Not long ago during a question and answer session a woman asked if my ideas about traveling with a disability–that doing it is a kind of art–might essentially be a privileged position. She didn’t offer this with hostility. I’d been discussing something artsy. The gist of my talk was that disability travel is often a richly imaginative activity. Her point was that if I had the means to travel I must necessarily be well off when compared to the disabled majority. I had the good sense to agree with her. I then said: “The trouble with privilege is it’s opacity. When we say it we can’t see through it. Disability travel has little of privilege about it since the built environment doesn’t like us. Try flying with a guide dog or a wheelchair; visit Italy…the physical and social obstacles are terrible and unending.”
While it’s not always significant in Q and A the woman in question who questioned didn’t have a disability. If she did she’d know that disability travel is in fact so daunting, so often painful that the very notion of privilege is hilarious. I swear I didn’t laugh. I think I was kind. Sometimes I can be kindly.
But I’ve been mulling the P word over and over since then. Thinking of privilege when you don’t have much of it is like reciting the great chain of being. If I’m a lower order of man at least I’m better than the ox or snake. In the end it becomes tautological and wearisome. I am privileged. For one thing I’ve a job. I get paid to write, at least some of the time. Occasionally I get invitations to speak to good people and I’m often paid for that as well. I think I’m pretty damned lucky if not quite privileged, for when I board a train or airplane I often experience unhappiness that’s unknown to abled travelers. Disability life when one’s a passenger can really be humiliating. Am I privileged because I have greater opportunity to be abused? I think that’s right.
Back to the great chain of being: I’m the most privileged of the lower orders. What a thrill! Here! Capture my tears in this little box. You may need them some day.