Ableism and The Rise of Disability Worker Inspiration Porn

Liz Kessler

It’s as if I’ve gone from an absurdly cold day to a near-perfect day (which I discovered in my Earth Science course is about 63 degrees). The last article I responded to and reviewed was nigh-dreadful but this one is almost perfect. There’s a few minor nitpicks I have but overall this is probably one of the better articles I’ve shared on here in some time.

Liz Kessler has an excellent post about why productivity is not the answer: unpacking the hierarchy of disability advocacy. I was tempted to title this a few different things including why productivity is never the answer but honestly I enjoy being productive as a general rule, I just don’t like it when I’m under the thumb of someone else. (That’s gotta be a huge thumb, right?)

Koestler’s article is smart, incisive and well-written and I mostly have positive things to say about it. Some of the article only has tangential relation to anti-work rhetoric but other passages are dead on, which you might expect given the fantastic title, so let’s get to it!

…I get tired of seeing media making a big deal out of the idea of people with disabilities doing normal things … Inclusive hiring practices shouldn’t be news.

But secondly, because it represents a form of disability activism that is inherently problematic and oppressive. The strategy of Amy Wright — the able-bodied founder of the coffee shop — is essentially to say “look, these people can work, therefore they have value!”

This is something that has frustrated me as well. Whenever I see visibly disabled people at stores there is a sense of discomfort for me. I think this is internalized ableism on my part as an autistic person who “passes” pretty well as neurotypical these days. But it also comes down to how they’re treated. Are they just props to the store? How much are they included in the activities of the store if they were able to have a social event right now?

Do they put the disabled person in front of the photo and leave it at that? Or is that person actively given support structures and assistance from their fellow workers and (even I don’t want them to exist) their managers? There’s a lot of nice sounding rhetoric around disabled folks in the workplace, including the kind of inspiration porn that Kessler is calling attention to here.

It gets so exhausting to see capitalists “cheering” for the disabled people…but only when they produce with their disabled bodies. Kessler is right to point out that the supposed “value” these news stories have isn’t heartwarming at all, in fact it’s just another sign of a dystopian world we live in. One where differences are only celebrated when they benefit those at top and not necessarily the people who themselves are working and trying to live their best lives.

But as Kessler adds:

To be clear, I’m not opposed to disabled people being in the workforce.

I am a disabled person who works for pay, and I know that the reality is that for many people with disabilities, discrimination in the workforce (and in education) is what stands between them and having agency over their lives.

Without waged work, disabled people are usually dependent … for survival. Usually that means limited access to financial resources. Even when one’s family has resources to spare, not “contributing” to the household frequently means not being able to make all of one’s own decisions.

There is an exciting element for people who are disabled and are now able to pay for things they want. There is social power and capital and being able to say that you hold a job and help pay for your own finances. It can be a good self-esteem boost, a way to make friends, an easy way to meet people and experience new things. But these things can just as easily turn on them.

You can start to think you aren’t really disabled because you have a job and worry about how other disabled people are suffering and how you get to thrive. How is that right? Or if you are visibly or notably disabled in some way you may be harassed by customers or even worse, a co-worker or boss. Ableism doesn’t magically go away once you get a job and can even intensify with you becoming more “integrated” into what society says is an important facet of our lives.

And that sucks! Jobs should be empowering for people and make them feel safe, rewarded and be a great place to socialize and learn more about their local community. Instead, it can become a festering hotspot of ableism and inspiration porn, sponsored by capitalism, of course. That doesn’t mean, as Kessler points out, that when disabled folks get jobs it doesn’t matter. But that, instead, we should be suspicious of narratives that say this is (even in part) what gives those folks their meaning, their value. You are not your productivity and especially in service of capital!

(This is not even to mention the fact that in this form of attention, often the disabled people are treated as having little agency, while the able-bodied person is treated as a hero because they believe in something basic like inclusive hiring practices. This is particularly obvious in the CNN coverage of Bitty and Beau’s)

Oh heck this. This is another part that frustrates me and something I alluded to earlier. Sometimes the store owner hires a disabled person for show, puts them on some pictures and calls it a day on being an ally. But heads up folks! That’s not being an ally to disabled folks! Being an ally is a consistent practice and doesn’t end once you do the bare minimum.

To be honest, your responsibility to others only starts there and has much further to go before disabled folks (or any marginalized group) should take your words seriously. Actions matter too and they arguably matter a heck of a lot more than some rhetoric about how “employable” you feel disabled folks can be. Well that’s great but what about how creative? What about how caring or intelligent? What about their beauty or their grace? There’s so much to any individual and reducing them down to how much money they can make for capitalism is Not It.

And then Kessler begins to get to one of the biggest problems with this rhetoric:

This message erases the fact that many disabled people cannot work at all. Are those people valuable? Are they worth supporting? When mainstream discourse about disability is completely focused on value based on employability, the implication is that people who are “unproductive” are not valuable and not worth our time, resources or inclusion in society.

I’m fortunate that I can maintain a part-time job but even aside from philosophical issues with work I just could not do a full time job. My part-time job, as easy as it can be at times, still burns me out and leaves me in a bad mood. And that has been especially true as of late because I’ve been working overnight shifts and it’s been killing my sleep schedule. I’ve been struggling with sleep the past week off and on and having to take occasional naps, not always by choice!

And I’m also lucky that my workplace isn’t particular transphobic or just that some folks don’t know or don’t care. It’s not a particularly great thing to be misgendered but I don’t have the energy to constantly correct people when living is hard enough some days. And yet my transgender identity doesn’t become less valid because I don’t always self-advocate. And the same goes for disabled folks who can’t always work or some who can’t work at all.

This rhetoric is so dangerous because it implies that our value comes from working and that without work we are somehow less than what we would be otherwise. If we aren’t producing commodities for the economy and making the ruling class happy, are we really living?

Yes! A thousand times yes! We can be painting, sewing, knitting, making music, playing video games, going for walks, learning, studying, loving each other, talking our feelings out, watching movies, reading books, meditating, sleeping, living our lives to the fullest!

As Marx said:

[A communist] society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

Your value doesn’t need to be solely determined by your main activity in life. The person fishing has as much value as they did the day before, even if they do not catch a single fish. Providing for their family may be important but not catching anything does not make them a failure as a human being. Maybe it speaks poorly of their fishing skills, but that’s a separate matter.

For disabled people being defined by what they can do is inherently abelist. It discriminates against people because of their abilities, their muscle strength and diminishes any value that people can show when they take care of themselves or aren’t working in any traditional sense.

And ableism doesn’t just harm disabled folks, though that’s the most important part, it also diminishes anyone who doesn’t work. Folks who are old, folks who can’t work because they need to take care of a family member, people who are sick themselves, etc. And it makes those same groups of people feel badly about themselves, as if they aren’t real people.

This is similar for how transphobia can harm gender non-conforming lesbians who are so butch they can pass for men at times. It’s similar to how racism and sexism does not just harm the people it is directed at, systematic racism and sexism means that the system is wrong and the problems are therefore widespread and can harm many, not just those intentionally targeted.

Here’s another excellent point by Kessler:

Autistics and their allies have succeeded in putting forward a narrative that there are many benefits to being autistic that make autistics particularly valuable to employers.

While there is value in understanding autism, some go even further and argue that because of these benefits, autism is therefore should not be considered a disability but only a “difference” (when in fact it is both a difference and a disability). This argument effectively throws other disabled people under the bus. It says, “disabled people are scary, but we’re not disabled.”

I used to also be guilty of this issue myself. Not necessarily the employment part but the issue of thinking that calling disability a “difference” somehow helps. No, it just hides and malforms the people  who I thought I was protecting by changing my language. I myself am not sure if I am disabled or not, but regardless I am autistic and I know that for a fact. If that makes me disabled in some way (especially neurologically) then so be it, there’s no shame in it. And there’s no pride in it just because capitalism could profit from my Linux brain when most are running Windows.

Kessler sums up what it’s all about well:

Instead of arguing that we are more valuable because we can work, we should be arguing that all humans, including disabled humans, are valuable regardless of whether they can work or not. Instead of arguing that things like ADHD, autism or deafness are not disabilities, we should be arguing that disability is not something to be afraid of but simply a part of human diversity that needs to be considered.

I could keep quoting this excellent article or y’all could just go read it, so just do that.

Please support the protesters in Minneapolis!

Black Lives Matter!