This past Friday and Saturday, I had the pleasure of heading to Phoenix, Arizona to lead a workshop on the Three Plan Approach to Fundraising and the summary presentation of a yearlong strategic planning session with a client. The client, Adaptive Sports USA has a mission to empower individuals living with a disability through access to adaptive sports competition – and this annual national assembly gathered volunteers, professionals, and athletes from across the country.
Spending time with them was a blessing on many levels.
Interacting with individuals who believe so passionately in a mission that they volunteer their time, talent, and treasure to make it a reality is inspiring!
Hearing the stories of how and why they got involved in creating competitive athletic opportunities for youth and adults with disabilities gave me insight into courage and determination that is beyond words. The story of a veteran who signed up to serve his country as a teenager and returned home at 21 as an amputee. The story of a father who got the phone call we all fear most – that his tween child was in a life-altering accident, paralyzed from the waist down; and watching the daughter, now an adult – dedicating her life to ‘paying it forward’ by sharing the opportunities she discovered with others. The story of the mother whose daughter was born with a need for a prosthetic leg – and the efforts she’s made to provide opportunities in their hometown for children with disabilities to find a place to belong, to gain confidence, and to learn compassion for others.
The smiles, the joy, the collaboration, and the dedication in the room were both humbling and contagious.
But the experience also got me thinking more deeply about life that I’d like to share with the hope it might encourage conscientiousness and empathy.
The Impact and Importance of Words
At one point, I wanted the participants to break into groups for discussion. I’d written the topic areas on oversized sticky-notes and posted them around the room – asking them to choose a topic of interest to form groups somewhat organically, saying – “If you could walk over to the topic…” At that moment, I realized how the simple phrase ‘walk over’ might ultimately be hurtful or leave some feeling excluded. I didn’t correct myself on the spot – and pray that no one in the room took offense, but for the remainder of the meeting, I consciously chose my words. Instead of thanking someone for ‘stepping up’, I said “pitching in.” Rather than saying “walk over,” I used “gravitate towards.” Some might think such shifts are unnecessary or too extreme, but I am grateful for the insight I had, as I would rather be more inclusive and sensitive to others’ experience than less.
The Gift of Exercise
The conference was held at Ability 360 – a nonprofit fitness center dedicated to providing an inclusive fitness experience and programs for the differently-abled. While I fancy myself an empathetic individual and am bothered when I encounter curbs and buildings without ramps or office buildings without accessibility buttons for automatic doors, I couldn’t help but realize how much I take convenience for granted. I recognized how far we need to go in society to be more inclusive. From bathroom stalls that have doors that push inward rather than out to office space and coffee shop design that makes it grossly inconvenient, if not impossible, for a person in a wheelchair to be employed.
As I took a long walk after the conference to soak in the blue sky and sunshine before returning to the onset of winter in Chicago, I became mindful of the blessing of being able to choose to go for a walk. Unfamiliar with the territory, I uber-ed to a park a few miles away but then decided rather than simply walk around the park and uber back, I would walk back to the conference center and further to the airport tram – about a seven-mile walk total – not as a chore but as a gratitude walk.
I’ve shared earlier in the summer how to increase my movement, I’ve been riding my bike to complete errands within a few miles of home – and that during my self-directed writers’ retreat (as the weather has been changing) that I’ve been designing opportunities to ride to work-venue destinations to encourage me to exercise and get out of the house. Today, while I walked, I’ve decided on a new practice – to be dropped off somewhere I need to be (or want to go) with the expectation that I will walk home.
Another Perspective on Privilege
During my walk, the word “privilege” popped into my head. I’m not certain about the rest of the world, but in the United States, the word “privilege” has become a loaded word. Discussions about – and even mention of the word “White privilege” – causes some folks to be immediately defensive and leads others to immediately compare wealth and ease of lifestyle – as if money is the only source of dignity in the world. Trying to explain the concept that someone benefits from “White privilege” even if they are poor and struggle to make ends meet can be excruciating when talking to someone who does not want to be labeled racist.
But trying to see the world from the perspective of individuals living with a disability gave me another take. Perhaps it might help those who don’t quite grasp the concept – by using an analogy: “able-bodied” vs “disabled.”
For centuries, the world and society have been designed by and for the “able-bodied.” We have made great strides in policy and practice, and architecture and design to increase accessibility. But those of us who can choose to ‘take the stairs’ and who don’t have to think about whether or not we can attend or participate in an event or activity because of our physicality are privileged. This does not mean that we look down on or hate those who are not, or that we don’t have other limitations, or that we are all great athletes and musicians – or that someone with a ‘disability’ can’t be wealthier and have a more exciting life than we do. (Even the language of ‘disability’ feels jarring.) It means that we are privileged because the traditional, societal default is for individuals who have two ‘fully functioning’ arms and legs. It means that we must make an effort to recognize that not everyone’s experience is the same as those with two arms and legs.
And in America, because of our history of slavery and Jim Crow laws – the traditional, societal default is for those who are White. For a VERY long time, White people held the positions of power and wealth, and society was designed for and by White people. And Black people were intentionally excluded. Even if individuals or groups of White people did not hate Black people, or they worked to give Black people the dignity and respect they deserve as a human right, or certain groups of White immigrants like the Irish were discriminated against for a period of time – we cannot ignore or negate the FACT that systems were put in place, and institutions and individuals (and the United States as a country) became wealthy because of the hatred and ignorance that made slavery and Jim Crow laws possible. While slavery was abolished hundreds of years ago, those who fought against civil rights are still alive; their children and grandchildren are still alive; and, the structures and institutions that were created during that period still exist.
We MUST make an effort to recognize that acknowledging “White privilege” does not mean that every White person looks down on every Black person or Person of Color, or that White people do not experience poverty and suffering. It means that we need to actively work to dismantle the structures designed by and for the traditional and societal default of the White ways of behaving, dressing, speaking, grooming, and interacting as the accepted ‘norm’ by which all others are compared and measured.
Because it is easier and more comfortable and ‘natural’ to relate to that which is familiar – if we are White, we must consciously admit that the White cultural experience is not everyone’s experience and that the United States of America historically used Whiteness as the normative measure; hence the reality of “White privilege.”
While I readily admit my analogy cannot fully encompass the entirety and complexity of White privilege, I do hope that my perspective might help to break down some of the misunderstandings and further the conversation.
As I sit on the return flight to cold, cloudy Chicago, I send thoughts and prayers to those whose lives have been upended by the devastating wildfires ravaging California and my heart goes out to those experiencing the profound grief of losing loved ones because of the senseless mass shootings that are all too frequent in America. I remain forever grateful for the amazing opportunities I have daily to meet and work with individuals who are creating a more compassionate and equitable world.
I hope that you will take a moment to join the conversation – to share your thoughts.
Have you ever been struck by the power of words to be inclusive or excluding? Can you share your efforts to be more inclusive – even in small ways – that others could incorporate into our daily practice? Do you consciously choose to confront issues of “White privilege”? How do you handle the ‘natural tendency to gravitate towards what is familiar’ to welcome diversity?