From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.
– Karl Marx
People with disabilities are about half as likely to be employed as our able bodied peers. At least that's what it says on the National Disability Authority website. I know this because I've obsessed over that piece of data for a very long time.
It’s wormed its way into my head – affecting how I feel about myself, how I present myself to others, how I plan for the future. It feels like it’s always there, somewhere in my skull. In our socio-economic system, employment is the centre of an individual’s world. It’s their sense of self-worth, their means of survival and the way they support their loved ones.
So it’s not entirely irrational for me to be awake at night, worrying about the structural barriers between me and a livelihood.
The employment rate makes me angry, of course. Where ramps and lifts are being, slowly and begrudgingly, installed into our public spaces, there are considerable barriers still in place for disabled people’s employment.
How many adapted buses have you seen where the adaptation is for the driver?
I can get into your shop or I can eat at your restaurant, but what if I need a job there?
The aisles are accessible but what about behind the till?
Part of the statistic is clear evidence of structural discrimination, literally the structures that are built discriminate what kind of bodies can gain employment.
Not being able to work doesn't mean that you can't contribute to society, it means that your contributions don't produce wealth
But there’s another aspect to the statistic as well. And it’s an aspect that gets forgotten sometimes in discourse about disability rights.
Being disabled can be hard.
It can be hard to move, to carry things, to work late, to concentrate, to communicate, to read, to write etc. To do so many of the things that an employer is going to ask of you. Personally, with chronic pain and chronic fatigue, I can be really good and active and engaged . . . sometimes. And then sometimes I get so tired that I start to feel dizzy and stop being able to form proper sentences. So there’s going to be certain types of work that won’t suit the realities of my body. Which is a statement I’d guess is also true for more or less every disabled person. And there are disabled brothers and sisters and non-binary siblings who’s situation may mean that no types of work are suitable for them.
As I type that, I feel guilty. I feel like I’m saying something awful about someone, making a moral judgment about them. But why do we think that way? What on Earth is morally wrong with not being able to have a job? There is the argument, or perhaps not an argument – it’s more of a vague cultural feeling, that without a job you aren’t contributing to society. But I reject that completely, every single human being contributes to society every day.
Because society is people and none of us, no matter what position we’re in, can avoid helping other people and contributing to their lives. Even if all that means today is that you made your Dad smile. Not being able to work doesn’t mean that you can’t contribute to society, it means that your contributions don’t produce wealth.
People often approach me in public, asking why I’m in a wheelchair. After I explain, one of the most common follow up questions that I get is “do you work?” Obviously, most mean no harm by it, but this line of thinking creates a kind of hierarchy of disabled people. Those of us who work are considered closer to that gold standard of almost-like-anyone-else, while those of us who don’t are abandoned at the bottom. In less tolerant (or perhaps less careful) circles, words like scrounger or even leech may get thrown around.
But these aren’t our human values, this isn’t how most people think about each other. If I asked you, dear reader, directly I wonder what you would say; should my body’s ability to carry a tray full of drinks to your table decide whether I should have a home, a family, or even a few drinks of my own?
There’s a deep anxiety living under capitalism, a crushing feeling in your stomach that never truly goes away. Like knives dangled over you by thread; the threat of hunger, broken wheelchairs, homelessness and all the other ways life can go bad for you without work loom over our lives.
This anxiety hits us unequally, that’s part of what makes it so bad, but we’ve all felt it.
I don’t think disabled people deserve that and I don’t think I deserve that.
I don’t think you deserve that.
Now what are we going to do about it?
Platform Series: Ferdia MacAonghusa
1) How'd you like to be pushed around?
2) These are not my best days
3) Do something positive for the disabled
4) Our disabled bodies are different
5) Heard about the fella in a wheelchair?
6) I'm not bad for experiencing depression
7) I've finally found a way to be free
8) How about a job?
9) A defence of identity politics
10) Becoming disabled radicalised me