“Often finding meaning is not about doing things differently; it is about seeing familiar things in new ways.”
– Rachel Naomi Remen
“How much longer do we have?” I asked my friend.
“About 15 minutes. It’s 9:35,” she replied.
I wanted to leave. I had woken up at 7:00 AM and drove 40 minutes to school, all for what? A required 50-minute observation at the Starbucks on campus. This week our subject: how the world is set-up based on ability. Every few weeks our teacher assigned us a different cultural group to observe: race, age, gender, and now ability. The sun was bright, and I could barely see my laptop screen because of the awful glare created by the reflection and shadows. I spent the previous 35 minutes making casual notes about how the campus, and society, is difficult for people with disabilities to function in because of the lack of stairs, tall buildings, and non-automated doors. To be honest, this was what we talked about in class, and I had yet to come up with anything new on the subject. After the observations, we had to write a two-page reflection about our findings, specifically how society is established for those with privilege. We were not expected to reach a specific conclusion, but to merely make observations about what we saw.
As I was about to call it quits, I saw a man in an electric wheelchair in the middle of the piazza on campus. He was coming down the concrete hill into the middle of the circle surrounded by the library, gym, and business building. In the center of the circle was a huge, freestanding fountain with rock-like seats extending outwards. The configuration of the fountain and seats made the piazza into a maze. I watched as the man slowly glided his chair in and out of the stone, just like someone would do if they were walking.
He passed my group as we were sitting on the Starbucks patio. He continued his way to the large, old-fashioned east coast looking buildings in the front of the school. The buildings were beautiful, cream colored and accented with a medium brown hue. In the direction he was headed there were four buildings encompassing a dark green lawn. Each building looked a twin of the next, perfectly in sync. In the front of each, there was a small staircase leading up to the doors of each building.
“How is he going to get into the buildings? He can’t use the stairs,” I thought to myself. “And only one has a wheelchair ramp in the front.”
Right at that moment, the man took a sharp right behind the buildings, camouflaged into the back of the architecture were wheelchair ramps. The man did not have the opportunity to see the buildings in the front; he had to go through the back, where no one saw him. He had to change his life according to his surroundings, something people with abled bodies don’t have to do.
“…Not only the architecture, but the entire physical and social organization of life tends to assume that we are either strong and healthy and able to do what the average young, non-disabled man can do or that we are completely unable to participate in public life” – Susan Wendell, The Rejected Body, The Social Construction of Disability, p. 59
Privilege, Power, and Difference (2006) by Allan G. Johnson was the first book that changed my perception of myself in relation to the world. I read the book in the same class that assigned the observations of different cultural groups. It was an education class called “Social Construction of Difference.” Before taking the class I was not aware of my privilege. I grew up in an affluent city with little diversity. Everyone looked like me, everyone acted like me, and everyone was like me. I did not understand my own privilege or even thought I was capable of having privilege, but Johnson explains “… privilege exists when one group has something of value that is denied to others simply because of the groups they belong to, rather than because of anything they’ve done or failed to do” (Johnson, 2006, p. 21).
I have privilege. I have privilege because of the color of my skin. I have privilege because of the place I grew up. I have privilege because of the way my body works. I have privilege because society adheres to my needs.
At first, I read the book with a skeptical eye. I did not want to see myself as the bad guy merely because of how I was born. I did not want to feel guilty because of something I could not change. It was all about me, me, me, until I saw the man in the wheelchair. Seeing the man in the wheelchair changed my perception of all diversity. It was the first moment I saw the contents of Johnson’s book come to life. He was right; the world is set up for people with privilege. The world is set up for people to be able to walk around a building and up a few steps, instead of taking the back route to find the wheelchair ramp.
Diversity is often viewed as unwanted or bad because it does not fit into the society that privilege has created. It is an endless cycle. In regards to ability, Johnson explains “… it is assumed that the limits on what they [people with disabilities] can do are caused solely by the conditions of their bodies and not also by the narrow assumptions made by nondisabled people when they design buildings and buses and the rest of their physical environment” (Johnson, 2006, p. 111). Everything made sense once I saw the man. I have privilege because society has unfairly benefited me at the expense of others. Reading Privilege, Power, and Difference (2006) allowed me to understand why I have privilege. It does not only relate to ability and disability but also race, age, gender, class status, socioeconomic status, sexuality, etc. I did not earn these things, I was given them by the lottery of life. I just so happened to win the jackpot. We as teachers need to understand our privilege and how it relates to students. If we are more aware, we will create a better classroom environment for every child we meet.
Before reading Johnson, I saw myself as the victim of unfair judgment. I thought “no one knows about my life, so why do they think I have privilege?” I was unaware of privilege, and I was unaware of the diverse cultures that were affected by the power structure created by society. There are stigmas attached to different people because of their outward appearances or their beliefs, and many people have to change their lives to live in this type of society. Although there have been gains to equalize the gap between privilege and oppression, much of society is still set up for those with privilege.
In 1999, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed. It is a labor law that protects against discrimination from disabilities. Although this law focuses on developmental disabilities, it is also pertinent to those with physical disabilities. According to the ADA website, the law “… prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, State and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation” (ada.gov).
“1 in 5 people has a disability.” In 2012, the United States Census Bureau released a report for the ADA’s 22nd anniversary. The report says that “about 56.7 million people — 19 percent of the population — had a disability in 2010” (census.gov). The definition of disability ranges under the ADA, and the disabilities range from severe to moderate. A staggering statistic from the report showed “roughly 30.6 million had difficulty walking or climbing stairs, or used a wheelchair, cane, crutches or walker” (census.gov). The man I saw was 1 of the 30.6 million people. Students in our classrooms can be a part of this group as well. The man was one of the people that had to change his life according to society’s standards. The ADA protects those with disabilities, but it does not always allow them to live a life without extra effort.
I learned something important from the man in the wheelchair and Johnson; we are all in this together. In the last chapter of Privilege, Power and Difference, Johnson says, “the simple fact is that we affect one another all the time without knowing it” (Johnson, 2006, p. 134). I may not have seen my privilege before because I was positively affected by it. However, now that I am literate in this subject it is my responsibility to check my privilege and realize that diverse cultures and peoples may not have the same opportunities as I do. Diversity is essential to a well-balanced society. I can learn from those who hold different viewpoints. If I begin to see these perspectives, I will begin to have empathy. Society has the ability to change if those who have privilege begin to look out for others. For example, build easier access wheelchair ramps, erase pay gaps, and let people be whoever they wish to be. In addition, teachers can erase privilege in their classrooms. If we don’t let privilege effect our classrooms, then our students will learn practices that they can take with them out into greater society. It will create a ripple effect that can benefit so many lives.
Johnson and the man in the wheelchair taught me all of this, and each and every day I see the effects of my privilege in society. I must speak with others regarding issues they face. I must use my voice positively to benefit people who may not hold the privilege society has bestowed upon me.