Thursday, May 23, 2013

Able passing privilege. Yes, it's a thing.

Full disclosure here, I spent about 10 years of my life being less visibly disabled (I refuse to say 'invisibly disabled".  All disabilities are visible to some extent to the right people in the right conditions.).  Around age 13 I began to use mobility aids, making myself "look" more disabled, and slowly continued down the path of visible disability until, at this point, I am the most visibly disabled I have ever been.  At the same time, my anxiety disorder is less visible, as are certain aspects of my CP, including a significant perceptual impairment that makes it difficult for me to tell directionality (I still struggle with telling left and right), and impairs my depth perception to a point where I literally will not see a step if it is the same color or pattern as the floor below or above it.  So yes, I know what it's like on both sides of the fence.  And I'm not saying that one is "better" than the other, or that both sides of the fence don't face major hurdles with regards to acceptance.  I'm just trying to illustrate that able passing privilege is, in fact, a thing.

As a less visibly disabled person, you can choose whether or not to disclose your disability.  There will (usually) be less judgment if people don't know that you, in fact, have a disability.  As a visibly disabled person, I have no choice, but to disclose, because the sheer fact that I walk in with crutches or roll in using my chair sends a big red flag of disability up.  Because of that, I am treated as less competent or patronized. I have no choice in the matter.  Before I meet new people, I am plagued with insecurities about how they will react when they see my mobility aids.  I wonder if those who are relatives or friends of my parents know I am crippled, if they have been told.  I wonder if a disabled person fits their mental image of what I look like, who I am.  I don't have the luxury of being able to choose whether or not to tell them, to be able to hide it.

As an invisibly disabled person, you can blend in, succumb to wonderful anonymity.  Every person on my college campus knows me, not by my name, but as "the girl with the scooter".  I constantly feel like there's a harsh, bright spotlight on my head that never, ever goes away.  Even on those days when all I want to do is curl into a ball and disappear, I can't.  Because people notice me, and I really, really wish they didn't.  And for the record, all the speed limit jokes get old.  Really old, like nasty-expired-food old.  Those oh-so-witty jokes are tossed my way whether I want them or not.

So, yes, you over there with the "invisible" learning disability, or other not as visible conditions, you have privilege.  It doesn't make you a bad person, just as having any other type of privilege (white privilege, class privilege, cis privilege, straight privilege, etc.) does not make you a bad person.  It's just something you have and need to acknowledge.  The fact of the matter is that I can't ever be a wolf in sheep's clothing.  I am simply, inexcusably, the wolf, claws and all.

8 comments :

Chels said...

This is awesome. I guess I don't have as much passing privilege as I originally thought because I can't really hide either. Everyone notices me and knows there is something different about me. If I disclose the disability I usually get treated better not worse. But I suppose for disabilities that are more physical and not visible they may "pass" more and not stand out. I wouldn't know what it is like not to stand out. LOL

Space Crip said...

I'm a little hesitant to use the term "passing" to describe disability-related phenomena in a disability studies/rights space given that passing (in a USian context) as a concept comes from racist violence against black Americans. To take a description of oppression that is so particular to one group and has been theorized by that group and then to graft it onto another oppressed group with little modification seems sketchy and reminiscent of the black referential (e.g., "We're oppressed just like black people!"), which is a problem white disability rights spaces have had for a long time. I think there's ways we can understand dynamism amongst disabled people without universalizing anti-racist frameworks, divorcing them from the particularities of white supremacy and imperialism.

Margot said...

This is an excellent post. People like my friend who has something called Juvenile Macular Degeneration(a form of blindness) can pass as able bodied until she can't read a sign or people realize her eye movements are slightly off. Sometimes she purposefully doesn't tell people about her disability. People I know with missing limbs that I know also pass as able bodied as long as they wear their prosthetics. There are times when even I pass as an able bodied person if I'm just standing still but once I start moving people start gawking. I don't really blame them because I move in an interesting way but it will often bother my friends and family.

btw I totally understand about the proprioception issues. I have trouble judging distance and things will sometimes appear smaller than they really are. Very annoying to say the least.

Margot

Anonymous said...

I don't use mobility aids. Though I've found as I've gotten older my CP has changed to such an extent that People will usually ask "What happened to your Leg?" as if only one was affected. Still I've never been able to "pass" as you say....Maybe people just think they're passing?

Amelia said...

"Even on those days when all I want to do is curl into a ball and disappear, I can't. Because people notice me, and I really, really wish they didn't." I COMPLETELY AGREE WITH THIS!!!!!!

Margot said...

My friend and I had an experience that reminded me of this post today so I felt like rereading it. I noticed people with Hemiplegia Cerebral Palsy can pass pretty easily but when their disability does show itself people do not know what to do.

Ettina said...

To me, it doesn't feel like privilege. When something is causing me problems, I feel jealous that people can just look at my wheelchair-using friend and see she's facing an accessibility barrier, but I have to try to use my poor social skills to plan out how to ask for help. I have to use one of my weakest skills when I'm already overloaded, just because I look normal. And then half the time people don't believe me anyway.

FlutistPride said...

I am an extroverted, gifted, and orally verbal autistic ADHDer who is very familiar with "passing privilege". The anonymity is a blessing and a curse. "Passing" means that my needs are dismissed as "not real" because I don't "look autistic" or fit the stereotypical mold of someone with ADHD. It means that I look lazy or incompetent when presented with something I cannot do. As much as passing privilege is a thing, recognition privilege is also a thing.