Not too long ago, I left work and walked down the high street on my way to my granddad’s house. On the way, I encountered a van parked on the pavement, blocking access for more than about the average-sized and abled person. As an ambulatory disabled and fat woman who wears a backpack and also carries a tote bag to work, I had to twist between the mirror and the lamppost it was parked next to in order to get passed. I managed it, but the men offloading the van were both defensive and condescending when I pointed out that their parking wasn’t very disability friendly.
“Don’t worry love, we’d have moved.”
If this sounds familiar, it’s because I tweeted about it at the time. How it wasn’t the point that they would have moved, how I doubted they’d have moved promptly anyway, if they’d even been able to hear me shouting. How I expect if I hadn’t been able to get through the gap (for example, if I was using a wheelchair or walker) I’d probably have had to go in the road instead, at great personal risk.
The man who I spoke to looked at me funny, as if he couldn’t believe I was raising the issue. I don’t look disabled, and I’d been able to get past, so what was my f*cking problem?
The problem is the ableism — the lack of access. Just because I wasn’t using a wheelchair or walker, doesn’t make what he did right.
It’s hard to see from a position of privilege, but if you look at instances in everyday life, I’m sure you’ll be able to come up with times you’ve witnessed stuff like this. Getting on a train and there being suitcases in the reserved wheelchair spot, because ‘they’re not using it’. Cafes or shops not putting in ramps because ‘no disabled people shop here anyway’. A disabled toilet used to store cleaning equipment because it’s the only place where there’s room for it. In general, a conversation with someone (which may or may not involve a little bit of yelling, depending on how annoyed you are and how resistant they are) will rectify these issues. Whatever needs to get moved will get moved and whatever needs to be installed will at least be promised, even if it never materialises.
It’s not just disability, either. Nurses ask women if they have boyfriends during their sexual health check, alienating lesbians and other women loving women. Offices use gendered bathrooms that reinforce the binary, assuming no trans or non-binary people work there. Gender neutral titles are left off of drop down forms. Time and time again, the language and actions or many ignore the existence of the few.
“The thing with minorities is that we’re in the minority, and chances are, we won’t be present a lot of the time.”
A very high percentage of the time, no issue occurs. The thing with minorities is that we’re in the minority, and chances are, we won’t be present a lot of the time. I was probably the only disabled person who walked down that street while that van was parked. Asking women if they have or recently had a boyfriend will cover their sexual history most of the time. Suitcases can often be stowed in an unused space on public transport.
But, just as you’re still breaking the law by speeding on an empty road, blocking access or being heteronormative is still discriminatory, even if everyone present is abled or hetero. When you don’t realise this because of your privilege, and nobody calls you on it because they have their own privilege, it becomes a habit. The more you do it and “get away with it” as it were, the more of these learning opportunities you miss and the more confident you become in actions that have the potential for harm.
You know like when famous people get pulled up on the internet because they used the n-word and they say “it just slipped out”? It doesn’t “just slip out” if you aren’t ever saying it. But if you keep doing something and it keeps being fine, you come to accept that it’s always going to be like that. You keep doing it, you keep expecting that result.
Then we get the situation where the person refuses to move their suitcase from the wheelchair spot because they now feel as though they’re entitled to it. It’s NEVER been used before, it’s ALWAYS been fine to put my suitcase there, what do you mean I’M in the wrong?
If you want to be a better person (and I hope you do) then thinking about how you can avoid harm or discrimination or microagressions is every bit as important as tackling them when they do happen. Solutions should involve dismantling the culture that makes these things happen, and preferably before harm is caused. I’m not saying it’s easy, I’m not saying I don’t also do things like this, we all do. But I hope that when you look at it, you can see the difference that can be made very easily.
Ask for help, do your best, and if a situation is unavoidable then make sure you’re taking note for next time. Be the cultural change you want to see, instead of relying on ad-hoc actions.