The final installment of the Privilege tetralogy only tangentially relates to disability. While writing the first three entries, I began to notice an aspect of privilege nobody seems to mention. Shared experience.
Listening to a musician introduce his next song, I was struck by the phrase, “You know, like we’ve all experienced.” Implicit in that statement is the assumption that everyone has certain experiences in common, as if life contains a handful of basic elements and variation is built upon them. Unfortunately, the shared event which I cannot remember for the life of me was not one contained in my personal history making me feel isolated from those around me.
Once I began looking, I saw this assumption of common experience everywhere transcending differences of gender, class, race, religion, ethnicity, and even disability. Whether it’s a comedian calling upon shared experience to evoke laughter, someone telling a dirty joke assuming the adult audience has all had sex, being asked if you had a nice holiday with your family when you are an orphan, or even someone using the expression “It’s like riding a bike,” every day in hundreds of ways we all assume certain occurrences are universal to all. (As I wrote in Everyone’s Just Like Me,) I am as guilty as anyone because I routinely assume blindness is shared by everyone.)
The expected life trajectory goes something like this. You are born and grow up in a family. As a child, you learn to ride a bike, fall down and hurt yourself, attend school, and watch Sesame Street. Then you become a snotty adolescent, date people and eventually leave your parent’s home. Next you are suppose to fall in love and build a life with that person. (There are no predictive patterns that the relationship lasts.) Sooner or later you start getting social security. Now it is presumed you will find ways to keep busy until you die having enjoyed a happy life.
For many, this is in fact the course their life takes, which is why there’s an assumption about it in the first place, but like with any situation, average does not mean all. Given that I, someone whose life mostly fits the blueprint, find myself thinking “not me” with some frequency, I can only imagine what it must be like when your life markedly deviates from this pattern.
Conversations with people have shown me that this feeling is not unique to disability or any other marginalized group status. A white, heterosexual, TAB, middle class, Christian employed man can feel it if he’s a geek with lousy social skills who doesn’t date.
I have come to believe having a life that fits the expected pattern is a type of privilege. While it might not get you the kinds of advantages typically associated with privilege, it does protect you from feeling like an outsider. Do not underestimate the emotional advantage granted when you do not move through life routinely reminded that your life does not fit the mold.