I Am This: Able-Bodied (and privileged)

A while ago, I had a brief conversation with an old man who was annoyed at the sidewalks near the medical complex where my psychiatrist practices. He mentioned that the curbs used to be rounded, and that the straight edged sidewalks were a “pain in the butt” to step up/down. Now, I had just stepped up onto the sidewalk and hadn’t thought anything of it. That, my friends, is the very definition of able-bodied privilege.

Pretty, but potentially insurmountable to some.

This isn’t the first time that I have acknowledged that privilege. I have friends who are less physically capable than I, but most of my admonitions for lack of consideration have to do with the pace I walk.

Honestly, I just felt that on a blog series about identity, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a part of my identity that I take for granted. I often talk to my friends about identity politics (they are quite indulgent of me) and I have canvassed their interest in writing guest posts for this series. In one of these recent conversations, in talking with a few of my friends about how I had asked someone who was uncertain about what he could write about if he would write about his experience as a man, one of my friends offered that he didn’t feel he could write on being a man because it isn’t a big part of his identity.

That got me thinking. He’d been a man his whole life, and gender is a big deal to a lot of people and politicians. We have trans and gender non-conforming friends. He is a feminist. He is very aware that he has a place of privilege as a white man who had a good upbringing from a moderate socioeconomic background in western society. But that still didn’t form a prominent point of his identity to him. He still didn’t think about it. And he’s like me; the type of person who typically overthinks nearly everything.

Please don’t misunderstand this; I am not trying to embarrass my friend (I know you’re reading); I am not trying to shame him, blame him, decry the patriarchy (well, with no especial vehemence today, anyway), or otherwise demean this person. I tell this anecdote because it made me realize just why this post has been sitting for months (ever since ten minutes after that encounter with the old man) in my drafts with hardly more than a few paragraphs despite my multiple attempts to sit down and finish it.

The truth is I don’t even know all the ways this privilege has shaped my identity. Just like being able to step up onto that sidewalk without a second thought, I don’t generally consider being able-bodied as a prominent aspect of my identity. Sometimes I think about how if I ever broke a leg, it would be nearly impossible for me to get to my desk due to the size of the walkway between my desk and the cabinets. I have wondered where a wheelchair-bound client would go to the washroom if they were here for a day’s questioning, because we don’t have accommodating stalls. But I haven’t raised a fuss about it.

Should be default. Instead needs a special sign.

Truthfully, ableism is likely my biggest blind spot when discussing equality and social justice. Hopefully, acknowledging that I could be a better ally, starting with shutting up and listening better when someone says something is more difficult because of physical limitations. I can’t change infrastructure, but I certainly can’t change anything if I don’t change my attitudes.

Dear Readers, I challenge you: what are your biggest blind spots of privilege? Have you ever thought about it? Comment, email, smoke signal me. I would love to hear from you.