A topic I often cover as part of my disability awareness training is check your privilege
It can be an emotive topic. It can make people uncomfortable, as if they are under some form of attack. Maybe because there is a suggestion of ignorance amongst the privileged group and we often associate ignorance with rudeness and an unwillingness to see past your own nose.
For a small group of people, that sadly is true. But most of us in this world are good people with good intentions and desires. For that majority, the ignorance is simply a case of ‘you don’t know what you don’t know.’
That is where I can help.
The definition of privilege
Talking about privilege is a great way of helping people to better understand what life can be like for people with disabilities. In this context, it has nothing to do with money or your social class.
It is defined as follows:
“a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group” (Oxford Dictionary).
Another definition I have come across is:
“unearned access to social power based on membership in a dominant social group.”
Factual, yes, but I can see how the language could be inflammatory or interpreted in the wrong way. Perhaps I can say it better.
In the context of disability, privilege can be defined as advantages granted to abled people because they don’t have to think about or address topics that people with disabilities have to deal with, often on a daily basis.
I often say to my audience when training – “If you don’t have to think about it, it’s a privilege.” That really is the nub of the matter.
When feeling uneasy about privilege, people tend to protest the notion of having advantage over others. Maybe because we think of advantage as wealth or fame or something just as elitist. But here, it’s those seemingly simple everyday things that are able to be taken for granted so easily that, unless you don’t have them, you would never even think about (that is your privilege).
So what are these advantages that abled people have over disabled people?:
- travelling with confidence and ease because e.g. you can hear/see important information like platform or gate numbers, delays, cancellations, or changed routes.
- being alerted to danger as soon as possible (e.g. fire alarms, tannoy announcements or other warnings). Being able to quickly flee to safety, whatever the terrain and whatever mode of transport is available. This means you rarely have to worry or think about your safety in your everyday life.
- making spontaneous decisions because you don’t have to think in advance about what adjustments you need, to do what you want or go somewhere. This applies to the workplace (e.g. spontaneous meetings) as well as home life (e.g. last minute day trips or breaks).
- the choice of when, where and how you want to do something, and not being restricted by the limited number of accessible options available. E.g. not relying on captioned performances in theatres and cinemas, which are few and far between, or even none at all.
- the choice to do things in many different ways, instead of being restricted to a particular way because of your disability. E.g. multiple choices of how to travel, work, bank, and shop because more than one way is accessible to you.
- not facing discrimination at work because of unconscious biases and misperceptions people may have around disability. Therefore not being overlooked for opportunities and promotion at work.
- a workplace that is geared to help you perform to your full potential and feel included as part of the team. As opposed to inaccessibility in the workplace which can prevent you from performing fully and can make you feel excluded.
- working without fear and discomfort. Often disabled people are forced to work in a way that makes work unfairly hard due to a lack of flexibility in others around their working style to accommodate them.
- not facing negative attitudes and misperceptions because of ignorance and lack of awareness towards people with disabilities.
- not being subjected to non-inclusive and ableist language which can make you feel worthless and small.
- people focusing on and defining you by what you can do, and not what you can’t. Often, people only look at what we can’t do because of our disabilities. A closed mindset and a lack of understanding means our abilities and strengths can be ignored.
And many others ….
All of these advantages for you are barriers that we as disabled people have to think about on a daily basis. It can be exhausting and mentally draining and can lead to mental health issues.
As disabled people we are five times more likely to suffer mental health issues because of these barriers we face every day.
So why do some of these barriers exist in the first place?
We live in an ableist society that has workplaces and public spaces/services that are built to serve “standard, normal” people, thereby inherently excluding those with various disabilities. Examples of this ableism include (among many others):
- inaccessible public buildings (e.g. stepped entrances; services only available above ground floor level with no lifts; narrow doorways)
- inflexible height of tables and counters
- unusable transport systems
- lack of adjustments in theatres and cinemas
Checking your privilege every day helps you to recognise how unfairly hard life can be for people with disabilities, and open your eyes to the inaccessible society we live in. You instantly become more empathetic, understanding and inclusive.
As I said at the beginning, if you don’t have to think about it, it’s a privilege.
If you don’t have to think about it, but you do think about it anyway, you’re an ally and you can help to bring about the change that we as disabled people cannot bring about alone.
So please, check your privilege and help us create equity in this inaccessible world.
If you would like to learn more about inclusive workplaces in your business, please contact me via my website or email me on firstname.lastname@example.org for further training and help.
Written in collaboration with Written by Lyds Ltd (www.writtenbylyds.com)
Read more about me Sarah Petherbridge