May 20

Where We are on the Diversity Spectrum can Affect How We See the World (Series 7 of 8)


Where we find ourselves on the diversity spectrum, regardless of the specific characteristic, has an impact on how we see and interpret the world around us. When we find ourselves advantaged by a certain characteristic; as my being fully able-bodied, we are less likely to be conscious of that characteristic. We simply take it for granted. Those who have characteristics that come with societal barriers are much more likely to be conscious of that characteristic. Those less able bodied are reminded almost daily of their difference as they navigate in a society designed for those who are fully able-bodied.

Having to struggle with societal barriers around a given characteristic often results in a sense of shared identity. Those not fully able-bodied share a common set of problems and experiences. As a result, they are more conscious of themselves as part of a group that distinguishes them. Not having to struggle or attend to societal barriers due to a certain characteristic makes it less likely that we will feel any connection to others based on that characteristic. I do not recognize myself as part of an abled bodied group, nor have I consciously seen myself as part of a group simply because I am white.

This difference in perspective, based on whether a diversity characteristic comes with advantages or barriers, also impacts how we may view issues and problems. Those of us not experiencing barriers tend to focus on the specifics of a diversity issue and often attempt to explain or justify why, in this instance, it may be justified or, at least, understandable. Those who experience barriers are more likely to speak to the larger pattern of barriers and are less willing to accept this as a unique circumstance.

For example, there is a restaurant in my town with no handicapped access. When asked about this, the owner was quick to explain that the building was designated as a historic building and exempt from the access rules. This explanation satisfied me but my guest who had a handicapped child, was quick to point out that this was the third building she had been in today that her child would not be able to enter. She saw this as a pattern, I saw it as a logical explanation.

I pointed out that the owner was a wonderful person, very caring, and would never consciously discriminate. In other words, I focused on his intent. She was quick to point out that it is the impact on her son, not someone’s intention, that matters most to her.

Similarly, whether or not we experience barriers around a diversity characteristic can also affect our perception of progress and time. While I was quick to point out that there were many buildings in our town that had made accommodations over the past ten years, my friend looked at me and asked “so, just how long will my son have to wait?”. As someone not experiencing the barriers, I was focused on the progress made. She was expressing her frustration with what remains to be done.

These differences in our perspective based on our personal experience of barriers often plays out as we attempt to wrestle with the dynamics of diversity. I have found that, especially when dealing with a diversity issue that I have not had to personally struggle with, it is best to be curious, listen, and learn.

Series 7 of 8