This is actually something I wrote a year-and-a-half ago, but I think it’s still relevant today. I would also add the caveat that thinking only in terms of what one cannot do is not a healthy endeavor. It can be empowering to think about changes in privilege and perspective resulting from major life events. It can be even more empowering to see how many of those glass ceilings you can bust wide open.


A few years ago, I encountered Peggy McIntosh’s piece, “White Privilege:  Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”  In it, she talks about race, racism, and privilege in a way that was unfamiliar and eye-opening for me.  She states that, “As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage….White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools , and blank checks.”  She created a list of fifty privileges she had as a white person that people of color do not.  Her work inspired me to look at racism and my own privilege in new ways, and ask new and difficult questions of myself.  How do I contribute to racism?  How can I share or give up some of my privileges?  Am I unintentionally oppressing others in my everyday encounters?  I haven’t come up with concrete solutions on an institutional scale, but I hope that I have been able to change some of my everyday actions in a way that challenges white privilege.  I hope that, in the process, I’ve become a better ally, not just to people with a different skin color, but to people who are different from me in general.

I also have an invisible difference.  [Four] years ago, I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia.  Fibromyalgia is a Rheumatoid “syndrome,” or collection of symptoms.  Doctors don’t know what causes it, and diagnosing it can be difficult.  Its main symptoms are pain and fatigue.  Until the 1980’s, medical professionals did not even have a classification for Fibromyalgia.  Fibromyalgia primarily affects women; women with Fibromyalgia were discounted as being “hysterical” or prone to exaggeration.  Being diagnosed with Fibromyalgia drastically changed my life and led to a loss of privilege. I began to think of all the assumptions I’d held about people in wheelchairs, or the health classes I had dozed through in high school when they talked about chronic illnesses.

Disability status is something that can change, as race cannot.  It is also more easy to ignore, as many chronic illnesses are invisible.  In most cases, you cannot look at someone and see that he/she/ze has HIV, or Fibromyalgia, or Heart Disease.  At least in my case, when I was able-bodied I went through the world completely unaware of the ability privileges I held.  I have found that it’s often difficult to communicate with people who have never experienced disability before, either through their own ability level or a close relationship with a friend or loved one with a disability.  I find myself playing “educator” a lot, a role which can get tiring rather quickly, especially when you are already dealing with fatigue.

At the suggestion of a friend, I decided to write something modeled after Peggy McIntosh’s work.  In the following list, I write about “everyday” privileges I used to have as an able-bodied person.  I use the present tense, to make it more relevant and accessible for people who currently have able-bodied privilege.  Although I have co-morbid illnesses along with Fibromyalgia, I decided to focus on that illness in particular.  In addition, it should be noted that my experiences are not the same as every other “disabled” person, or even every other person with Fibromyalgia.  However, I do believe they share common elements, even if the specifics are not the same.  My hope is that people will find new insight into their own assumptions about their invisible knapsack of ability privilege, just as Peggy McIntosh helped me realize new things about white privilege.

  1. I can wear whatever clothes I want, without worrying that wearing them or putting them on might hurt my body in some way.
  2. I do not have to remember to take medication, or suffer the consequences of forgetting.
  3. I do not have to worry about the side effects of my medication.
  4. I have never had four doctor’s appointments in one week.
  5. I have “sick days” instead of sick months.
  6. I do not have to “out” myself as a disabled person, or worry that people will treat me differently because I am disabled.
  7. I am able to drive myself places when I want, without worrying that I’ll get too tired to drive myself back.
  8. I can go to school full time, if I wanted to.
  9. I can have a glass of wine or a bottle of beer if I wanted.
  10. No one has ever ended a budding friendship because they were afraid of my illnesses.
  11. I do not have to remember to refill prescriptions.
  12. I can make a time commitment, without having to worry that I may be too tired or in pain to go that day.
  13. I can eat the foods I want, because they will not inflame my digestive tract.
  14. I do not have to worry whether or not to tell a potential employer that I have a disability (even though it would be against the law to discriminate against me).
  15. I have never felt ashamed of being unable to do something that it is physically impossible for me to do.
  16. I am confident that insurance companies will give me insurance.
  17. I am not afraid to have children, because I do not have a chronic illness they might inherit.
  18. I can take a written examination without worrying that I may be unable to use my  hands for the next three days.
  19. I can go to a restaurant I like without worrying that the seating will cause pain that will last for more than a day.
  20. I can remember what it feels like to be pain-free, because I am pain-free most of the time.
  21. I can go to the movies or watch television and not worry about where I sit.  Sitting at an angle will not make it difficult to turn my neck for over a day.
  22. I can go to my graduation without worrying that sitting through it might cause pain that lasts for over a day.
  23. I can ride in a car without wincing every time I go over a bump in the road.
  24. I never run out of room on the medical history forms that I get at the doctor’s office.
  25. I can buy the economy sized laundry detergent, because I’m able to pour it.
  26. I am able to get my laundry to the laundry room and transfer loads without assistance.
  27. I have never had so much pain that the vibration from someone closing a door hurts.
  28. I can write with the first pen I pick up, without it hurting my hand.
  29. I do not have to make careful choices about how much I do in a day, or spend days recovering from doing too much.
  30. I can ride in the backseat of a car.
  31. I can go on road trips that are more than three hours away.
  32. I never need help dressing or undressing.
  33. I have never had people look at me strangely for using a handicapped permit.
  34. I can drive whatever car is available to me, because an uncomfortable one will not leave me in pain for more than a day.
  35. I can go on trips without needing someone else to carry my luggage.
  36. I never have to remind people that I’m unable to do something that they consider simple and everyday, or feel embarrassed doing so.
  37. I never worry that I’ll lose my insurance and be unable to pay for medication that would cost over $200 a week out-of-pocket.
  38. I have never gained 100 lbs. as a side effect of my medications.
  39. Forgetting a doctor’s appointment is okay, because I have no medications that depend on me seeing a doctor at a particular time.
  40. I can function without taking medication.
  41. If absolutely necessary, I could pull an all-nighter.
  42. I am able to be financially independent.
  43. My hands are not swollen too much to wear rings.
  44. I do not have to carry spare medication with me.
  45. I can eat grapefruit (which interferes with the effectiveness of prescription medications.)
  46. I’ve never been in pain for over a day from reaching behind me to pick something up.
  47. I never worry that my significant other spends too much time taking care of me and my physical needs.
  48. If someone asks me when I’m going to graduate, I can give a definite answer.
  49. I have never had a doctor tell me that my test results show there is nothing wrong, when in fact I have a chronic illness that cannot be diagnosed by blood work, EKG’s, X-rays, etc.
  50. My parents do not worry about whether I can support myself financially if they die.

Edit: An addition by a friend:

51. I can read a book that really excites me in one sitting without my hands tiring out before my eyes do or hurting for the next few days.