bars

Why I Don't Like Going to Bars as a Disabled Person

From inaccessible bathrooms to weird looks, drinking with your friends at a pub isn't such a piece of cake.

by Spencer Williams
Apr 5 2017, 5:59pm

Illustration by Deshi Deng

Since I started this column six months ago, I've written on sex and disability issues ranging from paying for a sex surrogate to how much winter sucks when you have a disability. By sharing my stories with you, I've been able to better manage some of my fears, but one of my biggest ongoing hurdles is being social—in particular, going out to bars.

Fear of judgment by others is common among me and my fellow disabled friends. Even people who are otherwise well-meaning can inadvertently offend with their assumptions. "You're doing a lot of stuff," someone will inevitably say to me when I'm out. "That's really great. You're writing for VICE? I didn't know people with disabilities did that. Good to see you out." But where am I supposed to be? Am I supposed to be, like, in a closet, hanging out, wasting the day and my life? Just because I have a disability doesn't mean I don't want to have experiences. Things may take a little longer, but who gives a shit? I know they mean well, but it's hard to deal with.

Among me and my disabled friends, there's also general fear of rejection, a fear of failure. I often wonder whether I will ever be able to find a partner; whenever someone is nice to me, I can't help suspecting they have a crush. So what ends up happening is that I stay in. Rather than subject myself to all the anxieties and insecurity, I bathe in the glow of Netflix and video games.

But one recent night, that changed. A friend had been trying to get me out for a while, and I decided to say yes. I've been in the middle of making my annual list of goals, which include "try new things," "don't let fear win," "be more confident and direct," and "fall in love with someone who loves you back." We ended up at the Cambie, one of Vancouver's oldest pubs and a backpacker's paradise, filled with pool tables, pinball machines, and hip locals and out-of-towners. I don't go to bars a lot, but the Cambie is one of my favorites because people there are accepting and treat me like anyone else.

That night, even though I was out of my comfort zone, I wanted to see how far I could push myself, to break out of my shell and not worry about stereotypes or the logistics of everything—in other words, to just try and enjoy myself. So I ordered an apple cider, my drink of choice because I like the sweetness.

Here is where I have to confess: I'm kind of a lightweight. Whenever I drink, it always seems I have to go to bathroom every five seconds. Looking for a place to relieve myself is always something of an adventure for me, because there's never any guarantee that the bar will have accessible facilities. Whenever a bar is lacking, which is often, it means I have to stop what I'm doing, leave, and go find a nearby coffee shop, which isn't always possible; I've even had to piss in an alley a couple times.

Thankfully, the Cambie does have an accessible bathroom. Or at least it seemed like it did. I had forgotten that, instead of a private room, the only accessible stall there was in middle of the men's bathroom. Because I have a female care aide, the setup can be uncomfortable sometimes. Weird looks often accompany us.

This time, I was lucky to find two Irish guys nearby who were nice enough to guard the door to allow me some privacy. I've always had difficulty going to the bathroom in front of people, no matter how long they have been working for me, but I did the best I could with what the bar had.

Whenever a bar is lacking accessible facilities, which is often, it means I have to stop what I'm doing, leave, and go find a nearby coffee shop, which isn't always possible; I've even had to piss in an alley a couple times.

I've been comfortable with women helping me use the washroom for many years. When I was in my teens, it was a much different story. I was always nervous I would get aroused or even orgasm in front of them, but I eventually got over it one summer at camp, when I realized that male counselors wouldn't always be around to help me, and I would need to get used to women occasionally helping me. The experience of having a woman helping ended up becoming my preference.

That night at the bar, I needed to use the washroom again. This time, however, the nice Irish guys weren't around, and I didn't want to go looking for them again. I didn't know them, and I didn't want to abuse their generosity. And I didn't want to go through the whole ordeal again. So my friend and I left the bar and went searching for an accessible bathroom at another bar, which ending up taking around 45 minutes.

As frustrating as that hunt was, I'm used to it. And going out had been fun. Along the way home I reminded myself that it's about the social element—hanging out with friends—and not how wasted you can get or whether you meet the person of your dreams. Sometimes it's the small victories that are important: having a nice enough time and being treated like anyone else.

If you've got questions or would like advice about dating and sex in the disabled community, drop us a line and Spencer will try to address it in a future column.