Exploring the Invisible Knapsack of Able-Bodied Privilege

by

Phyllis M. MaY-Machunda In my efforts to infuse our university's liberal studies

and education curricula with multicultural materials through Multicultural Studies and the Moorhead State University SEED Project, I encountered Dr. Peggy McIntosh's pivotal articles on At

white, male and heterosexual privilege (McIntosh 1988a, b).

last, I had found a discussion addressing the missing link in my quest to understand and explain ways racism and other systems of oppression worked! McIntosh identified and labeled the

phenomenon of dominant group privilege, or systemic unearned advantage gained at the expense of another group. In doing so, she highlighted key power dynamics operating in systems of oppression which most discussions of dominant/subordinate relationships tend to ignore. She recognized that focussing on

the dispara~e treatment and victimization of a group was insufficient in explaining the perpetuation of oppre~ion and

therefore, she shifted the nucleus of the discussion from the damage to the victims of oppression to the benefits bestowed on the oppressors.

By exploring the privileges which perpetually

advantaged one group over another, sh~ expqsed a hidden but fundamental component sustaining oppression. In reviewing her

discussions of white, male and heterosexual privilege and their relationships to racism, sexism and heterosexism, I saw that the concept of privilege could be extended to other systems of oppression such as ableism.

Phyllis ~leism disabilities Historically, patterns
lS

MaY-Machunda·--2 with

the systemic

disempowerment of able-bodied

of persons persons.

for the advantage people with

disabilities exclus~on,

have experienced and

pervasive

of segregation, which

discrimination,

extermination SimultaneouslYI people senses their which

denied

them full participation privileges

in society. on able-bodied· with false

ableism have

has conferred
t hem

permitted security,

to live in the world

of comfort,

perfectability,

superiority

and

responsibilities Unlike racism, that at some

to others. sexism or heterosexism, able ism is a form of

oppress~on directly only have

anyone point

of us, at any. age, may experience in life
l

even

if only temporarily.

We

to become

incapacitated

by sickness,

age or an accident If we are ourselves, we

to join fortunate will

the ranks enough

of people to escape

with disabilities. experiencing

it directly

eventual~,Y Ableism

know

someone across

close to us who will racial, ethnic,

confront gender, I will

ableism. sexual

cuts

religious,

orientation and class categories. In this article, ! .. examine ways able-bodied privilege sustains ableism. Having ableism. a disability, seem

is not synonymous
to agree that terms

with such

experiencing as disability resulting from

Scholars

and ~air.ment physiological, (including

refer

to limitations

in function

psychological causing

and anatomical

dysfunction

of bodies to

minds)

restrictions

in a person's

ability

perform cultura~ly defined.normal human activities
Whyte ~995: 3; WHO ~980: 27-28). The concept

(Ingstad &

of disability

72-..

Phyllis encompasses which a multifaceted coalition of diverse causes genetic,

MaY-Machunda--3 conditions

bodily

can result

from quite distinct based injuries;

such as chronic biological or

disease

or accident

environmentally

based developments; manifests

and progressive

illnesses. of ways, experiences

Each type of condition uniquely shaping

itself in a variety abilities and their

an individual's

of disability_ Some impairment scholars contrast terms such as disability which emphasizes and

with handicapped,

lithe resulting that may or

disadvantages take

[imposed upon people barriers

with disabilities] constructed

the form of arbitrary by society" barriers

consciously

unconsciously, of these

(McNeil 1993: 3). at individual, constitutes or ableism.

The pervasiveness

arbitrary

group and systemic oppression are -they as a and

institutional against people

levels

of society

with disabilities

These barriers Instead,

not an inheren=~ part of conditions have been result groups artificially imposed

of disability. with

on people

disabilities

of prejudices

and discriminatory

acts by individuals in policies,

and institutionalized practices

able ism embedded

organizational

and structures.
of my familYt community and I did to earn and

The able-bodied not ask for or create

members

these privileges.

We --didnothing

our able-bodies. hard work

We were born that way and even carefulness that we will remain able-bodied.

will not guarantee

Most of us have not even been aware even exist. Yet, as McIntosh

that able-bodied out,

privileges such

(1988a, b) points

11.

Phyllis obli~iousness privileged, stigmatize, does not erase the advantages have gained disadvantage from those benefits and exclude

May-Mach~da--4

that we, the which systemically We

those with aisabilities. and view the and taught that and unconsciously, power structures

have been socialized world

since

infancy to interpret privileges

in terms of these able-bodied

this is how the world should be. we are taught or unequal are taught churches, the status are tausht privileges inferior, that being for granted. protects people

Consciously disparate

not to see or question of privileges agents

distributio~ by socializing media,

in these arrangements. school, the

We

such as family,

politics

and other powerful

institutions,. that Beyond that, we

quo is the natural

order of things.

that when some folks do not have access we·have, therefore they are either unqualified, undeserving

to-th~

lazy, or somehow We learn we can take

of those privileges. which

able-bodied

confers a superiority

It is an asset which opens doors hostilities

for us and and violence which lives.

us from insensitivities, encounter

with disabilities I became

as part of theiT_daily privilege

aware of some the able-bodied as the able-bodied who acquired

I benefit

from in my experiences multiple sensory, situation someone unique disabitities

mother

of a child with

permanent

neurological, While this as me a

and mild physical does not provide with disabilities,

impairments

in infancy.

...

me with the same perspective these experiences

have offered

opportunity

to raise my consciousness the boundaries

and to peer into,

and even straddle,

of the world of people with

Phyllis MaY-Machunda-~5 disabilities.
-

Such a vantage point permits me to highlight some

of the accrued unearned privileges often invisible to and taken for granted by able-bodied people which disadvantage persons with disabilities. In the process of working to increase my own

awareness and in conversation with members of the 1998 Minnesota SEED Region IV training, I have assembled the following list of ways able-bodied p~ivilege has benefitted me in my daily environments:
1.

I can ignore the width of doors, the presence of steps and other architectural features of buildings. I can use any bathroom stall I want including squeezing into tiny bathroom stalls without reg.ardfor the requirements of a wheelchair or of toileting assistance. I can use the bathroom and take care of my personal grooming needs without assistance. I am not dependent on hiring strangers and acquaintances to assist me with my daily routines and private matters.

2.

3.

~

5.

I can be fairly sure that when people look at me, they donlt assume that I would be better off dead or that I am a.social burden b@cause of my disabilities. I can assume that I will not be perceived as angry, incompetent, childlike, or helpless just because of the .condition of my body.

~ 7. 8. '9. ~ 10.

I can assume that I will be perceived as and treated as an adult after I have reached adulthood. I can be fairly sure that the first reaction to me is not pity or revulsion due to the condition·of my body. I can assume that few people would think I had no right to be born. I can turn on the television, read a book or magazine and be sure that I can see people operating with similar abilities to me and I can use their experiences as a gauge to· understand my own.

Phyllis ~ 11. I am assumed with peers. to be a social to speak being being in need

May-Machunda--6

of interaction


12 .
13 .

I am not expected able-bodied.
I can anticipate of working ..

for all people

who, like me, are
as capable it

employed

and be perceived

14.

I can expect to succeed or fail in my job or life without reflecting on all people with similar abilities. both

15.
16.

If I move to a new job, I am fairly sure that I can find an accessible workplace and residence.
enter homes of

I can anticipate being able ~o physically friends and family when visiting.

17. I can

anticipate being able to walk through the aisles of any store I choose and rely on being able to take advantage of detours for where I need to g~ if elevators are out of commission. I can anticipate shelves. being able to reach products similar on the store abili.ties to I do not or

18.
19.

I can see successful role models with mine in a wide variety of careers.

20. 21. 22.

I can spontaneously participate have to preplan routine trips.

in activities.

I can assume that I can physically, emotionally cognitively handle most everyday situations ..

As a parent of a typically developing child, I can assume . that at Lee.at; one teacher in the public school she attends has been equipped with appropriate skills to adequately meet her needs.
I

6-

23. 24.

can

look

others

in the eye in my daily

interactions.

If I need to find information about my .. body, I am pretty sure that I can find someone who has the expertise to help me research the information I need and help me interpret it appropriately.
I can assume that deserving special group.

t.
J

2S.

my group is not viewed seeking handouts or favors whenever· someone is nice toward my

Phyllis 26. I can assume that the ·entrances I use will entrances or take me past the dumpsters.

May-Machunda--7

not be service

27.
28.

I can assume that I can select concerts or in church.

where

I sit at the movies,

I can assume that most materials I encounter appearing ~n the languages I read are readable without adaptive equipment or assistance. I can assume that public signs, curb cuts, detour me. safety information, e.g. traffic information, will be accessible to or private

29.

30. 31. 32. 33.

I can assume that when I am in need of public transportation, it will be accessible to me.

I can assume that I do not have to make advance reservations in order to attend most public events or facilities. I can buy a car without having equipment to make it usable. to purchase adaptive

I can assume that I can go into any restaurant and find something on the menu that I can eat and it will be served in a form that I can eat without too much difficulty. I can assume that when people look at the condition of my body, they will not question the appropriateness of my right to be a sexual being or a parent. I can talk to myself without or abusing drugs or alcohol. I can be insured being accused of hallucinating,

34.

35. 36. 37.

and can afford

to be insured.

I can assume that the items I need for my personal daily care will be conveniently available and their costs will be affordable.

38. 39.

I do not have to prove myself as superhuman respected as a full human being.

in order to be

I can feel fairly sure that I am not viewed as subhuman, defective, or deviant due to the condition of my mind, body or emotional self. People do not recoil condition of my mind from me because they fear that the or body is contagious.

~ 40.

"71.

Phyllis May-Machunda--8 41. 1 can remain oblivious to the use of language which demeans those with disabilities without feeling penalties for doing so. My lack of participation a matter of choice. in an activity can be assumed to be

42. 43.

I do not have to depend on and negotiate with institutional bureaucracies to obtain the majority of the support services I need to live my daily life. If I underachieve, my'performange level of competence. is not assumed to be my

44. 45.

When I am told about or given curricular materials about our national heritage, they will include the achievements of people with similar bodily condition to mine. As a child, I did not have to be educated about systemic ableism for my daily survival in society. I am not frequently the target of exploitative scams nor do I need to regularly sift through and ·weigh an assortment of real and false promises of imminent cures to fix or improve my physical, emotional, or cognitive condition. I am assumed to be capable of making my own life decisions.

46. ·47.

48. 49.

I can feel confident that the condition of my mind, body or emotional self is not perceived as the result of sin and evil.

AND THE LIST CONTINUES .
As Mclnto.sh (~988b) notes, not all of the·sepoints are negative advantages. ,Many of the privileges like being insured,

having access to information and places should be the norm in a just society. Others such as viewing people with disabilities as sinful or evil denies their humanity and people with a false sense of consciousness.

subhuman, contagious, provides able-bodi~d

As an African American woman, I have regularly encountered and learned to address stigma and disadvantages resulting from racism and sexism. However, being denied privilege in some

78.

Phyllis systems another. other of oppression Furthermore, has not· precluded having insight does holding

May-Machunda--9 in

privilege

into the ways one or two not guarantee system. automatic to

systems

of oppression

work,

sensitivity people

to oppression

in a different or male

Similarly I have which

benefitting

from white

privilege,

lived I, as an

much of my life oblivious able-bodied American person,

to those privileges cashed

upon

unconsciously

in on daily. with

Because until

society

segregated

many people with

disabilities living with

the 1980s,

I had little

contact until

people

developmental premature prejudices awkwardness, something wasn't

disabilities

my daughter's

extremely to confront such as fear of doing that I my

birth.

As a result,

I did not have mask

a?d was able to· politely

feelings

uncomfiozt.ab.Lene s ; revulsion, . s pity, I interacted during with them,

wrong when

and relief

in their shoes, a parent experiences

my limited

encounters. transforrnatively can force and I

Becoming enlightening

is· one of life's and the love

it can generate

even long overdue have been awareness a result

personal

growth. the sudden

Fortunately, challenge

my husband for increased

able to embrace thrust upon

us by our daughter'S stake in disability needs

circumstances. issues

So as

of my increased addressing

as a parent

and advocate

my daughter's on my part),

-(and not because·of increased with

any independent knowledge

nobleness

I have

my

and awareness

of the concerns

of people

disabilities.

My efforts

to raise my consciousness Each stage

in this area
life

will be a lifelong

journey.

of- my daughter'S

Phyllis cont~nues daughter's having to bring new challenges and lessons. life

May-Machunda--lO One effect of my

disability

on my family's through

is that

it is like Her This

to look

at the world tint every

a permanent

filter. lives.

circumstances inescapable, foreground my daughter used

aspect factor

of my family's in our

omnipresent in times matures

lives moves

to the as

of crisis

or recedes more

into the background or as we get

and becomes but

independent

to our routines, A secondary

it never

disappears. 1n understa~ding on cultural Understanding an ableism

influence

on my growth

has been

as a result

of mY'scholarly and bodily

research

perspectives what cultures

on the body find

expression.' about

important

to express

the body offers values. values. tends

effective culture Whatever

way to understand beauty

some of a culturels

American

prioritizes falls

as one of its dominant

outside

the boundaries as different

of defiried beauty, and apnorrnal. stigmatized The

to

be devalued juxtaposition ties ableism

agd labeled

of the valued to other

ideal against of privilege whose

categories In

systems groups

and oppression. or behavior

American differs

culture, most from

those

appearance

the dominant been

Euro-American labeled

normalized deviant been and

ideals

are those who have

stigmatized,

"different and as . result., have systematically a least access to privilege. Persons with

afforded and

the

mental,

physical

emotional have

disabilities, labeled

people as ugly,

of color unfit,

(and even elderly

people)

all been

mentally based

or physically on differences in

incompetent

less

intelligent

and abnormal

~.

Phyllis their appearance ideals. These and behavior labels in comparison

May-Machunda--ll

to t he se normalized systemic and

have been used to justify to personal,

restrictions financial

in their access

political,

power,

jobs, housing,

and education. out that no form oppression Ableism co entangle classism,

McIntosh operates

(1988 a, b) points drawing on other

without

forms of oppression.

is no exception. from racism, and religious complexities ableism,

It interlocks

with and is difficult ageism, l~oksism,

sexism,

heterosexism,

oppression. caused

,Although. I am aware systems

of synergi'stic on on

by interlocking to concentrate

of oppression

I have chosen privilege

my discussion of this

primarily

able-bodied Ableism, maintains stigmatized patterns levels

for the purposes systems

article. creates of a through and

like other

of oppression,

dominant

group privilege group

at the expense

subordinate

by operating

hierarchically group

of discrimination those

on individual,

and institutional Able-bodied

toward

who are defined
by ideologies,

as different. language

privilege which

is bolstered

and stereotypes rationalize quo. In the and

systemically disparate culture, ideology

support, power body

normalize,

structure,

maintain American dominant beauty.

relations?ips

as the status

images

are one means used

to reinforce and

linking

health, . strength, -intelligence dichotomizes a positive concepts.

An implicit

hierarchy

- negative Each of the and

pair of attributes positive uplifts

for each of these major reinforces, values,

characteristics dominant cultural

normalizes, their

supports

while

opposites

refer,

2;1.

Phyllis May-Machunda--12 accordingly, encompasses competent, to stigmatized categories. Being able-bodied

ideals of being healthy, strong, fit, attractive and all essential components of American concepts of The paired opposites of these and

normal and beautiful bodies. terms, sickly/unhealthy, incompetent/retarded,

weak, unfit, unattractive

are states of being deemed undesirable,

deviant and ugly, and are terms used to refer to people with disabilities. Even the term, disability, tends to emphasize the

lack of some ability rather than stressing what abilities people do have. Living with disability is not in~erently a negative human experience of life. Tru~, life is not necessarily the same as

living as an able-bodied person but, it still is a life which holds inherent value. A major part of what can make living with

a disability negative has to with the quality of life created ~Y their daily confrontations with pervasive barriers, restrictions, devaluation, threatening inconveniences, insensitivities, and life and altering policies. Able-bodied people use these

incidents to control those with disabilities for their own convenience and benefit. Too often able-bodied business owners

complain about the costs of having to comply with the Americans with Disabilities disabilities, Act (ADA) in order to accommodate people with

assuming that they have the right not to meet the Too often there has been substantial

needs of all customers. resentment privileges"

among able-bodied people about the "so-called special people with disabilities receive in order to

Phyllis May-Machunda--13 participate in the world. Reserved parking spaces, special

license plates and tags, special .education programs and financial handouts from the government are all cited as special advantages bestowed on people with disabilities which some have felt discriminate againsttheable~bodied population. But are these

really special privileges when people have been historically and still are denied access to productive jobs, education and public accommodations? Why should able-bodied people have the right to

deny others opportunities to participate however they are able? Too often, able-bodied people assume that those who do not meet the standards of dominant group perfection (and few of us really

do), are disposable, until they find themselves or someone they love among those disabled. What is the price we are willing to

pay as a society not to empower our full complement of human resources, whatever the package? With the ::.. awareness and knowledge of our unearned privilege comes with the responsibility to continue our growth and to begin making changes to make the world more just.

T~e disparity in

advantage between th~se who are able-bodied and those who live with disabilities is can be changed. The lion1s share of the

responsibility for .change lies with· those of us who believe in justice and equality and have passively accrued advantages assuming that those privileges were rightfully ours to keep.

Phyllis BIBLIOGRAPHY Adams, Marianne, Lee Anne Bell and Pat Griffin, Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice: New York: Routledge. Bair, Barbara and Susan E. Cayleff, eds. 1993. Women of Color and the Experience. of Health Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

May-Machunda--14

eds. 1997. A Sourcebook. Wings of Gauze: and Illness.

rngstad, Benedicte and Susan Reynolds Whyte, eds. 1995. Disability and Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press. Lakoff, Robin Tolmach and Raquel L. Scherr. 1984. Face Value: The Politics of Beauty. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul. McIntosh, Peggy. 1988a. UWhite and Male Privilege: A Personal . Account of Corning to See Correspondences through-Work in Women's Studies.1I Working Paper 189. Wellesley, MA: Center for Research on Women, Wellesley College. 1985b. nWhite Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack in Experiencing Race. Class. and Gender in the United States. 2nd ed. Edited by Virginia Cyrus, 194-198. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing.
lJ

McNeil, J. M. 1993. Americans with Disabilities. 1991/92: Data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation. Washington, D.C. U. S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, Bureau of the Census.
»,

Rauscher, Laura and Mary McClintock. 1997. "Ableism CUrriculum Design!! in Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice: A Sourcebook, 198-229. New York: Routiedge. Wildman, Stephanie. 1996. Privilege Revealed: How Invisible Preference Undermines America. New York: New York University Press.

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