A while ago I walked with a friend in a motorised wheelchair. He took the lead in what direction we went and as we travelled I noticed that we couldn’t go the route I would have naturally walked. I hadn’t realised that my way wasn’t wheelchair friendly and the fact that I didn’t notice showed the able-bodied privilege that I have. It is so easy to only focus on our experience of the world and not take others’ experience into account.
As I read our friend Laura’s blog post it challenged me again to consider my own able-bodied privilege. I am so grateful for her voice and her willingness to engage and to alert us to the barriers that prevent those with health issues from flourishing.
In August 2015 I seriously hurt my ankle in a game of basketball. I went from being able to run twenty miles to not being able to walk in a matter of moments. Luckily, time and exercises allowed me to walk and eventually to run again. The injury majorly impacted my life; running is an essential way for me to stay healthy physically, mentally and spiritually. It also gave me a glimpse of the limits, hardships and courage that those with long-term health issues have. Getting from place to place was a struggle and took time. It made me value my family and friends that supported me (literally and metaphorically). If I didn’t have that support it would have been a lot harder. Of course I’m aware that my injury doesn’t allow me to speak on behalf of those with longterm health battles, I was confident I would heal and I didn’t experience any oppression or ostracisation due to the injury.
When it comes to unseen health issues, society really struggles to comprehend and grasp the toil they have on the sufferers. I recently read ‘The Black Dog’ and ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ to help me understand how depression affects some of my family and friends. Society says take a pill and get on with life, or, cheer up – what have you got to be depressed about? Mental health problems can affect anyone, no matter what is going on in life and because it’s internal, society – myself included – struggles to be aware of it.
“To other people, it sometimes seems like nothing at all. You are walking around with your head on fire and no one can see the flames.” – Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive.
Laura commented on how she feels rejected and judged at times by those who are able-bodied. How can we be more aware of how our reactions, policies and opinions affect those who suffer with health problems?
Society and culture in the UK has a particular ideal of what the human body should be like. There is a focus on being physically fit, slim and healthy. I agree that we need to look after ourselves and think about how we can be active and eat right but there is a danger that this ideal leads us to judge those who don’t meet it. We can put all the blame on them rather than question the societal structure.
Changing attitudes is only a small way towards equality. Bob Pease (Undoing Privilege) argues that:
“From an ableist perspective, impairment is inherently negative and devalued. The existence of impairment is something to be tolerated and accommodated but never celebrated as part of human difference. Ableism can also be internalised by disabled people and then used to reinforce their own lack of self-worth.”
“The focus will need to shift to transforming material structures that marginalise people with impairments. In this view, social inclusion of disabled people will only be achieved with a move towards a more egalitarian social order that provides both equal access and equal rights to social, political and economic goods. This means going beyond ensuring that doorways are wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs.”
Perhaps we should start to think about how society makes a person disabled rather than the ‘problem’ being with them? There is also a challenge to celebrate diversity in this regard, for example I know that I am guilty of paying less attention to parasports and I hope to change that.
We need to listen to our friends with disabilities, external and internal, hear their stories, the struggles that they are facing and those they have overcome. Let them tell us how we can be a support rather than presuming that we know the answer.
We can become more informed about the particular health struggles facing people we know. When a friend, neighbour, or co-worker vulnerably shares what is going on, read up on the subject. Of course not every health problem is the same and they will look different from individual to individual. But, in my opinion, having some understanding is better than none as it allows us to be more attentive to possible obstacles that we insensitively put up.
How have you seen the systemic oppression towards those with a disability, or how have you experienced it? How can you be supporting and cheering on those differently-abled from you?
Wonder by R.J. Palacio A brilliant novel about a boy with a major facial deformity: “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.” Suitable for children and adults, this story warmly shows how the whole family are impacted by and deal with the health issues.
I had a Black Dog, his name was Depression – YouTube Video based on the book of the same name. 4 minutes 18 seconds well spent to understand how it feels to live with depression.
This post is part of our series ‘Unpacking Privilege’, click on the links below to read more.