Check Your Able-Bodied Privilege

Lauren Bendik
Woman in heels walking up stairs.
Woman in heels walking up stairs.

There have been many important conversations happening lately about privilege and race. I believe we also need to be discussing other forms of privilege, and want to take this moment to remind people to…

Check your able-bodied privilege.

When was the last time you had to miss a social event because it wasn’t accessible? Growing up, did you have to miss out on school trips, sleep away camp, and sleepovers? It sounds pretty cool to go to the movies with your sixth-grade teacher, until you find out that it’s the accessible alternative to a wilderness trip all your classmates are going on.

Around the same time, you start learning about sex in school. Did you question whether this information applied to you? That you might be incapable of having sex or carrying a baby? Or of meeting someone who is willing to be with you if you can’t? Sex education in school doesn’t speak to people with disabilities. I didn’t know anyone “like me” who was married or who had a baby. I didn’t see anyone with a disability looked at as a sexual being. The internet wasn’t like it is today so I was just left wondering. God knows I wasn’t going to indicate to an adult that I worried about these things at age 12…and 14…and 16…and….

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Pandemic toilet paper shortages aside, when was the last time you panicked because you didn’t have enough supplies to use the bathroom? It must be great to be confused by that question. Maybe you can’t imagine not being able to control your bowels and bladder; you may never have thought about it. But there is privilege in having control over basic bodily functions. You don’t worry about going somewhere that doesn’t have a “public restroom” or about long bus or car rides. You’ll just hold it. You can laugh when people use incontinence jokes to insult someone, like “Why are you such a baby? Do you miss your diaper?” or enjoy the plethora of birthday cards about aging: “I would have bought you a funny card but at your age, you might piss yourself.”

I don’t find those funny. And yet, I would never speak up because incontinence is considered shameful by many in society. God forbid someone finds out. God forbid a guy finds out and thinks I’m gross and un-dateable (and before anyone like me but with healthier self-esteem gets offended, remember this is my personal thought). You don’t have to seriously consider major surgery as the only means to a continent life. You likely have never had to do an extensive search just to find doctors who know anything about your condition. Sometimes you find one and feel hopeful, only to learn they just see pediatric patients or don’t accept your health insurance.

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Check your able-bodied privilege.

When was the last time you dreaded going shoe shopping? I would love to enjoy shoe shopping but I can’t. I wear AFOs (ankle-foot-orthotics), which can make it hard to fit into most shoes. I usually end up getting wide skater-style shoes, sometimes from the men’s section and almost always in black. Imagine being excited to find a pair with a tiny color trim. I’d love to wear those narrow Vans with patterns, colors and glitter I see at shoe stores.

I’d love to wear heels. I’m told they hurt, but I’d at least like the option to be in pain. Apparently heels make many women feel sexy and confident — that’d be nice to experience. I usually end up wearing the same skater shoes and picking a floor-length dress to cover up my inappropriate-for-the-occasion shoes. That’s another thing. I’d love to wear a short dress, or a cocktail dress, but I don’t want to in my AFOs and boyish skater shoes. You might say I’m overthinking it or “stop worrying about what others think.” But society says what you wear says something about you. Skater shoes with short dresses are not my fashion sense and I don’t want to portray it as such. Wearing whatever you want is an able-bodied privilege. There’s a reason the category of “adaptive clothing” exists.

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And yet, I have plenty of able-bodied privilege myself. I can communicate, see, and hear. I can’t walk for long or with a regular gait, but I can walk. I don’t have feeling in most of my feet so it’s not safe to walk around barefoot, but I can walk. Sometimes I have to prove that I’m intelligent, but it’s OK because I am. I have the option of using a mobility scooter but don’t need it in my daily life. When I do use it, I notice the challenges of inaccessibility and public perception. I notice when there are no ramps or elevators. Sometimes even if they exist, they can be in a different area and separate you from your group.

Public perception of people with disabilities is a big topic, so I will just say that I notice the difference between when I walk and when I choose to use my mobility scooter. Without a doubt, many people look down at you literally and figuratively. They talk to the person you are with instead of you, act like you aren’t there, or go out of their way to help you. Because I can choose to walk most of the time, I’m privileged to be able to escape many of these inequities. I can sometimes even forget about my disability, despite my “waddle gait.” I remember only when I see my shadow, a child stares, or a fellow customer tells me I can cut them in line. Lastly, and very importantly, I have the privilege of being very independent. I can drive, work, and perform tasks of daily living (i.e. eating, dressing and bathing). Many people with disabilities do not have these privileges.

Check your able-bodied privilege.

Through no fault of your own, you probably don’t think about or appreciate these aspects of life. You likely are not regularly exposed to people with disabilities so you don’t realize that things could be different for you. So I just ask that you consider your able-bodied privilege. Educate yourself. Don’t be a jerk by illegally parking in a designated disabled parking space. And next time you use the stairs, go for a jog, or even just use the bathroom, think about how it could be different.

When you say to someone “check your privilege,” think about all kinds of privilege.

More Resources

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