Friday, June 22, 2012


"Hierarchy," now there is a dangerous word. Placing one person above another, making valuing into a point system. Yikes. What that does to people, even basically good hearted people, is frightening. Suddenly it doesn't matter if you're on top, it just matters that there are others below.

Here's what got me thinking about this. I was on the bus chatting with a woman, also a wheelchair user, who was telling me about her job. She loves her job and described it in a lot of detail. A lot. Finishing with that she started talking about how her parents had instilled into her the "right kind of attitudes" and those attitudes and values got her through each and every day. One of the things she was taught was "be grateful for what you've got because there are always those who are worse off than you." She explained that though she had a disability there were a lot of people worse of than she was. She didn't, for example, have an "intellectual disability," so there was something to be grateful for.


I've always thought that we shouldn't be happy to not be another, we should be happy to simply be who we are. I know that's simplistic, but it really is my world view. I don't spend a lot of time thinking about the fact that I'm in the middle of the disability stack and that there are those worse off than me so I've got it pretty damn good. In fact, until writing this I don't really know where I am in the disability stack - so I'm guessing 'middling.'

Too me, I'd think people who are judged because of difference should be wary of valuing difference differently. If we can't see those in our home communities as all having value, how can anyone else? I remember in the gay male community when 'straight appearing' was valued and 'gay appearing' was not. The more you were like the oppressor, the more we believed acceptance would flow. Oddly, it was the frilly edge of the gay community that sparked the Stonewall riots that lead to the civil liberties movement as we now know it.

It would be nice if we could have a community that didn't buy into the 'not as good as that one but, thankfully, not as bad as that one' attitude. I want to be grateful for living my life ... period. I don't want to be grateful because I'm not living someone else's life. I'm bound and determined that I'm not going to wish away my life - wishing to be someone else; and I'm not going to believe that what I've got makes me more worthy or more valued than someone else.

I remember doing some training with teens with disabilities about abuse prevention. A fellow with Down Syndrome, maybe 12, said, "You can think fast and I can run fast, neat huh?" And yes, it is.

We both have.

We both do.

What we have and what we do are different.

But then so are we.

Different but equal.

Maybe one day we can together topple over the disability stack ...


Utter Randomness said...

But where do the physically disabled who are not also wheelchair users fit in? I'm often told that I am a "lesser disabled" by which I'm sure they mean that I have less disabilities than someone who uses a wheelchair. This may or may not be true. I, personally, would be less disabled if I had a wheelchair, because I would have more spoons available for each day due to not walking on my increasingly sore leg. I often hear that accessibility isn't for people like me, that if it works for people who use wheelchairs, it's good enough on one side and that it isn't good enough for wheelchair users, so they should make it perfect for us before your needs are considered on the other. Hierarchies within communities are so dangerous, as are hierarchies in general. They can be incredibly poisonous. They keep some people from accessing the services they need because "others have it worse". I am also often told that people with Asperger's Syndrome should stop pretending to have autism because they are taking services away from people who are worse off. The struggles of people who aren't the worst off get swept so completely under the rug, and it's even worse when it happens from within a community, particularly one with scarce resources. It's the same in the LGBTQ community, as Dave mentioned, although, it does go further than that. White, gay cisgender males are at the top of the totem pole, which can cause a difference in the provision of services and the decision making process on which issues should be dealt with first.

Thank you Dave for bringing up this very important issue. I have tried to write about it on my blog as well, but I haven't been able to articulate it as well as you have.

Feminist Avatar said...

I think part of the 'be grateful' rhetoric is also about recognising privilege. It's been a fairly fundamental part of many civil rights movements that people with privilege need to recognise that they have it and so give consideration to those that don't, with the aim of creating an equal society. But you're absolutely right that when this becomes expressed as being grateful that your not x, this is no longer about equality and instead affirms the hierarchy that is meant to be toppled.

Anonymous said...

I guess I don't feel as strongly about hierarchy - it is a necessity in a society. Not to have others below you but to have leaders and people of responsibility. Think of doctors - do you want your surgery done by the first year student or a graduate? I think it is the misuse of power that is scary.

As to your other point - I'm so "there". A few family members tend to throw the "you should be thankful that you are not as bad as _______ (fill name here." Or, "be thankful it is not worse". I find that so demeaning. It is like my struggle is nothing. Like I am not allowed to be sad or discouraged. As if I should be overjoyed at waking each morning and taking on this huge mantel of pain and effort. I am not someone else - I am me.

I loved Dave's statement: "I've always thought that we shouldn't be happy to not be another, we should be happy to simply be who we are." AMEN.

Anonymous said...


this post reminded me of your post "Dave unplugged" which I had to share with my therapist. You were telling about the times when communicating without spending too much personal information was necessary to not be too vulnerable.

I then realized how lucky I was that I had a disability that wasnt in a way a tabu because it is congenital and not "aquired" through some kind of influencable risk factor or could have been prevented through a prenatal test.
(This sentence is a thought and nothing I wish to get to be common... it doesnt say that I think there should be a prenatal test to sort out...)

I do not feel privileged because I have an invisible disability but I feel privileged not to have to suffer to much pain. I feel priviliged because I live in a system where my medical needs are helped without me getting into financial problems.

But yes in my job there is a hirarchy and I am sometimes out of energy or help at my work place and it is hard for me to find the right arguments if something is going th wrong direction workwise, because I am often missing days because I am ill or can not keep up with other peoples work pace. And its hard to get others to understand this situation in a world where money and numbers seem to be the only thing that count even in a social/medical work setting like the one I am working in.
I do not know how to change that in a worl that i s getting faster and faster and more expensive by the second.

I think that this gets into another kind of hierarchy.


Baba Yaga said...

All I can do is applaud. I firmly believe hierarchies are toxic.

(Anon.: yea, people use expertise as the justification for hierarchy. But they really aren't synonyms. Hierarchy allows the surgeon to tell the nurse what to do, even though her nursing expertise is greater than his. Position becomes the basis of authority, not expertise or good judgement or reason.)

If all one has to be grateful for is what one isn't 'suffering', for not being as one perceives some other to be, one hasn't much to be grateful for.

On the other hand, if the rest of the world is above us losers (not putting you in that category, Dave, or anyone else - if I actually thought it a valid category, I probably wouldn't be so wickedly willing to put myself in it), we're below, and that means that I can see your underwear from here.

There's nothing like seeking to place oneself above others for giving an inadvertent glimpse of saggy knicker.

Louna said...

"There's nothing like seeking to place oneself above others for giving an inadvertent glimpse of saggy knicker." Baba Yaga, I love that sentence!

And Dave, yes, the hierarchies within groups that are discriminated against are way too common. People with physical disabilities are higher up than people with mental or intellectual disabilities, gay people who pass as straight are higher than those who don't... I don't know much about black people today, but in Toni Morrison's novels, those with lighter skin are higher than those with darker skin. And things get more complicated when these categories interact...

These hierarchies are dangerous. They keep us from fighting together, and they make the lives of those at the bottom even more difficult. We need solidarity!

And still, sometimes I find myself thankful that I can manage some stairs and thus have access to many parts of my university that would otherwise be inaccessible. But the problem here is the university (as more and more buildings are renovated or replaced, it's getting better).

Anonymous said...

I love that you call it ‘the frilly edge’. Shifting power and privilege to the frilly edge enables powerful gains for the core as well as the margins. So it makes sense for all of us in the category to cohere, reach out to each other, embrace one ness as well as acknowledging, respecting, making space for diversity.
Is it a centripetal (thrown out to the margins like a spinning fairground ride) or centrifugal (rushing inwards like water down the plughole) force that each of us is creating?
To me it is without doubt that hierachising is a fragmenting force. But what is it that brings us together, creates solidarity from the many diverse parts without eliding difference and making a solid block?

Kristine said...

Amen! The gratitude thing rubbed me the wrong way even before I started putting it in a disability context. I remember being a kid, and hearing sentiments about how, "You should be happy that you have __________; other kids don't have food/homes/toys/schools/etc." And I was mystified at how that was supposed to make me happy! Sure, I enjoy my fortunes, but I don't enjoy them more because of someone else's misfortunes. Gratitude tastes sweet, but that added layer of guilt is bitter...

Then I started wrapping my head around the idea that other people use me to help them feel better about themselves and their physical abilities... And that REALLY rubbed me the wrong way! I don't want their pity, and I don't appreciate their relief that "No matter how bad things get, at least I'm not in a wheelchair like that poor girl!" It's so degrading. Why would somebody be so terrified at the idea of being me? My life is rich and complex and beautiful, just like everyone else's, and I'm glad it's mine. You, who are so grateful to not be me, do you realize that I wouldn't trade lives with you either?

I always knew, but finally came to consciously recognize, that the same phenomenon takes place within our community, and that might be the worst of all. We get very concerned about who's more/less disabled (based on our own perceptions), and asserting our place in the hierarchy. With those who are "more disabled," we try hard not to associate ourselves. And for the "less disabled," well, they don't even understand what disability is REALLY like. So with these attitudes, piled on top of the reality that there is a LOT of variance between disabilities, we end up weakening our own community, increasing all of our own feelings of isolation.

Similar dynamics definitely play out in other communities. It's true in communities of color. Turn on your tv to a Spanish channel, and check out the skin pigmentation. They're all Latino, but every one of them has super fair skin, and could easily "pass" for Caucasian.

They say that women who make it to the top in positions of power, do it by adopting stereotypically male characteristics, traits, and styles.

I feel like it circles back to the recent conversation about how the disabled who shine in the spotlight, are those who "overcome their disability," whatever that's supposed to mean. But I don't want to value people based on how close they are to "the norm." And I don't want to base my own value on my perceptions of anyone else. Value should be more individual and inherent than that.

(Sorry for the ramble... :)

wheeliecrone said...

One of the most useful things my parents ever taught me was this: Different does not mean better or worse. Different means different.
For me, there is no disability stack. There is just us. Us human beings. Some of us have bits that don't work. There you go.