Check Yourself: Discussing Privilege

A scene from “I Can Shine” bike camp.

When Carol Becker posted on The Privilege of the Minneapolis Comprehensive Plan, I disagreed with most of her points but I still came away with one central theme. It is clear that board member Becker does not see herself reflected in the Minneapolis Comprehensive Plan draft, its influences and consequences on her life are glossed over. She identifies a shortcoming with the plan, in not reflecting everyone in Minneapolis, but she then argues this to be a larger matter than it is by simplifying and assuming all persons with a disability have a disability similar to her own. This is a common mistake, we normalize our own experiences and work to make the world better for ourselves, and even when we advocate for justice it is hard for us to recognize and fight the injustices we benefit from. To illustrate this thought I will be using board member Becker’s post, but first let me share a story.

I am the youngest of three boys, and my middle brother has Down Syndrome. He’s looked up to our oldest brother and resented me. After all, he was supposed to be the older brother to me, but because of his disability I began hitting milestones before him. I always made him feel different, made him feel excluded, and made him recognize what he would never be able to do.  When I got my driver’s license he was silent for a month. Not a single word, not to family, not to friends he saw, nothing.  Finally, after a month, crying, he said to my mother, “Joey drive.”

In Becker’s post she says:

I am 54 years old.  I have arthritis and will probably have to have my left knee replaced.  Depending on whether I have a flare-up, I often limp. I have other medical issues. About 10% of the folks under age 65 have disabilities that affect their mobility.  And about a third of the City is over the age of 45, that point when waking up in the morning starts to hurt. Most of these people need a car to live.

In this paragraph she takes two groups of people who have extremely varied perspectives on life and abilities, and assumed them to be mostly similar to herself in their mobility needs, their bodies, and their preferences. Now, board member Becker’s data is true: 8.8% of Minneapolitans are disabled according to the 2012-2016 American Communities Survey. The issue is that these persons with disabilities include more than the ambulatory disabled described in her post. From the census definitions –

In an attempt to capture a variety of characteristics that encompass the definition of disability, the ACS identifies serious difficulty with four basic areas of functioning – hearing, vision, cognition, and ambulation. These functional limitations are supplemented by questions about difficulties with selected activities from the Katz Activities of Daily Living (ADL) and Lawton Instrumental Activities of Daily Living (IADL) scales, namely difficulty bathing and dressing, and difficulty performing errands such as shopping. Overall, the ACE attempts to capture six aspects of disability; (hearing, vision, cognition, ambulatory, self-care, and independent living); which can be used together to create an overall disability measure, or independently to identify populations with specific disability types.

Boardmember Becker cites 10% of the population as disabled with most requiring vehicles to get around, but you cannot seriously consider the blind (2% nationally) to be reliant on personal vehicles, and persons with cognitive disabilities (4.5% nationally) usually cannot drive themselves to work either. And while a direct comparison is impossible with these data, it is clear that 8.8% of working age Minneapolitans are not reliant on their vehicles due to their disabilities.

My brother (and many others with disabilities) will never be able to drive, but with help from local organizations and my dad’s obsession with cycling, he no longer has to ride on the tandem and enjoys riding his own tricycle, blue. He can saunter a few blocks, fewer when he is with friends who are often less able bodied than he is, but they always use lights to cross any street with more than 2 lanes (and even some busier 2 lane roads too). My brother will never be able to enjoy the amazing privilege I have of being able to drive, and is constrained by our cities’ designs and layouts of transportation systems, specifically infrastructure for personal motor vehicles.

In Becker’s piece she ends up using persons who cannot drive to advocate for her own needs, even if her solution would be detrimental to those very people. We all struggle to see the privilege we have, how the system is arranged for us (see comments relating to hygiene and gender in the comments of Becker’s post), and we all normalize our life experience. This is part of the struggle of working in an imperfect world, but we have to continue to try to see our privilege and work for better systems for everyone. It might be shifting lanes to accommodate accessible parking spaces, it might be implementing full size bike lanes so tricycles can fit, it might be fighting so roadwork includes all ADA upgrades, it might be accepting slower driving speeds to make walking and bicycling more accessible, and it might be at least acknowledging that vehicle road space in Minneapolis, and on-street parking are public resources that might become more scarce in a world designed by the current comprehensive plan draft.

Joseph Totten

About Joseph Totten

Joe is a graduate of Civil Engineering-Transportation and Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota, and has a masters degree from Portland State University. Born and raised in Saint Paul, Joe has worked with nonprofits and public agencies in MSP and Portland.