For all my bitching about disability struggles, I could stand to blog a bit about disability privilege. No, I’m not talking about getting the parking spot closest to the mall door, or front row seats at movies(though those are definite situational perks), I mean the different ways in which different physical disabilities dictate how we are seen by others. Here, I’ve arranged these in a chart, because, easy:
Societal Hierarchy Of Disability
Before everybody goes ape snatch over my essentialist pyramid, allow me to make a cluster of disclaimers. Firstly, I made this up, just now…like everything I post here, unless otherwise sourced. Secondly, I am acutely aware of the troubling affects of generalizations, and issues around defining words like “slight,”I use this for definitive purposes only. Thirdly, acquired disability (caused usually by injury or accident, not from birth), can be worse physically than many Forever Disabilities (I term I came up with, to describe disabilities had since birth, that are never ever ever going away) but I think societal approaches to acquired disability are a little less condescending, which I’ll discuss. Quatro: This post will only address social views of disabilities, and how certain attitudinal changes happen with different disabilities. It is NOT (Never! Not at all!) a reflection of the disabilities themselves or the people that live with them. This pyramid is to meant to raise questions, bring about brain synapses, and maybe start mouths flapping. Let’s talk about it.
Claiming Personal Privilege
Of course, my vantage point as a person in the second -to-bottom category brings about an inescapable personal bias—and that’s also where a lot of my privilege comes in. So let me disclose quickly, in the interest of fully “claiming” privilege. I’m a white girl, who lives in Canada, and doesn’t need to have her parents help her with personal care. I’m mildly conventionally attractive (Thin? Nice teeth? Apparently I’m also conceited.), and I have full verbal capacities. I’m also educated and have part time employment at my disposal. I’m pretty damn privileged.
Since Cerebral Palsy is my story, I’ll use it as a starting point. Ever since undergrad, my friend Andrew and I have titled our type CP the “jackpot” of disabilities. It’s not, actually, we were ignorant fools in undergrad (ok well, at least I was). But there are a few positives to this disability as I experience it:
- Some of the symptoms of CP, such as rigidity and muscle spasms, can be improved through therapy. If therapy is maintained (hah. No.) then your ability level can increase a fair amount, relative to how you define fair and the severity of your CP. It’s like Choose Your Own Adventure for disabled fitness.
- People often think you’re paralyzed. Again, limited to my type of CP, which is experienced mainly in my legs, but not actually, it just takes a while longer to notice the other weird spasms happening everywhere. Keep in mind that I have “full” mental capabilities and am markedly free of speech-impediment. As such, I often “pass” as someone who used to be able, but no longer is. This is great while it lasts, as most people don’t question your intelligence when they think you once walked. Which brings me to…
Acquired Disability Privilege
I can only tell you what I know from being mistaken as paraplegic. A few years ago a coworker of mine approached me, saying he had a personal question. He sat down, slouched comfortably in front of me and said, “You take really good care of yourself and you seem to like it here. You’re always pleasant, but I…” He trailed off.
Anticipating his question I said, “You won’t offend me, just ask.” (OOPS, YOU’RE IN MY BLOG.) He laughed nervously and then said, “You’re accident must’ve been hard to deal with.”
I smiled and explained that I wasn’t paralyzed, but that depriving my brain of oxygen at birth was probably pretty rough. I told him I was born too early, that my brain had taken the bulk of it, and that brain damage was the result. In the milliseconds that followed, I watched him go from confused, to understanding, back to confused, to generally awkward. He shifted in his seat and said the ever-famous, “But you’re sharp…and good at your job.” When people say this, I have half-a-mind to punch them, but they mean no harm, and some people that have CP are affected intellectually, so a simple, “my intellect is intact” is usually all they get.
Point is, in finding out I didn’t used to walk, this guy started doubting my intellect, and my capabilities. It no longer made sense to him that I could excel without having been a walkie. And in a way, that’s acquired disability privilege.
Severe, Purely Physical Forever Disability Privilege
Say what? I see this newly-made-up category as those people that have severe physical disabilities, from birth to beyond. Generally, when society finishes treating them as a tragedy (as is sometimes incurred with many and most physical disabilities), they can then move on to doing whatever they do, without questions about intelligence, because their disability is purely physical.
I’m stopping there, because I don’t fit this category, and writing as if I know a damned thing is causing me to break into a nervous sweat. I do not want to minimize other barriers that those failing into this category may face, only to mention that when your disability is “purely physical” (as mine is not) I should hope that people don’t constantly question your noodle’s capacity. Noodle.
And here lies the end of this likely offensive post. If you take nothing else away from this, I hope to stir your mental cauldron on how different disabilities are received and perceived. Thoughts welcome.