Productivity is not the answer: unpacking the hierarchy of disabililty advocacy

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Late last year, Bitty and Beau’s coffee shop in Wilmington, North Carolina got its 15 minutes of fame. The shop — managed by neurotypicals — specifically hires  developmentally disabled people in order to prove to customers that disabled people are good employees and to advocate that they should be hired.

The Facebook algorithm showed me the news item a couple of times. Each time, I got more and more annoyed.

First, because I get tired of seeing media making a big deal out of the idea of people with disabilities doing normal things, like getting engaged or getting jobs. 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!”

The attention being given to Bitty and Beau’s is part of a trend. A bakery on Vancouver Island made the news last year for similar reasons. In the last couple of years articles about the employability of disabled people, and particularly autistic people (more on that later) have abounded. This and this and this are just a few examples.

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 either on the state, their parents or their partners 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.

So I understand why getting jobs for disabled people is important.

What’s scary is that the journalistic (if we can call it that) trend of promoting disabled people as good workers has somewhat taken over the mainstream discourse around disability.

Disabled people face a multitude of different systemic issues that we talk about all the time. We want talk about accessibility and about barriers. We want to talk about police killings and other forms of violence that are used against us. We want to talk about bigotry and attitudes that hold us back. There are a million different topics that matter to us.

But the only time disabled people get mainstream attention is when we are inspiring the able-bodied, or when an able-bodied person — like Amy Wright — gets excited about the fact that (surprise!) disabled people have skills.

(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.)

While we should be talking about employment, the topic takes up far too much space that could be used to talk about other increasingly pressing issues. Affordable housing, access to welfare benefits, homelessness, issues in the health care system, and discrimination in education are equally pressing problems affecting disabled people that don’t get nearly as much attention as they should.

There’s a more insidious impact of this, too. As I noted earlier, the basis for many of these messages is the idea that disabled people are valuable because they are employable. 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.

There are many disabled people who cannot work at all or who can only work limited hours. Some because they face too much discrimination. Others because there are no jobs suitable to their skills. Still others because their bodies simply cannot. In some cases this is fluid — it might be temporary, and in other cases there are people who will never work at all. It should be noted, too, that many disabled people — though not all — who cannot work for pay do unpaid domestic work at home.

We need to remember and accept that people exist who cannot work, that this is part of human diversity and it’s not something to be afraid of. People who cannot work deserve to have life, to have agency over their lives, and to live in supportive community like anyone else, and it’s horrifying that it has to be said.

The right for the unproductive to be and to not work is, unfortunately, a fringe idea. Adults who do not work, and who are comfortable with the fact that they do not work, are often shamed or hidden away in the margins of society. It’s not often that they are given any power even to speak for themselves.

If we collectively forget those disabled people who cannot work, there is a danger that we will forget to ensure that social benefits continue to exist. We end up further marginalizing others.

Disabled activists have frequently employed these kinds of tactics when we are trying to advocate for ourselves. Some deaf activists, for example, have been criticized for advancing their interests by using an argument that they have a different language and culture, and they are not disabled because there is nothing wrong with them. As A.J. Withers writes, this “works to reinforce the idea that something is wrong with those disabled people they are trying to distance themselves from”.1

More recently, autistic activists have employed a similar tactic. 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.”

As someone whose disability is mostly invisible, it would be easy for me to use this tactic, too. “I work for a living, therefore I’m not really disabled”. “I only have a learning disability, it’s not like I have autism”. If I was afraid of the word “disabled”, these are the phrases I would probably use to give myself a higher standing on the hierarchy.

I have heard people with Asperger’s say that they use that term because they don’t want to be associated with autism, and people with depression who get defensive when you say that depression and anxiety are forms of disability.

This dynamic plays itself out differently depending on how visible the disability is. For people with invisible disabilities like me, simply refusing to use the word “disabled” to describe ourselves is a way of promoting the idea that we are more valuable than those “other”, really disabled people. For folks whose disabilities are obvious or who can’t get away with not disclosing, the narrative that “look, we are uniquely employable” is used — playing into an ideology that says people’s worth is based on their ability to produce. In both cases, the implication throws other disabled people under the bus.

These tactics and ways of talking about ourselves are completely understandable. One of the realities of neoliberalism is that our self-worth has become wrapped up in our ability to be productive. Most of us (if not all of us) disabled people have internalized ableism that is wrapped up in being told that we were not good enough because we were not producing enough or working hard enough.

But we can do better. There is a way to talk about disability — even to advocate for the employment of disabled people — without capitulating to the narrative that productivity is the only way to be valuable. The alternative is to claim pride in our disability. To say, yes, I am disabled, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Period.

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.

We should be fighting for the right of disabled people to enter the workforce while simultaneously arguing for the right of those not in the workforce to continue living that way without fear and without their agency being taken away. We need to  use messages that are more inclusive, and to amplify messages about issues that affect those who are more marginalized than we are.

Additionally, disabled people who have relative power need to be using that power not only to advocate for themselves but for the diversity of disabled people who exist. As a white person with relative economic privilege and whose disability is invisible, I have a responsibility not only to look out for myself but also for those around me who might not have the power that I do — to listen to them to give them openings to speak for themselves, and to take them into consideration when I craft the message that I’m putting out there about my own disability.

This issue also needs to be understood as a problem of capitalism. Capitalism encourages us to see value only in productivity, and to see the non-productive as worthless. That’s how we end up with arguments like the one that Goldman Sachs recently made, when he literally argued that people shouldn’t be cured of diseases if it’s not as profitable as letting them remain sick. It is capitalism that keeps disabled people below the poverty line, and capitalism that makes life impossible if you don’t work. It is capitalism creates the conditions where we can only “prove” the “value” of a disabled person if that person is able to work for pay.

These narratives benefit the corporate machine. They create justification for keeping wages low and welfare rates lower. If you add to that the fact that many people’s self-worth is wrapped up in their ability to make money, you have a population that is easy to exploit.

Disabled activists — and our allies — need to be cautious about using tactics that play into the narrative that those who are productive are more valuable and more deserving of agency and self-worth than those who are less productive or unproductive. There are other ways of talking about disability issues and rights that do not imply that some disabled people are less valuable.

While I will never argue that “some people are more disabled than others”, we do need to acknowledge the fact that some disabled people are more marginalized than others — whether because of how our society understands their particular disability, or because of class, race, or sexuality. The reality is that disabled activists tend to be those disabled people who are less marginalized — those of us who have had access to education (formally or informally), to the internet, and to other resources like time and emotional support.

As activists who have the ability to advocate for ourselves and for other disabled people, we can always, always do more to include the voices of those who are more marginalized. When we are doing our own advocacy, we are responsible for ensuring our narratives do not step on the toes of others,  and at the very least promotes values that include them.

Perhaps even more importantly, able-bodied allies who talk about disability, like Amy Wright, need to step back and give more space to disabled activists to speak about what we face, rather than speaking for us.


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1 From Disability Politics and Theory by A.J. Withers.

Photo by American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) via Flickr is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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