A White girl’s guide to: Able-bodied privilege

Photo courtesy of Brittany Wells and Marley Bangert | Staff Writer Brittany Wells continues her series and talks about the privilege held by able-bodied people.

Cassandra Jones, director of Disability Services isn’t unfamiliar with bias. “Yes, it’s fair!” she exclaims regarding the accommodations students with disabilities receive, but some faculty and peers fail to understand this.

As someone who receives accommodations, I am familiar with the “Why’d you skip the test?” and the “Where were you during class today?” I was in Disability Services, taking my test in an environment that puts someone like me on an even playing field with a neurotypical student.

“I even have students that come in for the first time and say, ‘I don’t like getting help,’ and it’s like, ‘Well, this isn’t help! This is in place for you to be able to demonstrate your knowledge without feeling like you’re being penalized because you get distracted during a test and you’re out of time. It’s not help.”

What Xavier students with disabilities need is not help in the “hold the door open” kind of way. Instead, they need a community dedicated to their rights. The many steps on this campus leave even the most athletic of Xavier’s students winded by the time they reach the top. Imagine the struggle of getting around campus in a wheelchair.

“The goal is to help students be able to navigate independently,” Jones remarked, both in the classroom and between classrooms.

“On campus, because this is an old campus, if we have places that are difficult for some students to get to because they do use a wheelchair or some type of mobility devices, then I…have the classroom moved to a more accessible location.”

Jones understands what it’s like to live in a world she must adapt to. She’s been blind since she was 9,yet married a photographer.

“Everyone laughs because he’s very visual and I can’t see!”

Jones finds that her husband has been able to bring his photos to life for her with vivid descriptions and verbal communication.

“For me, because my disability is visible and apparent, it’s something that I’ve had to learn how to interact with the people who don’t know…it’s something that I can’t hide, so I’ve learned how to help people get over that initial, ‘oh, this person is blind’ scenario.”
Jones talks about the questions people feel they can and can’t ask.

People often assume that people with disabilities require a special social handbook. There’s something about meeting someone with a disability that causes a series of alarms to go off in the head of an able-bodied person, leaving unsure of whether to acknowledge the disability or not. Newsflash, people with a disability are fully aware of their circumstances.

“It may look different from the outside, because it’s not something you’ve experienced, so just because you encounter someone that has a disability doesn’t mean that person’s life deserves pity or is sad,” Jones said.

Sometimes faculty or students will talk about “normal,” but Jones says, “they’re all normal! You can’t say normal, like who measures that? I don’t want people to think that just because you learn differently, or you can’t see, or you use a wheelchair to get around, that that’s not normal. That is normal. That’s normal for that person.”

“Being blind is a part of who I am. It’s not me, that’s not my only defining point about me, but it’s part of me. I think that the more that we talk about disability in a different context…in more terms of having access and what is needed for not just students but anyone who comes on campus or anywhere to have access and start changing how we view disability so that people don’t think, ‘oh, that person suffers,’ and changing the words we use can make an impact on how we see disability.”

Further resources on the topic can be found at the Office of Disability Services in the Conaton Learning Commons. Further reading can be found in Sam Killerman’s “Able-Bodied Privilege Checklist” published by Arizona State University.

Question able-bodied people are afraid to ask:

How do you socially interact with someone with an apparent physical disability without being awkward?

Cassandra: I don’t know why they don’t know what to say, because people are people, right? I just think people should view people like they would view anyone else. Look at the person in terms of, ‘this person is a person with values, traits, beliefs just like anyone else, right? They just happen to have a disability! Just because someone may be using a wheelchair doesn’t mean you can’t speak to them. I think it’s different for different people, for different groups of people, but for me a lot of times they don’t want to use the word, ‘see.’ They don’t want to say, “did you watch this movie…” and they stumble over what to say. You can say “did you watch?” or “did you see?” That’s how we communicate, right? People want to ask, but then they stumble over what word they should use, and I tell them, “it’s okay to say ‘watch,’ and ‘see.’” I’m waiting for the next season of The Crown to come out on Netflix.

Author’s takeaway: Asking questions, especially when they come from a place of ignorance, is okay so long as it is done respectfully. Not knowing what to do in an unfamiliar situation is reasonable, but imagine how it would feel to be on the other side of someone unrelenting in their shifty eye contact and insensitive actions. Trying is always better than doing nothing, but we as a society have a long way to go. I don’t have a disability, I have a different ability, and that’s how I’d like the world to see what I have to contribute.

Brittany Wells is a first-year Montessori education major and staff writer for the Newswire from Cincinnati.

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