What I Take for Granted: Invisible Privileges

Not long ago I discovered an essay I’d written a few years ago. As October is not only Disability Awareness Month but also National Disability Employment Awareness Month, I thought I’d share part of that essay.

The ADA turned 20 in 2010, and according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 1 in 5 Americans has a disability. With this level of frequency, surely we should be accustomed to disability as part of our mainstream culture but disability is often still seen as something different, and not as the experience of a large and growing minority of Americans. Sometimes this is simply because some disabilities are not visible to the naked eye.

Truth is, the invisibility of disabilities can stem from more insidious reasons: We fail to see people with disabilities as part of the mainstream because they are excluded, either unconsciously or occasionally deliberately. Unfortunately, those of us without disabilities rarely have opportunity to experience being invisible. Nor do we realize what societal privileges we have because we don’t experience disability.

The word “privilege” describes a complex societal phenomenon derived from our interactions with one another. Privilege is always in relation to others; frequently it denotes hierarchy. Privilege often bestows, or is an expression of power. When understood as a privilege, much of our daily experience really is not so ordinary after all. Each day, the majority of us do experience a collection of unacknowledged privileges thanks to our inborn genetics and good health — and because we are able to avoid crippling accident or injury.

What we are fortunate enough to experience can be described as “non-disabled privilege.” Seldom do we take time to acknowledge that over the course of our sociopolitical history, our laws and social policies have fostered a differentiated “system” of rights and privileges that is contingent on the presence or absence of disability. Take a look at the list below and think about which of the listed things you take for granted in your daily life.

Non-Disabled Privilege

Economic

  1. I can spend my money without having to get someone else’s legal approval.
  2. I don’t have to risk losing my benefits if I have too much money
  3. Businesses don’t refuse to let me shop in their establishment.
  4. Whether I use checks, cash, or credit cards, my visible disability will not work against the appearance of financial stability.
  5. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without co-workers suspect or think I got the job because I have a disability.
  6. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed, or harassed with very personal, or nosy questions.

Education & Employment

  1. My career and employment choices are not questioned.
  2. People don’t question my academic ability when I want to go to college or technical school.
  3. I don’t have to register with the DSS office and get special services so I can try to do my best in school.
  4. Nobody requests medical information or does a least costly and a minimal compliance analysis before working with me to determine educational or employment accommodations.

Civic/Religious Participation

  1. I can access polling places and voting equipment and exercise my right to vote.
  2. I can cast my vote in secret without asking others to fill in the ballot for me.
  3. I can go to church (transportation and building access are available).
  4. I can aspire to positions of leadership and have opportunities to serve in leadership positions.
  5. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, not isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.

Social/Interpersonal Relationships

  1. I don’t have to call ahead to make sure a restaurant; theater or other public facility is wheelchair accessible.
  2. I am presumed to be intelligent, capable, and able.
  3. I don’t have people talk to me as though I were a small child
  4. Waitresses talk to me, *(not to my dinner companions about me) and my meal and beverage choices,
  5. Others don’t get upset or panic if I have a date, boy(girl)friend.
  6. No one questions my competence or sanity.
  7. Nobody tells me I shouldn’t get married.
  8. People don’t patronize me.
  9. People ordinarily don’t stare at me.
  10. I don’t find myself only in the company of other disabled people; I have friends who don’t have disabilities and they know me well enough not to treat me as different.
  11. I am welcomed and wanted at family gatherings and events.

Transportation

  1. Buses don’t pass me by.
  2. I don’t have to use paratransit services
  3. I have the choice to drive (or not)
  4. My freedom to come and go is not restricted by whether there is an accessible vehicle available.
  5. My freedom to come and go is not limited to the days and hours the transit service operates.

Insurance & Medical Care

  1. I don’t have riders attached to my insurance policy
  2. I can get insurance including major medical, life, and dental.
  3. I don’t have Medicare/Medicaid as my primary insurance.
  4. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, I will receive it in a timely manner.
  5. My health needs will be fully evaluated and not assumed as “merely” because of my disability.

Decision Making

  1. I can make choices and decisions in my life without having to discuss them with a group of people.
  2. I don’t have to have a payee, conservator or guardian
  3. Others don’t tell me that: “They know what’s best for me.”
  4. Others don’t make decisions for and about me.
  5. Other people don’t worry about whether I have an alcoholic drink (medication interaction).

Privacy

  1. I’m not a client of a human services agency and the subject of discussion during staff meetings.
  2. I don’t have strangers ask me if I can go to the bathroom by myself.
  3. I don’t have strangers ask me if I need help eating/feeding myself.
  4. I don’t have people telling me I’m brave, courageous and/or an inspiration.
  5. I don’t have others thinking it is a major catastrophe if I stumble or fall; they realize it is an accident.
  6. I don’t have strangers comment on my gait, appearance, stature or speech.
  7. I don’t have strangers, family members or caregivers talk about me as though I were deaf, or not in the same room.
  8. I can have privacy – I don’t have caregivers, service providers etc. in and out of my home.

Housing & Facility Access

  1. I don’t have to drive my wheelchair in the street if there are no sidewalks, or curb cuts.
  2. I don’t have to wonder if my guide dog or service animal will be welcomed.
  3. I can go to a movie (or other public event) and know there will be a bathroom I can use.
  4. I don’t need to have my home modified or remodeled so I can move about easily or be able to enter/exit it
  5. I don’t live with the fear that I may end up in a group home or nursing home if my care becomes too expensive or funding dries up.
  6. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure I will be able to rent or purchase housing in an area I can afford AND will want to live in.
    1. Wherever I chose to live, I don’t have to FIRST make sure that:
    2. It is on a Transit line
    3. It is on first floor
    4. It is handicapped accessible
    5. The handicapped accessible features are actually suitable for me and my needs;
    6. It is close to shopping, work and church
    7. The leasing company will accept Housing/Section 8 vouchers
    8. The leasing company won’t object to my service animal
  7. I can be reasonably sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
  8. I can go to a shopping mall and I am able to maneuver through the narrow isles in the shops and get in and out of the dressing rooms.
  9. Family members make sure I can actually enter their homes (accessibility issues).
  1. I don’t have to wear braces, wear special shoes, or other use other types of adaptive devices
  2. I don’t need to have adaptive equipment or tools to be able to do basic tasks.
  3. “Off the rack” clothing fits me reasonably well; I don’t need to have specially made clothing or wear clothing not appropriate for my age or sense of fashion.

Media/Public Image

  1. I can turn on the television, open the newspaper or look at other print publications and see people with disabilities widely represented.
  2. I don’t risk being a poster child for someone’s charity (pity) drive.
  3. Others don’t generally claim to represent my views. (It is common for persons without disabilities to be spokespersons for disability projects–even projects that endorse self-determination.)
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About WINAHEAD

WINAHEAD is made up of representatives from twenty-nine institutions. Our members are professionals employed by two- and four-year colleges and universities who work directly with students with disabilities to ensure equal access to higher education. WIN indicates the geographic area we represent: Western Iowa and Nebraska. AHEAD is our national parent organization, the Association on Higher Education and Disability.
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