Making the Privileged Feel Better

What kind of things do physically disabled or blind persons need?  It’s simple: access to society.  The specifics are different – the wheelchair user might want to be able to go to school or work without having to literally drag themself up a step.  And the blind person might desire websites that are usable with screen readers.

Of course, these aren’t the only things desired – there’s a lot of inaccessibility in society as a whole that needs to be cleared up.

So, what do social justice minded, but non-physically disabled, non-trans, and non-blind people come up with? We need to worry about our language. We need to avoid saying, “Let’s run out to the store,” because that erases the existence of someone who rolls out to the store. We need to avoid saying, “Did you see that movie?” because that’s abelist and erases the existence of people who experience movies without using sight.

And that sounds good.  It sounds good to say, “Did you experience that movie?” or “Let’s go to the store” rather than the abelist, yet common, alternatives.

Yet, I’m going to cry out and say, “ENOUGH!”  Not because I think these are bad things to think about, but because, too often, what is behind these suggested changes is a bit more sinister than it appears. Sure, it could be a sincere desire to think about others. But where it fails is in actually listening to others.

For instance, my (albeit limited) circle of friends includes a couple of blind people who “watch TV” (their words, not mine), and neither would notice (or care) if the TV picture was present or not.  My wheelchair using friends “run to the store” occasionally, in their words. It’s important to listen to their words.

Sure, there may be people who are blind or physically disabled who dislike words like “see” and “run.”  But most blind or physically use these words exactly like the rest of us: as something other than literally seeing or literally running.  Few non-physically disabled people literally run to the store: we hop in our cars and drive, or, if we don’t drive, walk or use transit.  But little actual running is involved. As for “seeing” TV or  a movie, a better word would likely be “experience” to reflect literally what is going on, but seeing, in context, basically means the same thing.

Now, I recognize I’m privileged, and could be an ablest pig now – and hope that people (particularly people who aren’t privileged in the same way) speak up and let me have it, if they believe it’s appropriate.  I can demonstrate my true character by listening to what is said.  But, at the same time, I do believe I’ve listened to disabled people and that this type of language is not viewed as insulting, as it seems to be used by the vast majority of people for whom it is supposed to be insulting.

It’s also – ironically – appropriated words like look, see, run, walk, etc, which have a general meaning, and made them into words that can be used only when referring to the privileged classes! In essence, privileged people have decided when these words are appropriate or not, rather than allowing the non-privileged people to tell us what they find offensive and how we should respond to that.  That’s both arrogant and dismissive, and the utter opposite of respect.

But it feels good.  It feels good to look at yourself and say, “I’m more progressive and social justice minded, because I know there are wheel chair users in the world, so I avoid using phrases like, ‘take the dog for a walk’ or ‘running to the store.'”  It’s the same old thing that always makes privileged people feel good: being better than someone else (in this case, it’s mostly the other privileged people who aren’t so liberally minded, but it is done by “walking” over the top of the very people for whom this language is supposedly changed for).

I’ve written about this in a different context – the use of the prefix “cis-” to refer to non-trans people.  While I can find some trans people who do feel people should use the cis- prefix to identify themselves, and it’s a lot harder to find wheelchair users or blind people who object to the language such as “run” or “watch”, I find a striking similarity. I don’t like the term cis- because I feel it erases the existence of binary-identified trans people, particularly post-op transsexuals, and their self-identity. But I get shit for that stand. Ironically, I’d say 99% of the people who have a problem with my word choice are binary-identified and passing as – and thus taking the role of – someone with binary, “cis-gender” privilege.

Now, I recognize the social implications and difficulties faced by minorities trying to express upset towards something the majority does.  So I recognize that even if I was being offensive to trans, blind, or physically disabled people (among others), it’s very likely they would say nothing to me about it. Thus it would be wrong to assume that I’m not wronging them. But it would be equally wrong to not listen to the people who are speaking and advocating from a minority group and to find out what their concerns are, rather than simply assuming that I know what their concerns are, and thus can tell people how to treat “those people” with respect.

It’s actually got a lot in common with the “autistic” vs. “person with autism” debate, which comes down to whether or not autistic people get to define their terms and decide what is or isn’t offensive to us (most of us have decided “autistic” is not offensive).  Yet, well-meaning, socially minded people will actually argue with us and tell us we’re wrong – that we should be offended by “autistic” and should be glad to be referred to with the much-more-respectful “person with autism” label. In other words, they know best about our lives and experience.

Well, they don’t.  No matter how good it makes them feel to think they do.

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