Disability 101: What is Able-Bodied or Abled Privilege?

What is able-bodied or abled privilege?

The term able-bodied/abled privilege refers to the numerous benefits—-some hidden, many not—-that many societies and cultures accord to able-bodied and/or abled people. Despite many folks’ paying lip service to notions of equality for PWDs, the chronically ill, people with psychiatric conditions, and those with chronic health conditions, abled privilege still exists, and there are still a lot of people who are resistant to the idea of a truly equitable, accessible society. Able-bodied and abled privilege is often hard for non-disabled people to spot; yet, in the words of the famous Palmolive dish soap ad, [YouTube link] most of us are “soaking in it.”

Many cultures have social expectations, structures, cultural mores, and institutions that are set up to accommodate able-bodied and/or abled people with the most ease; this is, of course, problematic for those who do not fit the standard of “able-bodied,” or “fully able,” whether in whole or part. Able-bodied or abled privilege also encompasses things like not having to worry about one’s energy level and/or pain level on any given day, the possible negative reactions of others to one’s needs due to his/her/zie’s disability or chronic condition, being stared at or questioned about (with varying degrees of invasiveness) his/her/zie’s disability or condition by strangers, her/his/zie’s ability to move for long distances or on a variety of surfaces without inconvenience/discomfort/pain and at a pace considered “appropriate” by others, being able to make decisions about the course of one’s medical, psychiatric, or other type of treatment without being questioned by others as to whether he/she/zie is making “the right choice” or can make a “rational” decision about his/her/zie’s own treatment-related choices, or being ignored by able-bodied people when one needs assistance in public; these kinds of able privilege masquerade as “the norm” for those without disabilities. For more examples, see Rio’s update on Peggy McIntosh’s famous article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” [link goes to Amptoons].

An earlier version of this post was originally posted at Faces of Fibro on May 6, 2009.

About Annaham

Annaham (they/them) is a feminist with several disabilities who occasionally updates their personal blog. They currently live in the San Francisco Bay Area with their partner, and an extremely spoiled Yorkie/Pom mix named Sushi. You can reach them by emailing hamdotblog AT gmail dot com.

31 thoughts on “Disability 101: What is Able-Bodied or Abled Privilege?

  1. I keep a copy of the Rio Able-bodied checklist on my desk; I think it’s a great, insightful article.

  2. (Since this is explicitly a 101-level post, I hope it’s okay to ask 101-level questions?)

    Able-bodied or abled privilege also encompasses things like not having to worry about one’s energy level and/or pain level on any given day […] To me, this seems like a function of being able-bodied rather than a privilege that comes with it? I have been struggling with depression for quite some time and part of what it does to me is that it drains my energy/desire/motivation, but that is part of being depressed — I can’t imagine a world in which that would be less shitty — I mean maybe people would be more willing to work around it in a totally non-ableist world, but all the anti-oppression in the world won’t actually make my brain function the way that I want it to function. And I cannot imagine a world where depression is something I’d want to have, because it sucks all by itself, even outside of ableist attitudes that come with it.

  3. Erika, being pain-free is a privilege. Even being “functional” is a privilege precisely because someone who is abled does not have to think about this “functionality.”

  4. Something else that’s worth noting here is that privilege is not the fault of the privileged. It’s just…there. The question is: What are people with privilege going to do about it, and how can we go about breaking down the social structures which privilege certain people over others?

  5. erika – 101 level questions are fine!

    you say “this seems like a function of being able-bodied rather than a privilege that comes with it.” given my understanding of privilege, this seems like a false dichotomy. people with privilege gain that privilege through the functions of their status – whether that be temporarily able bodied status, cis status, male status, etc. so in your example, a neurotypical person has the privilege of expecting that tomorrow, they will have sufficient energy/desire/motivation to navigate their day. they also live in a world that expects people to have that functioning. this means they have the privilege of not thinking about or worrying about having enough energy/desire/motivation, as well as the privilege to assume that rules, policies, and procedures are designed for people with energy/desire/motivation. that means that the features of their status and their privilege are inextricably intertwined.

    the idea of a world without neurotypical privilege, or without able-bodied privilege, does not imagine that your depression or my bipolar would magically be cured, or that we would be any more happy about having those days when getting out of bed seems more difficult than climbing mount everest. (speaking for myself there.) it would mean, though, that my friends would understand that lack of energy/motivation was a function of my disability rather than something i was exaggerating, or pretending about, or doing just to get out of something. my boss would understand that calling in because of lack of energy/desire/motivation was equally valid as calling in because i had the stomach flu and wasn’t a sign that i’m a lazy employee or just trying to go to the movies instead of work. that 9 month blank space on my resume could be explained as a function of my disability rather than skimmed over for fear that people wouldn’t want to hire me knowing i’d had to take time off to deal with my mental health. so i would still have the actual bipolar disorder and the effects – and people would not necessarily be trying to become depressed/bipolar voluntarily – but the world would not be going out of its way to penalize me for it, and would work with me to ensure i could still function socially, at work, and at home.

    i hope that clarifies some of what we mean when we discuss privilege – feel free to ask for clarification if not!

  6. Erika – I think the things you quoted are both a function of being able-bodied and a privilege that comes with it. But anyway, it’s perfectly OK to think that depression sucks all by itself. I think it does, too. I wouldn’t want to have it, even in a perfect society. Talking about the ways that ableism makes having a particular condition worse, it’s not meant to imply that the condition would be fine and dandy if only it weren’t for x – although that would be perfectly valid if you were speaking about your own experience. Just like you’re not required to love your disability/condition, you’re not required to hate it either. Don’t have to have any particular feeling about it at all.

    Ideally, I’d like to be pain free and have energy. I honestly would only want to be able to walk because the world I live in is actively hostile to people like me, who get around differently. I’d like to be free of the unhappiness depression causes me, but I would be happy being an apsie if I weren’t made to feel ashamed for my diffiulties communicating and the pesky echolalia. If that makes sense. It’s been a rough day, so sorry if I’m all over the place.

  7. Meloukhia – thanks for noting that the privileged aren’t at fault for just having privilege. I think that’s too often glossed over in privilege discussions, giving a false impression of disdain that’s not intended. In many ways, it’s not the privilege that’s the problem. It’s how that privilege is wielded. And, of course, the refusal to acknowledge privilege at all is problematic, too.

    (I hate the word privilege. It never looks like it’s spelled correctly.)

  8. One of the things that can make acknowleging privilege difficult is that we are raised to believe that a lot of the things that make it on these lists should be true for everybody. For example, I am convinced that everybody should be able to navigate the world without having to worry about accessability. Therefore, it is easy to think that being able to do so is not a privilege but simply things being the way they are supposed to be for you, while others are disadvantaged by things not being that way for them. The logical jump one has to make is that yes, this should be true for everybody, but until it actually is, not having to think about a certain problem, like accessability, is a privilege.

    I think a lot of the resistance to that thought process comes from believing privilege to be something inherently negative, like the spoiled, privileged rich boys and girls on television.

  9. “being stared at or questioned about (with varying degrees of invasiveness) his/her/zie’s disability or condition by strangers”

    I suffer from an occasional disability where my knees dislocate and rip through my tendons, leaving me in a brace for two months (this has happened a few times to each knee, just now old enough to talk about serious surgery)

    It happened again recently 2 weeks ago and I have been asked, literally, EVERY DAY what happened to me leg by complete strangers at the university I attend. Some even point at my leg and say “ouch!” with a little laugh. How can i buffer these obnoxious questions and comments without putting them on the defensive?

    For example, if some stranger comes up and says, “oh, what happened to your leg?” I guess I could say, “Want to rethink that question? That’s awfully invasive of you” or “Do I know you?”

    Any others?

  10. As this is a 101 post I think it’s worth stating the two major problems I have with it.

    First off, the term able-bodied is a real problem in a post about privilege. Where other terms exist (and are used), why refer to people’s bodies at all? This isn’t about you Annaham, because this is mainstream language that comes naturally to most people, but even talking about “abled-bodied” privilege in a post addressing disability in general actually upholds the privilege people with physical impairments have over other groups of disabled people.

    Secondly, we must either talk about social privilege or about luck. It is not masculine privilege that a person can stand up to wee and doesn’t have periods, nor is it straight privilege that most other people are straight and there are more potential partners available to straight people.

    The experience of pain or any other symptom or functional impairment is personal, not social. The social effects of living with pain in a disabling society (for example) are significant, but it a world without any social privilege, the pain’s still there. So it is privilege not to be interrogated at the pharmacy, but it’s not privilege not having to cope with physical discomfort every day.

    We all have different ways to talking about disability and different people understand it in different ways. But I thought in a 101 post, this stuff becomes important.

  11. P.S I’m a wee bit paranoid at the moment about the things I say or do, so whilst I hope it is completely unnecessary, I hope my previous comment doesn’t come across as angry. It’s disagreement rather than anger.

  12. “Oh, what happened to minding your own business?”
    “Oh, what happened to being polite?”

    Or you could ask them to tell you details of their last orgasm, most people would find that far too personal and they might be capable of figuring out that their own question was too invasive as well.

  13. If I’m feeling nice, I say I prefer to keep my medical issues between me in my doctor. That isn’t strictly true, but it’s good enough for strangers.

    Of, course if they don’t let up, I ask them how their last doctor appointment went.

  14. How can i buffer these obnoxious questions and comments without putting them on the defensive?

    I joke around about it. When I wear my wrist braces to work and my customers ask about them (seriously…?) I tell them I played too many video games. Which isn’t entirely a lie, but it’s not an answer they expect and it helps me feel like I’m not being too confrontational about the issue. In the end though I just stopped wearing them, the questions were too much for me.

  15. For example, if some stranger comes up and says, “oh, what happened to your leg?” I guess I could say, “Want to rethink that question? That’s awfully invasive of you” or “Do I know you?”

    I usually tell them exactly what happened. In excruciating detail. And watch them turn green. And then I say, with exaggerated concern, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, was that too much information?’

    Usually they reply with something like, ‘Well I suppose I asked for that.’

    And then I get to say, ‘Yeah, you did. So maybe you’ll think twice about it next time.’

  16. For example, if some stranger comes up and says, “oh, what happened to your leg?” I guess I could say, “Want to rethink that question? That’s awfully invasive of you” or “Do I know you?”

    I was always fond of a deadpan, “Alligators” before walking away, myself. Some things don’t need to be dignified with a response.

  17. When I was a little kid I used to tell horrific, whopping lies about what happened to my leg when rude adults inquired. Oddly, now that I am grown, I don’t mind “What happened to your leg?” It’s like, so there in the room with us, that not to mention it would almost seem weirder. The question I find gets under my skin is, “What did you do to yourself?”

    I agree that “right” to ask such a question is another able-bodied privilege. Most of us, even when we spot someone who seems to have our same disability, are sensitive enough to other people’s sensitivities to be extremely reluctant to ask. Just in case.

  18. The Goldfish, you bring up some really important points here, and alas I am running out the door so I can’t leave my usual small novel in response. But I did want to note that in fact we are planning an entirely separate discussion about defining “able,” discussing the problematic nature of “able bodied” and exploring the ways in which the terms for people without disabilities do indeed unconsciously privilege people with some types of impairments over others. It’s a complicated and long discussion and we’re looking forward to it; Annaham went here, I think, with terms she figured people would know/associate with because we haven’t had this discussion yet, so I hope you don’t take her framing/word use as a sign that we don’t think it’s a discussion which needs to happen.

    One of the problems with 101, as you yourself identified here, is that it consists of building blocks, and sometimes the order of the building blocks gets a bit mucked up; we perhaps should have started with this exploration and then talked about able privilege.

  19. As to what to say to people about your body looking/acting odd –

    I had my thyroid removed in 2003 when I was 14. It’s not as bad as they used to be, but it’s still there. And I like my breasts, I like clothes meant for them, so the base of my neck is often visible.

    One guy – don’t know him, never saw him again – almost made me cry by telling me I had seaweed on my neck. (It was at a campsite with a lake.)

    Of course, later on, I just ran with it. I was eating lunch with some friends maybe a year or two later at school, and one of their other friends came and sat with us. I didn’t know him. He asked me about my neck. I told him it was tattoo. He believed me. I’m horrible.

    As for oversharing – I missed only half of one year due to a nasty skin infection. I told people what it was. They weren’t happy.

  20. When people ask me “What happened to you?” I respond with “Nothing”. Because, actually, that is the truth. I was born with my impairment/disability.

    Also, if you were not born with your impairment/disability, “nothing” works too. It shuts them up.

  21. Goldfish, that is a great point. The reason why I used these admittedly VERY problematic terms is because 1) This is a post designed to introduce people to these concepts and 2) These terms are probably what we have right now, and I am trying to work with the existing terms (even though they are pretty crappy!). I think a bigger discussion is definitely a great idea, and we probably have something like that coming up at some point.

    I also think part of impairment is social (and not just personal), but that is for another post.

  22. My husband had a big, gnarly, open knee surgery. Then he got a resistant staph infection and had two more surgeries. Even with the nearly hip-to-ankle brace on, it was a mess. Gauze, drains, bandages, etc. He was in the Army, and his unit was gearing up to deploy to Iraq. When random strangers would ask, hoping to hear that he was heroically injured in combat, we’d tell them that I kicked him so he wouldn’t have to deploy. In truth, he just injured his knee at PT.

  23. Thanks Meloukhia & Annaham,

    I look forward to the discussion. There are probably much better things to read on the subject, but I did do a post at the BBC a few years back about what we call people who are not disabled. Probably the best thing about it is the comment from a non-disabled person who proposed to describe himself as “disability challenged”. 😉

  24. It’s human nature to ask about anything obviously different, and certainly in my nature to enquire sympathetically about anything that looks painful or debilitating. In most instances it seems easier to carry on a normal conversation once the element which is different has at least been acknowleged. Am I to understand that it makes PWD feel that it’s rude to point it out all the time? Is my enquiring politely always coming across in some way other than how it is meant? :/

  25. Angie, I totally get that you’re trying to be polite and hunting for the best way to ask your question. Here’s my answer, although I’d remind that, just like the rest of the population, people with disabilities are all unique individuals who don’t have the same reaction to everything.

    Maybe I shall turn this around. Assuming that the gravatar image is you. Why is your hair like that? Oh, dear, you know, I once knew someone with hair like that, and they took this special herb for three weeks and crossed their eyes while sitting under the full moon and POOF! their hair went back to normal. Does it hurt to have your hair that way? Do you know how people like you, with hair like that, are ruining for REAL people with REAL hair problems? Oh, you poor dear, you must need a lot of help with hair like that. Gosh, why would ANYONE date someone with hair like that? Are you capable of having sex with hair that way? Can I ask you some personal questions about your hair – is your hair that color all the way down if you know what I mean? *stare* *stare* *stare* *stare* *stare*

    Except all the time. Everywhere.

    And if at any point you’re not really really really nice and willing to tell people the intimate details of your life, you’re an *awful* human being, and now whoever you’re talking to will NEVER trust anyone with hair like yours again.

    I get, sincerely, that people who ask questions about my husband’s body are just curious, and don’t mean any harm by it.

    But neither did the six other people who asked today. Neither did the doctor who bent his fingers backwards just to see how far they’d go. Neither did my mother, who asks every single time she calls if he’s gotten any better yet. Neither did the person who used my personal medical situation to ask if my husband was “capable” of having sex.

    It gets tiring, and alienating.

    I mean, yeah – as an individual person, you’re not doing anything wrong. It’s just you’re part of the avalanche.

  26. Avalance is an interesting word. I didn’t really think of it that way before, as being so relentless.

    I sorta know what you mean, as my husband has some problems too and everybody is constantly asking if he’s better yet, if he’ll get back to any kind of work, making suggestions about this great herbal remedy, etc… It does get frustrating, so if I take the time I can imagine how it could be worse for someone with a visible disability.

    I just find it hard to get around the idea that it feels rude to me to just converse with someone as if I haven’t even noticed something difficult for them, even if it’s just to say ‘Oh I’m sorry, that must be hard’, and then get on with the conversation. I will try to know better, and hold my tongue in future. But it will still be a bit against my instincts, so it is something I will have to remember to actively resist.

    Thank you for taking the time to explain for, no doubt, the umpteenth time for you.

  27. “9. If I ask to speak to someone “in charge”, I can be relatively assured that the person will make eye contact with me and not treat me like I am stupid.”

    From the able-bodied privilege checklist.

    I think I’m going to have to work on a cognitive ability privilege checklist, or something like that, because both the Neurotypical as well as the able-bodied privilege checklist seem to ignore this aspect.
    .-= Kowalski´s last blog ..Ban The R-Treatment: “Whatever the politically correct term is” =-.

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