David Pereira is a young transgender man with a disability, co-founder of the French non-profit organisation Handi-Queer. Created in 2017 with his best friend, who is also part of the LGBTQ+ community and also has a disability, this organisation aims to highlight the issues related to disabilities. But above all, its goal is to show how these intertwine with other equally important issues: those of sexuality, sexual orientation and the many taboos that still exist around being a person with a disability and having a fulfilling sexual life.
David and Marie started Handi-Queer by creating a blog, because they needed to speak out, to express themselves using their own voices and make their mark in the public sphere. As David said to me during our conversation on the phone: “we are not the only ones going through this, so we might as well give some visibility to what we are experiencing”.
For him, it all started with the very strong and alarming observation (which, in spite of everything, we hear very little about) of the accessibility of transport in France. As a reminder, in Paris, many improvements have been made in recent years to facilitate access for people with reduced mobility (escalators), the visually impaired (sound systems on platforms and trains) and the hearing impaired (improved signage). However, Paris remains one of the major cities in the world where the metro network is the least accessible, in contrast to models such as Los Angeles or Washington with 100% accessibility. In Paris, only 3% of metro stations are accessible to wheelchair users and only one subway line, the 14, is fully accessible to them.
Yet, in February 2005, the law on “rights and equality of chances, participation and citizenship of disabled persons” was adopted, thanks to Jacques Chirac, who had made disability one of his priority projects. This law aimed in particular to facilitate accessibility for people with disabilities in transport and businesses. More than 15 years later, the progress is not there. And as David says so well “if things were more accessible, ironically, I would be much less handicapped, because I would feel it less”.
Civil Society is therefore taking over, with, for example, numerous websites and applications that reference all mobility and accessibility options and places in France, such as Moovit or I Wheel Share.
In 2018, David was planning to take part in the pride march, organised by Inter-LGBT – or Interassociative lesbian, gay, bi and trans. Created in 1999, it is now a federation of some sixty associations campaigning for the rights of LGTBQ+ people. But a problem remained… that of accessibility to this march (and to all the others for that matter) for people with disabilities like David, who is in a wheelchair. During most demonstrations and marches, one quickly forgets that – despite all the good will and fight for greater causes – the noise, the crowd, the closure of transport that they cause, are all obstacles to the participation of disabled people. Their participation in civic life is therefore always challenged.
In 2018, Handi-Queer created the first accessible float during the Pride march, which took place at the end of June 2018: on this float, no music, chairs to sit on, toilets etc. For this first achievement, about ten people had access to the float and were able to participate. Since then, the organisation has been trying to continue its actions, with difficulty, especially because the majority of its members are disabled and already face many obstacles. Nevertheless, today, Handi-Queer is a major circle of speech and ideas that remains quite unique because of the subjects it deals with. Today, it includes more than 400 members of a still private Facebook group.
Exclusion from public discourse reinforces that linked to disability
More generally, Handi-Queer fights to be part of the public discourse, so that people with disabilities, and their specific needs, are actually taken into account. In return, this would facilitate their integration into society and allow this feeling of “difference” to fade away.
A striking example recalled by David is the law on the decoupling of income from the AAH in France. On March 9th, the French Senate voted in favour of the principle of an allowance for disabled adults (AAH) that is no longer linked to the partner’s income. A petition on the Senate website signed by more than 100,000 people helped speed up the parliamentary calendar.
As a reminder, at present, the amount of the AAH (which concerns 270,000 households in France) depends on the income of the spouse. In other words, its monthly amount is 902.70 euros if the person’s annual income is less than 10,832.40 euros and 19,606.64 euros if they are a couple. From this amount onwards, the allocation is degressive, which creates a system of dependence of the disabled person on his/her partner.
As David explains, “the person living with a disability gets stuck in the relationship, you become dependent on the income of the person you live with. This new law aims to change that.” This is a new step forward, but it will depend on its actual implementation, as the government remains opposed to it. Moreover, this amount of 902.70€ had already been increased by Macron in 2018 and 2019 but still remains below the poverty line, set in France in 2020 at 1,063 euros per month.
Handi-Queer’s mission is also to highlight these social and political issues to the general public in order to open up the debate and create spaces for discussion.
For David, it is the particular situation of invisibilisation of minorities and lack of tolerance that is all the more crucial. Being both transgender and disabled, “two invisibilised communities”, David experiences double discrimination and double invisibilisation, For people with disabilities, “the question of the body and sexuality in general does not exist, it remains a nameless taboo and the disabled body is either fetishised or medicalised”, says David. “We are not going to think that disabled people also have these kinds of problems, issues and questions because they remain categorised in one situation.” According to him, there are no encounters between differences, no encounters between stigmas that would surely allow them to be deconstructed even more easily. The idea is therefore to make people from the LGBTQ+ community visible to the community of people living with disabilities and vice versa.
To give a more concrete example, David explains that in order to meet other people from the LGBTQ+ community, there are some well-known meeting places like bars among others but the problem of accessibility exists there too. “You have to rethink everything for everything, and not just put a piece of tape here and there, you really have to ask yourself what people need based on their differences and not pretend they don’t exist.”
For David, France is still a long way off in terms of solutions for people with disabilities, despite many recent improvements. David also studied in Quebec, where he was able to experience very strongly the difference in treatment compared to France. For example, “renting an electric wheelchair is not possible in France, whereas in Quebec it is extremely simple”.
In France, David was entitled to have more time for his exams. Except that this is not a solution adapted to all disabilities. As far as he is concerned, being in a wheelchair and having extra time during an exam, which often means staying in front of his paper for 5 hours instead of 4, makes him more tired than anything else. In Quebec, when he went to the university administration to ask them what they usually offered for people with disabilities during exams, he was told: “Tell us what you need and we will adapt”, “We can take away some questions, you can take the exam again a few days later to finish it…”. This was a pleasant surprise for him, which he linked to a greater general open-mindedness in the society. It was actually during this exchange program in Quebec that he began his gender transition.
This open-mindedness is a real key, if not the only key, to change things in the face of the many remaining issues related to disability but also to gender discrimination in France and elsewhere. And this change will only come about through education from a very young age.
Education about difference
This is one of the next projects of David’s Handi-Queer organisation: interventions in schools. According to him, “everything happens when you’re younger, that’s when it’s easier to cultivate tolerance”.
“The youngest do not have any judgments or prejudices. On the contrary, they are curious and want to learn and understand. But parents do not always have the words because they do not know and are not sufficiently equipped to talk to their children about the differences that exist in our societies”.
David describes his experiences on the metro with young children and their parents. Children are often intrigued by the wheelchair and do not have any preconceived ideas but “parents don’t know how to explain to their children that it’s not ‘worse’ to be in a wheelchair, it’s just ‘different'”. Similarly, to combat LGTphobia, “if we explained to children that there is no better way to love, then the way they look at things would change”.
It is therefore an education to difference that we need in France. As far as disability is concerned, this must also involve a balance between adapting to the situation of each individual and accompanying the disability, as David was able to experience in Quebec. He was in a specialised school for disabled children for only two years, which had advantages in terms of accessibility, but also many disadvantages. As he puts it, “afterwards, you get hit by the real world”.
The French law of February 11th 2005 on “rights and equality of chances, participation and citizenship of disabled persons” also established the principle of schooling for disabled children in the regular school system. Since then, several committees and studies have questioned this policy. In 2017, the UN rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities notably encouraged “the government to put in place a comprehensive policy to transform the education system to ensure an inclusive welcome for children with disabilities instead of targeting the individual by forcing children with disabilities to adapt to the school environment.” The French government’s 2022 plan – A fully inclusive school of the Republic – aims to alleviate these problems with quantitative progress in terms of the number of jobs for assisting children with disabilities as well as an upgrading of the profession but also and above all a qualitative change. The aim is to be able to personalise schooling for each pupil according to their situation and disability. This is real progress.
Finally, always with the will to inform and raise awareness on both disability and gender equality issues, David would also like to create discussion groups accessible to all – and in person when possible – to facilitate exchanges and free up the discussion. For example, he would like to have access to specific facilities where people with disabilities live to contribute in his own way to widening access to sexual education that is not cis-normed. The team is continuing to explore ways of ensuring the widest possible inclusion for this type of event, including interpreters for the hearing impaired.
For David, the most important thing is to change mentalities and attitudes from an early age, which is the only real solution that will then have an impact on all other social and political spheres.
On March 8th, International Women’s Rights Day, Elisa Rojas, a lawyer and activist for the rights of women and people with disabilities, appeared on the French cover of Marie-Claire. She became the first woman in a wheelchair to be featured on the front page of a French women’s magazine. An important contribution to change the way we look at disability and everything that makes us unique…
Through these Stories, Azickia aims to highlight social impact initiatives, in France and around the world, while not necessarily adhering to all the opinions and actions implemented by them. It is and will remain in Azickia’s DNA to fight against all forms of discrimination and to promote equality for all.
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Image : Jon Tyson – Unsplash