Monday 11 April 2016

Privilege and disability

I’ve been thinking lately about privilege. Most people think of privilege as something they have or had – “ancient rights and privileges”, “I had the privilege of meeting so-and-so last year…” etc.

But privilege, in the political sense, also has another meaning. It’s about what you don’t have to deal with, what doesn’t happen to you, because of your race, gender, religion, sexuality, neurology, or whatever. It’s what you take for granted as so normal that you don’t give it a second thought – unless for some reason you suddenly get deprived of it, or become aware of what those without it suffer. Though even if an individual is made aware of their privilege, they usually want to deny it even exists. As one person in a Facebook conversation about this said – “The thing with privilege is that those with it …are unaware of it. And many do not want to see it because it rocks the foundation of who they feel they are.”

I first became aware of privilege in this sense when I was in the feminist and anti-racism movements, back in the 80s. I of course don’t have male privilege, or heterosexual, or even able-bodied, now. But I do have the privilege that goes with my white skin and European ancestry.

So I know that as a white person, I can, say, walk down a street in a high-income area without having people think I’m there either to clean a house or to rob it. I’ve never had anyone assume that I got a job because of my skin colour, not my abilities. I’ve never been sneered at or hassled by shop staff because of my race, nor feared being arrested because of it. And if I read a history book, people of my race are almost certain to feature prominently, and usually positively, in it.

Similarly, no man walking into a boardroom for the first time is likely to have people assume he’s there either to make the tea or take notes. (Yes, even now that still happens.) They never have to think about glass ceilings or equal pay. They can fearlessly walk alone late at night, and sleep around without fear someone will think them a slut. Date rape is not a worry for them. And so on. (And this is just in Western countries. Imagine the male privilege in non-Western ones.)

And then there’s heterosexual privilege – your average straight person never has to worry about being denied a marriage license, or being allowed to adopt or foster children, or even to retain custody of their own children. Yet until fairly recently, all these have been routinely denied gays and lesbians, and still are in many countries. In fact in some countries, gays and lesbians still live in fear for their lives. And they aren’t all Third World countries either. Russia has a particularly bad track record of this, and it’s getting worse.

So what does privilege mean for the non-disabled, and/or non-autistic?

For the non-disabled, it means things like never having to worry whether you can physically enter a building, or easily get to where you need to be if you do get in.

It means you don’t have to think about whether you can find housing you can access, or whether you’ll be allowed on to a bus or train or plane, or denied a safe place to put yourself when you do get on.

You don’t have to worry that you will be talked to as if you’re stupid, or have others ignore your wishes and make decisions about your life against your will, based solely on your physical abilities and needs.

You’re never expected to be the ‘token’ person of your ability levels, or be constantly told how ‘inspirational’ you are, just for doing normal, everyday things.

If you’re not autistic, if you get bullied, it’s unlikely anyone will tell you your neurology is to blame, and that if only you acted more like others, it would stop.

You don’t have to plan your day around the fear of inducing sensory overload, and you can change plans if need be without risking panic and meltdowns.

You needn’t fear that people will ignore what you’re saying because of your neurology, or consider you a ‘burden’ because of it, or decide that any and all problems you have, even medical ones, are due to it.

You’ll never have to fear being attacked because of your neurology, or that police officers will take your normal body movements the wrong way, and arrest or even shoot you because of it.

Perhaps most chillingly of all, if you are murdered by your parents or caregivers, no-one will say that “you’re better off dead”, and offer sympathy to your killer/s, based on your neurological style or physical ability levels. Yes, this does happen, and all too frequently, alas.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of the privileges of all the above groups. For more information about privileges, check out the following websites :

And yes, many of the above privileges, or lack of them, intersect. You can have, or not have, more than one sort of privilege. Imagine how they begin to stack up, and you see why some people’s lives are much easier, while some others almost don’t stand a chance.

And here’s the thing about privilege – there’s no point in either denial or guilt. Back in the 80s, I was in the New Zealand anti-racism and feminist movements. I realised then that guilt is a useless emotion, as it changes nothing. You’re not a bad person for being born white, male, straight, able-bodied, or whatever, anymore than others of us are bad for not being any or all of these things. What’s needed is to acknowledge your privilege as a simple fact – and then, hopefully, do whatever you can to ensure that those without it also gain it. I’m not saying that’s easy, or that all of us have to be hotshot activists, but we can always find some little thing to do to change things.

But start with simple acknowledgement. Just facing the truth can go a long way.