25 Oct Disability Awareness: When Privilege Breaks a Leg
by Truc Thanh Nguyen
There’s an old saying that you don’t realize what you have until it’s gone and so it goes with privilege. According to the Webster’s Dictionary – privilege denotes “a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most.” Privilege in the world of diversity, anti-oppression or multiculturalism work can be described as most invisible to those who have it and often very visible to those who don’t. It is the elephant in the room that pushes against our emotional space, and can cramp our ability to be authentic with each other.
As an individual who identifies with multiple marginalized social groups not part of the dominant culture, I am often very aware of the individual and systemic privileges not afforded me. Recently, while I was teaching a class, my knee literally came out of its socket. This set off a current of events that forced me into understanding, on a deeper level, my privilege as an able bodied person. For the first time I learned a lot about what I had taken for granted both on an individual and systemic level, living in a world that assumes we are all physically one way: able bodied.
My first obvious lesson was in mobility. The freedom to move my body in the ways I wanted, and to go wherever and whenever I wanted, quickly dissipated. For the first week and a half I found myself needing to rely on others schedules for simple tasks like grocery shopping, and getting around. It was hard to have a sense of self-determination and independence when asking for help. Being at the mercy of others—and their willingness to help me—was burdensome. My days had to be planned much more efficiently. How was I going to get somewhere? Once there, how was I going to get in or around? And how far would I have to walk on crutches? Preparing mentally included anticipating the severe chaffing I would get on days that I used my crutches a lot and how to avoid looking disheveled when I arrived at my destinations. There were other subtle messages as people either completely ignored my presence as I hobbled down hallways, stairs, or down the street or they gawked until I made eye contact.
This happened during a time I was applying for and starting new temporary or contract jobs. I felt the unease as they asked if I would be able to “make it down the hall” to make occasional photocopies. My self doubt increased as I wondered if I was going to be seen for my skill set or for my disability. In my first week at one temporary job I would arrive an hour early in order to find free parking near my work place; otherwise I would have to “crutch it” every 2 hours to move my car or feed the meter. Taking the bus was not an option because the closest bus stop was over 2 long blocks away and I had after-work obligations that would not accommodate the often late bus. Negotiating this during the instability of temporary work caused me to look at the potential economic costs of my disability. What if I could not keep up with my early arrival to work or if I my work place did not tolerate me spending over 20 minutes, throughout the day, moving my car? What if I didn’t even make it through the job interview?
I’m now off my crutches and my knee is on the mend, I have a new level of consciousness around my privilege as an able-bodied person. Friends, co-workers and acquaintances that I run into still comment on “you are moving around much better or you are as good as new”. While all said with good intentions, there is a latent message that it is better and more valued to be, or at least appear to be, able-bodied. I find myself consciously thinking about how I would be treated and perceived differently if my injury was one that rendered me with a permanent physical disability.
It is estimated that 90% of disabilities are invisible. The temporary disablement of my privilege has profoundly impacted my visceral and intellectual response as an Ally to people living with disabilities. As a trainer, it has been a gift of insight to my own able-bodied privilege. which will allow me to be a stronger, more knowledgeable advocate. It has given me a fierce empathy that challenges me everyday to think about creating a world that truly values everyone. There is value in seeing our own privileges. It allows us to be more human witheach other.I think they call that humility, and that is a bottom line that is priceless.
Truc Nguyen became an EDS Associate in 2008.Born in Saigon, Vietnam and raised in the suburbs of Connecticut, Truc has over 10 years’ experience as a facilitator and trainer in anti-oppression, domestic violence, organizational development, personal safety, and physical self defense.