Monday, April 13, 2009

Acknowledging Abelist Privilege Takes Daily Work

This is a guest post from Nem

I'm 23. I graduated from university in June 08 where I discovered and began a love affair with women's/gender/feminist history. I'm a feminist and recently realised pacifist. I live in Edinburgh with adults with learning disabilities who are teaching me what it means to be human.

I’ve been reading Renee’s blog for just under a year now; I rarely comment, instead preferring to lurk.  It was a particularly hard blog to read in the beginning.  I remember being outraged at the content which called out my privilege.  I wanted to shout that I was a good person, that I had friends who were POC, that I wasn’t privileged etc.  But I decided to stick with it and it has really opened my eyes to my own privilege.  A lot of what Renee, and others, discuss on Womanist Musings has become very real to me over the last 6 months.

In late September I moved into a house, which was part of the L’Arche community in Edinburgh, Scotland.  I share the house with three adults with learning disabilities, two of whom have physical disabilities, and three other assistants.  There is another house of a similar size and then a flat where George lives with two assistants.  My role as an assistant is to facilitate daily living.  L’Arche places an emphasis on real relationships and friendships, and while community living isn’t always been the easiest of things I really love it.

So what have I learnt? I’ve learnt that people with learning/physical disabilities are still marginalized. While cities have become more wheelchair accessible, people’s attitudes often haven’t evolved.  There was the bus driver who was incredibly rude when Kirsty and I didn’t get off the bus in time, because manoeuvring a wheelchair on a packed bus is terribly easy! Or the women who came up and told Kirsty, who is in her 30s, to smile while pinching her cheek. There are the people who refuse to speak to George when he starts chatting to them or the driver who honked at Gordon and I when we at a pedestrian crossing and we didn’t walk fast enough. There are also the people who can’t see people with learning difficulties as adults and so talk to them and relate to them as if they were young children, or the fact that there are women with LD (learning disabilities) who will never have a period because it was decided that they couldn’t cope with them. One incident which really broke my heart was when Jonathan and I went to the supermarket and a local kids football team were packing people’s shopping to raise money.  Jonathan, who has downs syndrome, loves and I mean LOVES pound coins and yet with great gusto presented his pound to the eleven year old boy and went to high-five him.  The boy refused to look at Jonathan or acknowledge him until his father made him. 

I think therein lies most of the problem; certainly in the UK.  I grew up never knowing anyone with a learning difficulty.  I never came into contact with people with learning disabilities.  The first core members here in Edinburgh came from an institution, with most of them having been placed there from childhood.  While there is an increasing emphasis on people with LD being part of the local communities, many of us are scared of interacting with people like George, Alison or Jonathan.  We don’t know what to say or how to be.  I can understand such nervousness but in propagating such segregation, whether it be informal or not, we lose the opportunity for incredible friendships.

And it’s difficult because spending time with people with LD makes you realize that you’re not such a nice person.  It’s made me realize how I enjoy wielding power, how impatient I am, how inflexible I am about my time and my space.  My life and work are the same thing and I’ve had to stare my privilege in the face, acknowledge how much power I as an able bodied person have, particularly in my role as a carer, and it’s pretty uncomfortable.  I’ve wanted things to be done my way, when I want it to happen and got mad.  I’ve then had to come back and apologise to Jonathan for being an ass.

This isn’t the most eloquent blog or the most profound but such insight would come from knowing, amongst others, Jonathan, Alison and Kirsty.  I guess what I want to say is that next time someone live George tries to chat to you on the bus why not respond; high-five Jonathan- he’s one of the warmest people you’ll ever meet and talk to the person in the wheelchair, not just the person pushing them, because if they’re anything like Kirsty they have a great sense of humour. And if you’re not meeting people like his, maybe your world isn’t as wide or accepting as you perhaps thought it was.


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