Several months ago I was at a library reading quietly to myself. I saw a middle-aged White man in a motorized wheelchair trying to remove a chair from a table so that he could scoot himself in and use a computer, but the chair seemed practically stuck to the rug (the feet of the chair to the carpet) so it was taking him longer to do so versus an able-bodied person. Like a complete fucking idiot, I went over to help him by starting to move the desk chair out of his way (though I did not and would NEVER touch his actual wheelchair). Did he ask for my help? No.
He calmly said to me, "I got it, thank you." As soon as he said that, I realized what I had done. I felt truly awful and ashamed of myself. I apologized and he knowingly smiled, as if he realized what I realized about myself.
Other able-bodied people have admitted to me that they’ve done the same. Why do able-bodied people do this? Not thinking. Assuming that the world will end if it takes one person 2 or 3 minutes to move a chair versus 10 seconds is ridiculous. It also is about an able-bodied person feeling discomfort with seeing a person having a more time-consuming experience doing something that we take for granted because of able-bodied privilege. Further, it comes from a place of presumed superiority. Being in a place of privilege at any intersection means that the status quo aligns with your experiences, not the oppressed’s experiences. Not only does it align, every morsel of culture continues to subtly and overtly imply the superiority of the person with privilege over the oppressed person. White privilege and racism. Male privilege and sexism. Heterosexual privilege and homophobia. Cis privilege and transphobia. Thin privilege and fatphobia. Class privilege and classism/poverty. Able-bodied privilege and ableism. The list goes on. This is why consistent checking and deconstruction is necessary. This is why womanist/feminist thinking is a journey; no one reaches “perfection” where they no longer make mistakes, but accountability for those mistakes is CRITICAL. Back-peddling, denial and other nonsense is unacceptable.
People with disabilities face a variety of things from microaggressions to discrimination to oppression. Even if I did not engage in overt ableism and shaming of disabilities, my benevolent ableism—assuming I was being “nice” by placing his disability in the forefront and trying to play hero, versus recognizing his own agency—contributed to the problem of ableism in our society, and it’s something that I definitely never want to do. I truly wish re-realizing this did not have to come at the expense of another human being as to why I apologized, but I am definitely working to do better.