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.

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