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How the 2014 Australian Budget made me ‘Check my Privilege’

You can’t buy much with seven dollars. Maybe a large fancy frappuccino Starbucks coffee, or a sandwich. To me, $7 is nothing. I just spent $7 on a bumblebee costume for my cat. So why is this GP $7 co-payment such a big deal? Why are people so up in arms about university becoming more expensive? Or having to wait 6 months to receive financial assistance from the government?

This latest Liberal government has made me ‘check my privilege’. As much as I hate that phrase, it perfectly sums up my thought process over the last few weeks. Now by no means am I using $100 notes as toilet paper, but I’m very financially comfortable, and have been for most of my life. My financial stability is mainly provided by my parents, as I’m still living at home and only have a part time job. I pay board, and I finance all my own purchases and socialising activities. Ideally I would have liked to have moved out of home by now, but I have a debilitating physical disability which makes working full time difficult and living independently close to impossible. I am very thankful to the Australian government who has provided me with a Disability Support Pension since I was 18, and I’ve never taken it for granted.

Despite my disability, I’ve had a very privileged life. I received a $12,000 academic scholarship for my undergraduate degree, and my parents and I went halves in paying for my Honours degree, so I have no HECs debt. I physically can’t drive, so I don’t have a car or petrol to pay for (although it does cost me $30 to get to university and back every visit, but that’s a complaint for another day). I don’t have to think twice about how to pay for things I need or want. I feel guilty admitting that because I know for the majority of people in Australia, and even around the world, this isn’t the case. I’ve always known that I was lucky in this way. I don’t consider myself ‘spoilt’ as my parents have instilled a very hard work ethic in their children, and we’ve always had to work for our money. Whether that was chores when we were kids, or getting a part time job when we were teenagers (I worked around my disability as a young teenager by making and selling jewellery at the markets), we were never given money, nor did we expect it from our parents.

‘I’ve worked hard for my money’ is a sound-bite often thrown around by millionaires. Before the budget came out, I thought this about my situation too. But after listening to and reading people’s stories about how the budget drastically will affect their lives, I realise that it is absolute bullshit. How is being raised in an upper middle class family, having my university paid for, going on overseas holidays, and being at university for 6 years ‘working hard’? I’ve been given every opportunity I could want. My education has been great, and although my need for healthcare has been quite extensive due to my disability, my parents have always been able to pay for my blood tests, heart scans, hospital stays, and medication.

This is why I was initially puzzled over the uproar about $7 payments to see a GP. Why was it such a big deal? Seven dollars is nothing. It wasn’t until I started to read about the backlash that I truly considered what seven dollars might be to a single mother who only makes enough to cover rent, food and power, or a pensioner relying on government assistance to survive. Then I started finding statistics about average incomes in Australia (this breakdown helped put it in perspective: http://mattcowgill.wordpress.com/2013/05/13/what-is-the-typical-australians-income-in-2013/). Without revealing my parent’s income, I discovered I was within the top 1% of the nation. I was genuinely shocked. How had I been sheltered from this reality my whole life? I thought we were just a comfortable middle class family. I really hope that this blog post doesn’t come across as bragging or ‘poor little rich girl’, because that is not my intent. I am just attempting to explain how my privilege has blinded me from some realities in life, and how eye opening these past few weeks have been.

Being raised in such an individualistic, capitalist and classist society can really warp your view of the world. I still react to stories of poverty with ‘well why don’t you just work harder/get a better job?’. It’s deeply ingrained and I’ve only just started to question it. It’s very embarrassing to admit to myself just how privileged I am in this aspect of life, but I hope by continuing to seek out more information and people’s stories I can understand and help others to as well.

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Your privileges as a non-cripple

Most people don’t like being labelled as ‘ists’; sexist, racist, homophobic…ist. Have you ever considered whether you’re an ‘ableist’? That’s right, there’s another word to make you feel guilty about your privileged status. This time, this privilege comes from having been born healthy or not having been involved in a major accident. Statistically, there’s a large chance you are an ableist, and according to the blogger ‘Bitch on Wheels’, you carry an invisible ableist back pack (which you can easily carry because you’re physically healthy enough to). I came across this list of privileges and thought it would be a bit of fun to describe my experiences with some of the items included.

A bit of back story is needed of course. I am ultimately better than you because I am not an ableist. I have a physical disability called Muscular Dystrophy. It basically means the proteins in my muscles deteriorate over time, making my whole body (from the neck down) weaker. This leads to me losing the ability to do normal things such as walking, bending, reaching, and somersaulting. I was diagnosed when I was 12 and currently spend the majority of my time in a wheelchair. It’s become normal for me, I’ve adapted, because I have no other choice. However, there are some things that I shouldn’t HAVE to adapt to, as they are discriminatory and condescending, and this is where the ableist’s back pack comes in.

I’m only going to address the items that most apply to my situation, but if you’d like to see the entire list, check out Bitch on Wheel’s blog here: http://exposingableism.wordpress.com/2009/10/12/the-invisible-backpack-of-able-bodied-privilege-checklist/

  • I can, if I wish, arrange to attend social events without worrying if they are accessible to me.

I’m guessing that not a lot of you have to worry about whether you’ll be able to fit into a certain venue, unless of course you’re the Hulk, but I think if that’s the case, you’ve got bigger problems. I have to research most venues before I attend social events. This includes ringing restaurants to set up wheelchair accessible tables, ordering specialised seating at concerts, and asking friends to scour their houses for small steps or difficult doorways. I miss out on many social gatherings due to their locations, which I’ve come to accept, but there’s still a bitter stab of disappointment when I realise I’ll be missing out on a fun beach party or bonfire.

  • I am not called upon to speak as the token person for people of my mobility level

Now this might not seem strange or offensive to you, but imagine if you were called upon to represent a group of people because of something you were born with. Would you feel comfortable representing everyone with brown eyes? Or everyone who is left handed? Of course I’m completely in support of anyone who chooses to speak for those with disabilities. Disability advocates have made the world a better place for me, and without them, I wouldn’t have ramps built at my university, or government funded help. However, I have been approached many times to speak on behalf of those with Muscular Dystrophy, wheelchair users, or people with varying disabilities, simply because I was born with it. I don’t feel that I can speak for others. Everyone’s experiences are different, and my story doesn’t represent everyone’s.

  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being called an ‘inspiration’

This is a major item for me. This is where the condescending nature of people is revealed. Before I continue, I need to say that 99% of people do not mean any harm when they talk to me like a child, they’re simply ignorant of their behaviour. This isn’t a case of people being mean or abusive, it’s a lack of insight into the lives of those disabled people they’re talking to or interacting with. I’ve had people rub the top of my head, pat my shoulder, talk slowly and loudly to me, and completely ignore me and talk to whoever is with me at the time.  It even happens with medical professionals. These are people who should know better, yet I’ve still had doctors address my parents with questions about my health whilst I sit there, staring straight at them, mouth agape.  Along with the blatant condescending treatment, the amount of times I’ve heard the words ‘inspiration’ ‘proud’ and ‘brave’ be thrown around will make you feel a bit queasy. I am very proud of myself and how far I’ve come, because it would have been much easier for me to curl up in bed and refuse to open the curtains (although there have been periods in which I did this). However, when people congratulate me for doing normal things such as graduating high school, going to university, etc, I feel like pointing to the able bodied student next to me and saying ‘We both had to do the same work and pass the same tests’. I didn’t get where I am today because of my disability. I got here in spite of it. I’ve done nothing out of the ordinary. When I conquer Mount Everest, then you can give me a congratulatory high five.

(For a much better and funnier article about ‘Inspiration Porn’ check out one of my favourite writers, Stella Young: http://www.abc.net.au/rampup/articles/2012/07/02/3537035.htm)

  • I can be reasonably sure that my physical ability level will not discourage potential employers from hiring me

Now that I’ve come to a stage in my life where I’ve completed my degree and I’m comfortable with my skill set, I feel that it’s time to look for a job in which I can utilise these skills, and make a step towards procuring a successful and fulfilling career in my field of interest. In fantasy land, everyone is employed based on their skills, experience, personality and work ethic. Skin colour, gender, background or disability isn’t a factor considered by the employer in fantasy land. Also, there are fairy floss trees and unicorns giving kittens free rides. Unfortunately, this is the real world and I have to be realistic about who will employ me. Even I know, if I was an employer and was presented with two candidates of equal worth and quality with regards to what the company wants, I would pick the able bodied applicant. It’s just easier. Desks don’t have to be altered, ramps don’t have to be installed, and special circumstances don’t have to be considered. So when it comes to employment, I know it’s going to be a tough road with lots of rejection and unfair judgement, but I’m going to have to suck it up and trudge on.

  • I can choose to share my life with someone without it being a disadvantage to them

To be honest, this is an issue I still struggle with. I’m often uncomfortable when I see stories in the media about someone having a terrible accident, becoming disabled in some way, and then having their partner described as ‘inspirational’ for staying with them. Surely, if you loved someone enough, you wouldn’t think twice about caring for them in that situation. It makes me feel like if I was to be with anyone, helping me with my condition would be a burden to them because it’s such a big and inspirational task to help someone with a disability. I admit, I have grave doubts and worries about future partners and if I’ll be a burden and whether they’ll resent me, but I feel like these worries will decrease with age and experience.

Contrary to my previous jokes about you all being ableists, I didn’t write this to induce guilt or make you feel bad about complaining about your own lives (although I do have to bite my tongue when people try to sympathise with my situation by saying ‘I know how you feel, I broke my foot once.’). I just thought it was interesting to delve into privileges we don’t know we have. Furthermore, if this can stop just one person from treating those with disabilities in condescending or offensive ways, I feel like I’ve done my good deed for the day. Now I’m off to find those kitten riding unicorns…