Recently I have been struck by the profoundly embedded nature of certain –isms.
Most people would agree that, in the professional world – the glass ceiling, wage differentials and the occasional sexual harassment lawsuit not withstanding – sexism is a phenomenon that rarely rears its ugly head. ;-)
Seriously, most women would probably agree that their male colleagues don’t apparently treat them any differently because they are women. Their professional opinion and expertise are respected. Their voice is heard and considered. They are not (obviously) leered at. Most men would spontaneously agree that they see no difference in ability and potential contribution between their male and female colleagues.
Similarly, most people would agree that differently abled people are not sufficiently catered for by society. When our privilege is pointed out to us, we feel ashamed and we agree that more should be done. We even vow to try and be more inclusive ourselves, to think about the difficulties that the blind person, the deaf person or the wheelchair-user confront daily.
Yet, those are conscious thoughts. Reasoned reflections. They are not knee-jerk reactions conditioned into us. The reality is very different.
I was recently involved in organising a professional networking event, including presentations and a cocktail buffet. Each person on the organising committee (the gender split was 50/50) contributed according to her/his abilities.
However, come the night of the actual event, who poured the drinks and handed round the nibbles? Who kept an eye out to make sure everyone had whatever they needed in terms of sustenance? Yep. The women.
Now, to be fair, I’d say that women are probably simply more likely to think about these things. It’s like the last toilet roll being an automatic trigger for us. How much this is due to gender genetics and how much to how we were brought up is moot. But I’m not letting my male co-volunteers off the hook. They have eyes, don’t they? They see us serving and it doesn’t occur to them to lend a hand? And my female co-volunteers? No, it didn’t occur to them either that all the people serving were women, until of course I pointed it out.
And I intend to point it out more vociferously at the next meeting because, while I was pouring wine in anticipation of the end of the presentation, I wasn’t able to give that particular talk my attention. While I was handing round canapés, I wasn’t able to network properly and, indeed, I was casting myself in a non-professional light.
Think about it.
Think also on this story my eight-year-old told me: a fellow student recently broke his leg and has a cast. He now has to walk at the back of the line, because he takes more time getting up the stairs to the classroom on the fourth floor and the other kids can’t be held up.
In addition, my child has just learnt that she will need glasses. She informs me that she will not wear them for gym because glasses are not allowed in gym class.
What do these attitudes teach my child and her classmates about solidarity towards differently abled people? What do they teach the differently abled children (whether their difference in ability is permanent or temporary)? Ah yes. Leave behind those who are weaker. Let them deal with their own problems. The only thing that counts is that the majority get to carry on doing the things they’ve always done, the way they’ve always done them.
Harrowing, isn’t it?