I published a piece earlier today about my take on the way whites view racial issues.
In response to my piece, an awesome DailyKos regular commented,
"I've been saying for a long time now that White people (and yes, I'm White) consider themselves the "default humans".The woman's comments went further to discuss people with disabilities which led me to reflect on my personal aha moment when I learned of my own priviledge
Look at the Supreme Court - mostly White, mostly male. For generations.
But when a woman or person of color is added, it's expected that they will only represent "their" portion of Americans - the women or people of color. But White men are supposedly able to represent ALL Americans??
In the late 80s, my closest friend - my dear Uncle Leopold was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS. Not much was known about AIDS then. All we knew was that a diagnosis was almost certainly a death sentence.
First I learned of his diagnosis -- then one opportunistic infection after another hit him, each one taking a huge toll. In a matter of months, my uncle went from being a fit, athletic, strong young man who bicycled around Manhattan, to one who needed a cane, then a walker, then a wheelchair -- the downward spiral seemed to happen in a blink of an eye but was really over a short six month span.
I went to stay with Leopold in his Westside apartment for a week shortly after the arrival of the wheelchair. Following is my attempt to explain how I learned that even a African American woman who is way into anti-racist work - like myself - can be oblivious to her own privilege. What follows is how my eyes were opened to the discrimination experienced by those with disabilities and how others -- including myself -- can be oblivious to it.
The weather was beautiful on the first morning of my visit. His 16th floor apartment was tiny, even by New York City standards, but it had two large windows giving him an amazing almost panoramic unobstructed view of Manhattan facing east.
The view was nothing short of spectacular. In the spring, morning sunlight filled his studio apartment putting us in good spirits in spite of the situation. Leopold suggested we go out. He wanted to do a little shopping and we were entertaining the idea of having lunch at his favorite deli on Broadway and 80th. This was going to be a good day. My mom (his sister and caretaker) and I got him into his wheelchair. We left the apartment, took the elevator to the lobby, exited, and wheeled him to the beautiful sunlit outdoors.
I visited New York frequently from my home in Los Angeles. I especially loved being there with my uncle. It didn't matter that his apartment was small. I'd sleep on the couch or on the floor. But now his apartment was filled with medical paraphernalia, a chilling reminder of what was to come. On this day, we were going to get away from it all and just have a fun day in the city.
We had walked less than a block when it started to dawn on me that we might be in store for some problems. As we reached the corner of 59th and 10th, my fear was confirmed -- there wasn't a ramp at the curb! I didn't know how my mom and I were going to get my uncle across the street.
One of the conditions my uncle suffered from was neuropathy which caused him considerable pain - especially when he was jostled. Just rolling over the uneven pavement caused him extreme discomfort. How were we going to get him across the street and back up onto the curb on the other side without bumping and jostling the wheelchair and causing him severe pain?
I also wondered if my mom and I were even strong enough to get him and the wheelchair up on the curb once we made it to the other side of the street. Could we get someone to help us?
As we approached the corner, I scanned all four corners. There were no ramps at any of them. If we weren't strong enough and someone helped us at the first corner, would we be lucky enough to find helpers all along the way? Remember, this is New York City and this was just the first of many corners we were going to encounter. As I stood there on the corner of 59th & 10th on that beautiful day with my uncle in his new wheelchair – the prospect of having a “fun day” began to fade.
In a flash, I thought about the hundreds of stairs going down into the subway -- and what about buses and taxis – were they wheelchair accessible? Would we be able to get him around town without knowing what obstacles we'd encounter along the way? We needed to be prepared for these things in advance!! I couldn't even get my head around the bathroom issue!?
I was born and raised in New York and visited frequently after moving to Los Angeles but for the first time it occurred to me how infrequently I saw people in wheelchairs among the thousands of pedestrians in Manhattan. I began to get a sinking feeling.
In that nano-moment, I experienced a shift in my understanding. It became clear to me the complex issues and the many layers of complicity that work together to create an unequal society and the pivotal role invisibility plays in creating and maintaining systems that produce disparate outcomes.
It became all too clear how easy it is for an entire segment of the population to be discriminated against, in plain view, without anyone -- except those who are directly impacted -- noticing. I certainly was blind to it. Why was it that I had never noticed the lack of people in wheelchairs milling around New York City?
In that moment I could see how policy makers, city planners, government contractors, builders, architects, the transportation department and thousands of others made decisions that were, in effect, sentencing wheelchair bound people to housebound existences. And it was perfectly reasonable to believe that none of these decision makers had bad intentions or animus against people with disabilities. They just lacked first hand knowledge -- the kind of knowledge that can only come with experience.
That day with my uncle didn’t turn out to be the fun day we were hoping for. We never got past the corner. We had to go back to the apartment and think about strategies. As the week passed, we learned how difficult it was to get around the city in a wheelchair. It was such an ordeal that he only left when he had to go to the doctor which was only a block away.
Sadly, with the exception of doctor's visits, my uncle remained apartment-bound until he was admitted to the hospital where he remained until he died four months after he became wheelchair bound. His death, of course, had nothing to do with curb ramps, but the quality of the few remaining months of his life before being admitted to the hospital certainly did.
Being apartment-bound only added to his sense of powerlessness, hopelessness, and despair. Ultimately, he became clinically depressed; he even attempted suicide but I discoverd what he was up to and stopped him.
In 2002, more than 10 years after my uncle passed away, New York City agreed to install concrete ramps at the city’s 158,000 curb corners. This was done, in part, to satisfy a settlement agreed upon to avoid a lawsuit against the city by a group representing thousands of New Yorkers in wheelchairs. Also, since that time, steps were taken to provide wheelchair-accessible taxis and subway stations throughout the city. The buses were made wheelchair accessible earlier but they still lacked curb ramps which meant the freedom to travel for people who used wheelchairs was still limited.
As a black woman, I am all too familiar with the larger society’s inability to “see” racial discrimination even when I think it’s staring them right in the face. But experiences like this one helped me to understand that for many, this blindness is very real.
The discriminatory results that were the consequence of thousands of decisions made over time by thousands of decision makers were not intentional. It's likely the vast majority didn't and won't ever know that they had a hand in keeping someone housebound. This particular someone -- my uncle -- was a lifelong taxpayer and participated in the representative form of government we enjoy in the United States.
We hire or elect representatives to speak on behalf of "the public" -- to make decisions that are in the interest of the public good. It’s unlikely the architect of New York City's sidewalks and curbs intended to design a system that limited the freedom of a percentage of "the public" -- the ones who use wheelchairs. But their freedom was limited nevertheless.
I don’t know if you have to experience discrimination first hand in order to be able to spot it, but I do know that I learned a lot standing on that corner with my uncle who was in a wheelchair 20 years ago.
It became crystal clear that there is a distinction between intentional discrimination and the type of discrimination that is the result of a practice or policy that may be facially neutral but have the same discriminatory impact.
For me, standing on that corner at 59th and 10th I learned one of the single most powerful lessons on the importance of diversity at all decision making levels of government.