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On abled privilege

May 17, 2010

I wear contacts. Well, a contact – I’m only short-sighted on one side, and that’s the real problem. It means that with my contact out, the left and right sides of my vision are resolving at different distances. What happens next is that my brain tries to knit the two unmatching halves together into a coherent picture, fails, and I end up with no depth perception and a headache that feels as if my skull is coming apart down the middle. I can’t concentrate, I can’t read or type – the two things I spend most of my day doing – and I walk into walls a lot. Stairs are also not particularly fun.

In other words, I have an incurable and worsening physical condition, which requires that I wear corrective widgets almost every waking minute,  and without which devices I can’t function very well.

The above, I think, adequately encapsulates the view of the medical model of disability – boiling down my sight problems to severity, curability and mode of treatment. Phrased in baldly technical fashion it a) sounds much worse than it actually is, which I think is more to do with the dire connotations of words like ‘incurable’ and ‘assistive device’ than anything else, and b) situates the whole thing firmly as something wrong with me, which needs to be managed.

And yet, somehow, even though I have this manifest, measurable and troublemaking condition, I’m not disabled. I don’t think of myself as disabled – it’s there in my list of points of view: ‘currently able-bodied’. Even tentatively trying on the word feels wrong and appropriative. It doesn’t fit: my dodgy eyesight, controllable as it is, doesn’t cause enough problems to be labelled a disability, basically. It’s not “fundamentally impairing or restrictive to one’s quality of life” as annaham puts it. I suspect the reason for that, though, is only partly to do with my eye problems not being that serious on the grand scale of things, and partly to do with the way people react to them. Or rather, don’t react.

The alternative to the medical model of disability is the social model, which holds (as I understand it) that the extent to which any given condition is disabling – it prevents you from going about your life – is also partly a question of social accommodations, both material (accessibility) and interpersonal (destigmatisation).

Short sight is accommodated in both ways. Other things are not.

Nobody looks at me sideways when I say I have to miss class to go to the optician’s. I don’t get disparaging tuts from relatives when I plonk my lens case down on the guest room dresser. I’ve never been told that I don’t need lenses and that I should bust through the headaches with willpower and paracetamol. Nobody has ever suggested to me that if I ate better or did more exercise I’d suddenly have 20/20 vision. I’ve never been told that maybe if I just exerted more willpower (or prayed harder, substitute as appropriate) my left eye would just magically be the right shape again.

The fact that nobody says this kind of rude and hurtful thing to me on a daily basis is evidence of how far short (and long) sight have become value-neutral in society. And it’s nothing to do with the particular nature of the condition or the treatment; yes, it’s hard to argue with actual eyeball-measurements that show them to be off, but there are other varieties of concrete measurement that people seem to have no trouble at all arguing with. (Example: Doesn’t matter if your cholesterol and bloodwork are fine across the board – if your BMI is over the line, all your problems are caused by your ENORMOUS WEIGHT. Trufax!)

It’s just the way society is, right now.

That I’m deemed ‘able’ not for any concrete reason, but because the imperfection that causes me most trouble happens to be one that society has deemed … sufficiently real, I guess … was a nasty revelation to have. Because, you know, society giveth and society taketh away.

The sheer fragility of privilege in this particular area must at some level inform the way people behave about it. The cries of “S/he must have done something wrong – it could never happen to me!” are always loudest when people are uncomfortably aware that actually, it could pretty easily happen to them. (Comment threads about rape cases tend to prove this in the worst possible way.) And disability can happen to anyone, because diseases and genetics and random chance are egalitarian like that.

This is kind of 101 level, I know, but for all I think I get the difference between social vs. medical understandings of disability, it didn’t quite click until I looked in the mirror, as it were. I am a walking, talking example of how society accommodates the Sufficiently Real. That – maybe even more than not having any particularly troublemaking conditions to begin with – is abled privilege, right there.

Perhaps the only silver lining here is being able to use the small group of Sufficiently Real conditions as precedents, as test cases. The very fact that society has moved to accommodate the glasses-wearing and the lens-using, that it’s managed to make glasses and lenses just Things Some People Need To Get On With Life rather than visible stigmata, has to be proof that it can move for other People and other Things They Need.

I think I’ll leave it there. I still need to think about this some more. I sincerely apologise if I’ve misunderstood something, misused a term, been offensive, or committed a privilege fail. Please let me know if I have, and I’ll try to do better next time.

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