In life, there are three reasons why things go well for us: privilege, random good fortune, and/or that we worked to make something happen. I recently encountered a really good example of all three at work when my DSL internet connection went down for two days. I know several people who have no internet connection at home because they can’t afford it. Some don’t even have a computer, and rely entirely on public computers for internet access. I had a hell of a time coping with two days offline, because I’m able to afford DSL and a large chunk of my life revolves around the internet. That got me thinking: is it a privilege that I can afford DSL, or good luck, or achievement? The short answer is: all three.
Everyone likes to think it’s achievement
When checking yourself for privilege, remember that it’s perfectly natural you’d want to believe I Got Here Totally By Myself No One Helped Me I Just Worked Hard. This is a popular cultural myth, but it’s probably also a matter of simple ego. But it’s almost never true. Seriously. I mean, sure, you worked hard, but so did some other dude who doesn’t have what you have. There’s more to it than that.
So, yes. I earn money by working, and that’s how I pay for DSL. I have brought some of the good fortune of having DSL upon myself through my own endeavors. Yay me. But.
What enabled me to do that work?
Lots of hard-working people around the world have been laid off in the past few years. Salaries are falling. Some people who work just as hard as I do to afford stuff like DSL can’t have it because that work isn’t paying off for them. Or, some people would like to work for a living, but are prevented from doing so by the lousy job market, or by “disability.”
I put “disability” in quotes because the way it’s used to talk about employment and work environments seems really screwy to me. But let’s get into this subject. In my time, I’ve worked in dozens of offices because I used to temp. I’ve worked in several states and even more cities. I’ve worked in lots of industries. Almost all of my jobs involved sitting at a computer all day long. And yet, what have I never once in my life seen? An office worker who uses a wheelchair. Why not? It’s ideal – they need a sit-down job, and that’s what offices are.
The main issue is accessibility. You might need to build wider internal hallways and doorways, and have ramps at your building to make it accessible to people who use wheelchairs. You need bigger elevators and elevator doors to accommodate wheelchairs for people working on higher floors, and you need an evacuation plan that involves getting the individuals, if not their wheelchairs, down stairs (yes, it can be done). Workspaces were designed without consideration for people who use wheelchairs. So I’m just bloody lucky I don’t need a wheelchair. Aside from the fact I don’t go around performing stunts from Jackass, I can’t take any credit for my not needing a wheelchair. If I did need a wheelchair, I wouldn’t have the employment options I’ve enjoyed during my life.
And the privilege
Another interesting ability issue is temperament, and this one provides the third example. Office culture is very conformist – historically, there’s been no consideration for people who stick out, like bi-polar folks or high-functioning autistics. This is silly when you consider that these people are as likely to be brilliant and contribute a shit-load to the company as any other neuro-group you care to define.
Additionally, there are people who don’t seem “smart” to us, but are in fact geniuses. They don’t “seem” smart because culture has taught us that “smart” people talk in big words, think fast, always have the answer, etc. You know the stereotypical “smart” characters from TV. Recent developments in psychology have finally realized, whoops, there are other kinds of intelligence, and they often manifest in ways we don’t recognize – the woman who can’t spell to save her life but can design a blueprint for an amazing building in her head because of a genius for thinking in three dimensions. The man who needs a calculator to add 2+2, but can talk anyone into anything because he has a genius for reading people. The woman who says odd, socially inappropriate things because she just doesn’t get the social system we think of as normal, but who could reorganize a mega-global-corporation in a way that would save it billions if only they hadn’t dismissed her at the get-go for “not fitting in.”
To quote Sports Night: “Not fitting in is how qualified people lose jobs.” What “fits in” is defined by the people in charge, and therefore it is a privilege extended to those who can fit in, or fake it successfully.
On that note, I gotta tell you: I’m not normal. Working in offices always made me feel like my soul was being drained out of me. I’m a creative type with a craving for routines, which is a strange combination. But I hate standard office routines and hours, I hate trying to interact with conformists, etc. I often had to force myself to go into work, because every fiber of my being rebelled at it. But I could fit in, most of the time at least. Not as often as some people, but more often than many. Also, I am exactly what people recognize as “smart”.
Breaking it down
So what have we got here? I have DSL because I earn a living to pay for it – that’s my achievement. But part of why I’m able to earn that living is pure luck: my health doesn’t prevent me from earning, I was born in a time when women were more accepted in the workplace, etc. And another part of why I can afford DSL is privilege: my intelligence is recognizable, I get social cues well enough to “pass” for neurotypical (even though I’ve had depression and anxiety all my life, and in that sense could be labeled “disabled”), and my body works close enough to the way people think it should. I have options for earning a living that many people don’t have (and some people have way more options than I have). Those options are not something I created myself. I can take credit for taking advantages of the opportunities life has given me, but the opportunities themselves are the product of privilege and random luck.