During a recent conversation over veggie omelettes at a diner, one of my best friends and I considered the ways in which a privileged life sometimes does not seem to mesh well with a passion for advocacy. For me, this issue has always caused some internal conflict. Although I was born with my disability, proudly count disability as part of my identity, and have been active in the disability community for most of my life, there is much I cannot relate to in the lives of so many disabled people. From a young age, I have had access to so many support systems because of my disability. I’ve had early intervention, physical therapy, modifications to make my home more accessible, and so many other wonderful things. I’m also lucky enough to be college-educated and to have an amazingly loving and supportive family.
These facets of my life undoubtedly intersect with my identity as a disabled person, and have made living with a disability easier than society makes it for millions of people around the world. (For more on how privilege makes it a bit easier to have a disability, check out this blog post by my friend and fellow 2013 AAPD intern, Maddy.) Just having the luxury of being able to ponder my feelings on privilege at a leisurely lunch in between mouthfuls of hash browns points to the fact that my experience with disability is far from the same as the experiences of much of the global disabled population.
I spend a great deal of time these days advocating for U.S. ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The ultimate goal behind U.S. involvement in this treaty is to open doors for our country to work with countries around the world as an example of upholding human rights for all disabled people. As part of my research on issues relating to the CRPD, I’ve come across heartbreaking stories of human rights violations against disabled people. I’ve read stories of rape, murder, denial of proper medical care, starvation, and so many other troubling issues. Of course, reading such horrible stories serves to fuel my passion to advocate for disability rights. Specifically, it drives me to advocate for U.S. ratification of the CRPD so we can demonstrate the importance of equality to other countries. However, on what I realize is a selfish note, stories of abuse and mistreatment also make me struggle with my goals to pursue a career in disability rights activism.
Reading articles and statistics about global disability issues has often caused me to think long and hard about my advocacy. Though it may sound silly, I see the relationship between my experience with disability and my disability-related goals as a bit of a paradox. I have faced pain, access barriers, discrimination, obnoxious comments, and being left out. And while none of this is okay, at the end of the day, I know I’m lucky to have been afforded so many privileges throughout my life. Yet, I sometimes get caught up in frustration over my local movie theater that doesn’t have an elevator, or stereotypical portrayals of disability in the media. I do believe these frustrations are more than justifiable, as a lack of access and acceptance is discriminatory; then I stop to remember that disabled people in other parts of the world (and in the U.S. too – I’m not kidding myself) are being subjected to sexual abuse, torture, violence and outright exclusion from basic human rights. I get worked up because it’s a problem when I can’t see a movie on the top floor of a theater, and millions of other disabled people have a problem because they’re being treated as sub-human.
It seems that my emotions lead not so much to a personal paradox, but to a social one. That is to say, the people who are most often in a position to advocate are the ones who haven’t spent their lives stuck in the cycle of major human rights violations and social injustices. So, am I an imposter if I use my relatively privileged upbringing (literacy skills, access to education, family support, etc.) as tools to advocate for global change for the rights of disabled people when there are so many things I’ve never experienced, even as a disabled person?
I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that my lived experiences with my disability are not any less valid just because I’ve been lucky enough not to be denied basic human rights. I am still a part of the growing global culture of disability. And just because I’m thankful for all the rights I do have, doesn’t mean there isn’t tons of work to be done to eliminate discrimination and access barriers in the U.S. But it is my hope that I will always pause before taking my privilege for granted, and I will never lose sight of how I can use my privilege to contribute to disability advocacy efforts for positive global change.