul Magazine and Minnesota Monthly for the last several years and gave their first TED talk, “The Revolutionary Truth about Kids and Gender Identity” at TEDx Minneapolis in 2020.
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