You would think that being disabled would be the worst part of being disabled, but it’s really not. Being disabled is the most painful part, the most exhausting part, the most depressing part and the most tedious… but it’s not the worst. The worst is other people and how they treat you (or refuse to treat you, as the circumstance may be).
It is virtually impossible to go through a single day without being negatively impacted by the attitudes that society holds towards the disabled. Even if the impact of those negative attitudes is as (allegedly) benign as neglect.
I am disabled because society disables me. (Social Model of Disability)
I have disabilities, and I choose to claim ‘disabled’ as part of my identity, but the reality is that it is society that de-values me and places obstacles in my way which cause me to be handicapped. When I visit an office building or a friend’s apartment and there is no elevator, it is the lack of an elevator that causes me difficulty, not my mobility issues. Because if it had an elevator, those same mobility issues wouldn’t hinder me. Everyone appreciates elevators, whether they have mobility issues or not. They may make the choice to take the stairs, but that is still a choice. The difference for someone with extreme mobility issues is that it leaves them with no choice.
When people balk at accommodations, the elevator is the first example I always bring up. We all appreciate accommodations that make our lives easier, or quicker, or more comfortable. We just don’t always think of them as accommodations.
Public transit is an accommodation for people who cannot afford a car (and is subsidized by municipal government). Grocery carts are an accommodation for those who cannot carry all their groceries in their arms (and are provided free of charge by the store). There are countless further examples, but the point is that everyone, whether they consider themselves disabled or not, has received an accommodation or subsidy in some form throughout their lives. It has made their lives easier, and it is unlikely they’ve ever felt (or been made to feel) guilty about it.
So why is it that the disabled constantly has to justify or apologize for the accommodations which will (at most) equalize the quality of their lives? Why is it that, as a disabled person, I am deemed to have less value than a non-disabled person.
Because I don’t work. (Capitalism and Work Ethic)
Oh Capitalism, this is your fault. Thanks to capitalism, we live in a society where we equate (hard) work with personal value. If you have nothing to contribute financially (because money = value), then you are worthless. Worthless people don’t deserve accommodation. Worthless people certainly don’t deserve charity or financial support, because you need to work to earn money (so again, no work = no money).
Because I am different. (Normalization and Social Role Valorization Theory)
Normal is good. Normal people are those who work, those who are able-bodied, those who do not suffer from mental illness, etc. Being different in any way means that you have less value. Having less value because you are not normal means that you are not worthy of the things that normal people have.
Society uses both of these reasons to not only justify crippling me and other disabled persons, but also as a means to regulate our lives. Social Darwinists cite biological imperative and ‘survival of the fittest’ as excuses to justify segregation and refusal of accommodations or support. Any increases in social services, charity or assistance that do occur tend to be accompanied by an increase in the regulation of disabled persons’ bodies and lives. We are treated like children, forced to beg for financial assistance, account for how we manage our meagre finances, and repeatedly prove our disability. We are perpetually reminded of the burden we represent (and asked to push ourselves to our limits to ‘do our bit.’). We are an itemized list of our disabilities; our other characteristics and talents irrelevant. Disabled people, as non-workers, do not merit a separate identity.
If I worked, even a little, I would have value. (Marxism)
Marxism at least allowed for the fact that disabled people had value even if the output they produced wasn’t equal to the purported ‘norm.’ Marxists saw that work wasn’t a value to be solely idealized on its own, but rather as a means of self-actualization. While this certainly helps justify the inclusion of subsidized work programs within disability support for those who want them, it leaves those who are unable to work without perceived value.
If I can’t work, do I still have value as a human being? I certainly think so.
First of all, I challenge the idea that I don’t work. Everyone works, whether in the traditional sense of earning a salary, or through the performance of labour in other ways. I perform household chores (my partner and I divide the labour such that we can each complete jobs according to our abilities and strengths, like any other couple). I complete the (seemingly endless) list of tasks that are required due to my illnesses and disorders: doctor’s appointments, physiotherapy, medical tests and treatments, blood draws, prescription refills and pill-dispensing. I parent. I do volunteer work. I engage in social activism. I write. All of these things are tempered by my physical and mental abilities — as are all forms of work, for all people. A doctor cannot perform the task of an engineer, and vice versa. That makes neither of them less valuable in their own work, it only reflects a limitation in their abilities.
As for having value separate from work: There are a multitude of reasons why we value the people around us. In terms of people who are not wage earners (beyond the disabled), that includes children, senior citizens, stay-at-home parents, spouses without work visas, students, and more. All of these people contribute to our lives in ways that are not financial, but still have value. Even when we speak of people who are wage earners, when we describe their importance to us, their professions are unlikely to be the first thing that we cite as valuable, but rather their characteristics and what it is that they bring to our lives and the lives of others. A teacher isn’t valuable only because they teach — they are valuable if they connect with their students and create a safe space to learn.
Disabled people are obviously no different than any abled-bodied person in that way: We all possess characteristics that bring value to the lives of those around us. We can be creative, funny, sexy, supportive and clever. We can be nurturing, and we can be nurtured.
The problem with a society that equates value with the ability to work is that it ignores the individual and ends up hurting not only the disabled, but everyone. It is why we have a class system, with one individual being worth more than another solely based on the (sometimes random and unfair) distribution of wealth. Which makes everyone vulnerable to losing their value, whether temporarily or permanently.
When that happens, you could ask a disabled person what that’s like. We’re valuable for stuff like that.