On Disability, Race, and Sexuality

This past fall, Rani Kronick, a scholar and disability rights activist, interviewed Patricia Fraser-Morales, a social services professional, about living with ableism and ageism. Morales was born with spina bifida, identifies as a lesbian and as a woman of color. She lives her life with no excuses, advocating for herself and others like her to do the same.

Rani Kronick: Patricia, we’re very pleased that you agreed to share your experiences [of] actually living with ageism and ableism. This is a critical part of the story.

Could you start by introducing yourself and telling us a bit about your background?

Patricia Fraser-Morales: From the very beginning, my disability has been my primary identity because it has impacted me the most. I was born with spina bifida in a Caribbean country, so disability was always part of my life. I wasn’t treated very differently a lot of the time—I rode a bike with training wheels, I had friends, I went to school. There were elements of trying to hide my disability at times. If I sat down at a family event, my crutches were taken away from me. There were elements of shaming or covering up.

We came to the United States primarily because I needed medical attention that was not available in my home country; I was almost 9. Everything changed when I got here. I came from a family where they fought for me to go to regular school [in the Caribbean] and I climbed 3 flights of stairs a day to go to class. I came to a country where they said, “Oh, she's disabled, she's going to be … in special education.” Starting my freshman year of high school, I was fully mainstreamed.

I first became aware … at about 7 or 8, that there were no adults around me with my disability and I thought that when I grew up, it would disappear. I asked my mom and she said, “No, it's permanent.” And that's when I knew.

Rani: For disabled people who don’t grow up in families with disabilities, connections with other disabled people don’t happen naturally. Can you talk about how you got involved in a disability community?

Patricia: It happened from the moment I stepped into that [special-education] classroom, because it has given me insight into the community and how it has and hasn’t changed. I was around other children with disabilities, but I didn’t meet any adults. When I was 10, I attended a sleepaway camp for disabled kids. It was there that I met a woman with spina bifida, who was educated, married, and had children. For a long time afterwards, I aspired to be a physical therapist just like her.

I joined a program when I was 17 for young women with disabilities and we were paired up with mentors who were women with disabilities. That was my first experience dealing with strong, independent advocates, doing the normal things that other non-disabled women were doing and fighting for their right to do so. It made a huge impact on me. I have also turned the tables and done that for women younger than myself.

Rani: How do you think some of those experiences translate for older people who are experiencing disability for the first time as they age?

Patricia: I think it depends on personality. Sometimes it is easy for them to acclimate, “Oh, it’s going to happen, I’m getting older.” And then there’re people who walk around for years leaning on someone instead of using a cane. It runs the spectrum.

Being the age I am now … I need to start doing certain things differently and embrace this, now that I’m getting older and slower. You know what, this is the reality. I was fine before, and I’ll be fine again.

Rani: As you know, experiencing and expressing sexuality can be difficult for girls with mobility disabilities. Do you think your experience maturing was different because you have a disability?

Patricia: It goes back to being in a Caribbean family. Being gay is not acceptable. In hindsight I remember having an attraction to girls. But I wasn’t supposed to talk about it.

That changed in college. In my second-year English class, we read … Audre Lorde’s autobiography Zami: A New Spelling of My Name [Crossing Press, 1982]. I was supposed to read 3–4 chapters over the weekend. I read the whole thing. From beginning to end, I identified with her: Caribbean, the oldest of three girls, had a disability, knew she was gay when she was little, had certain friendships in high school.

‘I need to start doing certain things differently and embrace this, now that I’m getting older and slower.’

I read that book dozens of times because I identified with it so much, and that's when I acknowledged the fact that I liked women. I am fortunate that when I finally came out to my family, it wasn’t a big deal.

My identity as a lesbian is kind of the same as my identity as a person with a disability. I don’t do the same things everybody else does, I’ve adapted it to how I see myself in the world.

One of the ways women met back in the day was through personal ads. If I put in that I had a disability, I wouldn’t get a single call. I didn’t do bars or clubs. Many of them are not accessible. I did the Lesbian and Gay center a lot, attending their parties. That’s how I met other women. I went to dances and parades outside of functions, outside of bars … . In those environments, the disability is always seen first.

I’ve been thinking about intersectionality and how I go about the world, how my gender, race, [and] disability blend. It’s very compartmentalized, and not in a negative way. It depends on where I am. If I am in a gay and lesbian space, I am seen as a woman who loves women. My disability is not that big a deal because a lot of lesbians have dealt with their own issues with their bodies, like cancer and addiction … . They’re open to conversations and difference.

If I’m in an all-Black space, it depends on whether I’m in a gay Black space or a straight Black space. If I’m in a gay Black space, I can say or do whatever. If I’m in a straight space where I’m the only out gay one, they address me as a person with a disability or as a Black woman first.

Rani: How do you think your experience as someone with a disability is changing as you get older, and have you experienced new structural challenges?

Patricia: There was a long time before I turned 50 ... when I felt like my disability was the only disability I will have. Getting older has made me realize that this is not the case. I can still get cancer, I can have things come up for me medically ... I feel like some things have changed for the better in terms of the recognition that people with disabilities can have other health issues.

‘The priority should be … helping people age in places where they’re comfortable.’

I’ve been lucky to always have had health insurance, but until they changed the preexisting-conditions [exclusions], I was limited in what I could access. Having that removed has helped me.

I worry about losing my physical ability to do what I do now … . There may come a time when, because of age, I won’t be able to dress myself or use the bathroom on my own. I have devices now that help me pick things up from the floor.

It helps a lot that the 60+ population is growing. They want to stay home to age, they want services in their community that will enable them to age in place. That all [helps] people with disabilities.

Rani: What would you like organizations like SAGE to focus on for elders with disabilities?

Patricia: The priority should be … helping people age in places where they’re comfortable. Acknowledging that people should have the right to access spaces with dignity. Doing a fundraiser on Fire Island, for example, is fine, but the house you choose, and the route to the house, should be accessible to people with disabilities. Ask people with disabilities for their input. How can we make this event more inclusive for the people we’re trying to raise money for?

Rani: Are there services or programs that are missing for elders with disabilities?

Patricia: I would like to see more involvement of people with disabilities locally, contributing to conversations about how to improve circumstances for everyone. Write more pieces that include the people who are being impacted. Elders’ organizations and disability groups could work together. There’s also universal design. And SSI benefits for people with disabilities who have never worked have remained the same for decades, while Social Security and SSDI payments have increased. If all the people that this affected got together to say, “living wage!” that would be great.

Rani: What do you want to share that you know now that you wish you knew when you were younger?

Patricia: Representation matters. Exposure matters. Mentoring someone will change your life and it will change the person you mentor’s life. We can’t change things tomorrow, but if you are a woman, a lesbian, a Black woman, etc., find ways to connect with people who are younger than you so you can start planting the seed of things changing, one person at a time. Thinking about it as a global thing is stressful, but if you think about it as one person at a time, you can connect with people you can learn from, and people who can learn from you.

It makes me emotional, but it's been a huge deal for me to have met and been around people who look like me or who experience the world the way I do. One of the most impactful experiences I ever had was introducing a young woman with Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI) to a mother of a 5-year-old with OI. They were in each other’s lives for years. The little girl is now a teenager herself. I remember the mom saying how much this meant to her. It made a difference in how she raised her child and the expectations she had for her future.

Rani: Patricia, thank you so much for this time. I’ve learned a lot and you’ve given me a lot to think about.

Photo credit: Shutterstock/Lightspring