Autistic Future
October 28th, 2016

In Defense Of Work

Fol­low­ing Hillary Clin­ton’s speech on dis­abil­i­ty, some advo­cates were con­cerned that work was over-empha­sized. By in large, the con­cern was about devalu­ing peo­ple whose capac­i­ty to work is very lim­it­ed. There are rea­sons to be leery of overem­pha­siz­ing work. Some peo­ple’s sur­vival or med­ical needs will always exceed their capac­i­ty for eco­nom­ic out­put.  Some peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties will nev­er have lives that can be jus­ti­fied in eco­nom­ic terms. It is for­tu­nate that no life ever need be jus­ti­fied in eco­nom­ic terms. It’s a foun­da­tion val­ue of dis­abil­i­ty rights and dis­abil­i­ty jus­tice advo­ca­cy that per­son­hood and human rights are not con­tin­gent on pro­duc­tiv­i­ty or wealth. They just are. There is at least the appear­ance of a ten­sion between that posi­tion and the var­i­ous dis­abil­i­ty com­mu­ni­ties’ empha­sis on work these days. Employ­ment first pol­i­cy, the idea that peo­ple are pre­sump­tive able to work, and work should be avail­able to every­one, is high on many advo­cates’ pri­or­i­ty lists these days. These posi­tions are more con­sis­tent than they appear at first glance because encour­ag­ing work, expand­ing access to work, is about so much more than eco­nom­ic productivity.

Many peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties are ful­ly self-sup­port­ing giv­en the right job. Some nev­er will be, but there is still val­ue in help­ing such indi­vid­u­als find and keep work. Work is a cru­cial key to many of the good things in life in Amer­i­can soci­ety, start­ing but cer­tain­ly not end­ing with dig­ni­ty. Work is strong­ly asso­ci­at­ed with adult sta­tus in Amer­i­can soci­ety. Adult­hood is easy to define in legal terms. Peo­ple strug­gle more when asked to describe its social def­i­n­i­tion, but most Amer­i­can adults would prob­a­bly say it has some­thing to do with con­tribut­ing. An adult is one who works, either in the home or out­side, or once worked but is now retired. An adult is some­one who uses a por­tion of soci­ety’s resources but con­tributes to them, too. In 21st cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca, many of the tra­di­tion­al mark­ers of adult sta­tus, things like hold­ing a dri­ver’s license and own­ing a home, are los­ing impor­tance and becom­ing less com­mon. How­ev­er, hav­ing some­thing to con­tribute that mer­its a pay­check has held its sym­bol­ic val­ue. Work is a way for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties to show that we are adults.

Work has oth­er social val­ue. To the extent that peo­ple find suit­able jobs, they will prob­a­bly run into like-mind­ed oth­ers. Employ­ment first pol­i­cy isn’t about dump­ing peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties into the first open­ing that can be found. It’s about try­ing to match some­one’s strengths with the right role in the right place. Plen­ty of friend­ships have start­ed on the job. The mean­ing­ful social ties that can grow out of respect­ful inter­ac­tions at work make dis­abled peo­ples’ lives rich­er. Healthy work­ing rela­tion­ships, and the friend­ship that some­times aris­es from them, are gen­uine. They are based on mutu­al affin­i­ty in ways that efforts to get nondis­abled peo­ple to put up with with dis­abled peo­ple for a few hours a month as a vol­un­teer project are not.

The rea­son that work­ing rela­tion­ships are prob­a­bly among the rela­tion­ships that are safest from that belit­tling, char­i­ta­ble tinge is that they are based on col­lab­o­ra­tion. In a well-man­aged work­place, every­one present has a role to play and makes mean­ing­ful con­tri­bu­tions. There is no char­i­ty going on. Mak­ing a con­tri­bu­tion, being part of a team, and accom­plish­ing goals are worth­while in and of them­selves. Research on the adverse health impact of retire­ment shows that human beings are meant to be part of the human com­mu­ni­ty’s col­lec­tive effort to get by. Improved access to work might make peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties not just hap­pi­er but health­i­er. A real job, with the dig­ni­ty of real pay for real con­tri­bu­tions, offers so many of the ingre­di­ents of a ful­fill­ing life that the dol­lars and cents aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly high on the list of ben­e­fits. How­ev­er, mon­ey mat­ters because it gives peo­ple more options for doing what they enjoy. With the advent of ABLE Accounts, more ben­e­fits recip­i­ents than ever before can make decent incomes, keep their wages, and use the mon­ey they earn to pur­sue their goals.

Employ­ment first pol­i­cy, encour­ag­ing work for every­one, isn’t about mak­ing peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties cogs in the machine of the Amer­i­can econ­o­my. It’s about the dig­ni­ty of adult sta­tus and gen­uine con­tri­bu­tion, increased oppor­tu­ni­ties for social inclu­sion, finan­cial sta­bil­i­ty, and more self-direct­ed lives. It’s about an end to what a friend and men­tor of mine calls “grad­u­at­ing to the tele­vi­sion,” where­in our young adults leave school, have noth­ing to do, and become iso­lat­ed and bored. It’s about the pride that comes with con­tribut­ing. It’s about build­ing the rela­tion­ships. It’s about the way in which a per­son who is noticed and val­ued by oth­ers is safer from abuse, neglect, and oth­er harms than an iso­lat­ed per­son. It’s about peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, includ­ing ben­e­fits recip­i­ents, becom­ing home­own­ers if they want to do that. It’s about a per­son with I/DD who likes cas­tles being able to save up to see them in per­son. Advo­ca­cy for work isn’t about mak­ing every­one pro­duc­tive. It’s about giv­ing every­one the oppor­tu­ni­ty to thrive.