Rethinking How We Value “Productivity”

by Lateef McLeod

Work for me is something that I handle, but do not fully appreciate. There are many reasons why I say this. One reason is that I do not think my work is valued much in the wider social context. My written thoughts and experiences are sometimes so far away from the main stream that is often over looked. This reality makes me think of how much is my work really worth in today’s economy. Do I, and other people who use AAC to communicate, have the capability and the desire to be part of today’s workforce, which is being streamlined so employers are getting workers who are more productive but less costly? Is this the best option for us to aspire to?

The professional classes of people who use AAC are few and far between in today’s society. Besides a few notable exceptions like Dr. Bob Segelman, a sociologist, and Bob Williams, the Associate Commissioner for the Social Security Employment Program, most people with severe mobility and speech disabilities do not have the opportunity to pursue lucrative careers or even full time to part time work. My experience with the work force in light of this fact has been very fortunate in securing a blogging position at United Cerebral Palsy of the Golden Gate in Oakland, where I work part time. However, even with this steady income combined with my Master’s degree, I still only make roughly minimum wage a year. This means even with my education, the way this economy is set up, my production value is greatly decreased because of my disability.

In Sunny Taylor’s article, The Right Not to Work: Power and Disability, she points out that in today’s economy people with disabilities are worth more in the private industry in nursing home beds then out in the work force. Taylor argues that people with disabilities should have the right to determine the level of production they can contribute to society without being stigmatized for it. This philosophy directly challenges the mainstream view that a person gains status in their society from their occupation. Taylor is indirectly expressing that people with disabilities intrinsically have value in society whether they have a job or not. This revolutionary thought liberates people with disabilities from striving to validate themselves through the entrance of the regular workforce. It makes people with disabilities the masters of our own production who are able to define and determine exactly how we will contribute to our respective community.

To take control of your work productivity is a revolutionary idea for people with disabilities, and I think it is empowering for people like myself. Instead of conforming to the normative ideal of working a nine to five job until I eventually retire I am free to pursue more creative endeavors. My passion is to pursue a career as a poet and a novelist. This means that I have to frequent spoken word and other poetry events to get my name out there and to promote my recent published poetry book. As I develop as an artist I have to make sure that my other obligations do not distract me from my creative work. Time management really helps me in this endeavor and should be a focus for any person with disability who wants to be productive in reaching their goals.

I am not saying full employment is not a worthy goal for people with both a severe speech disability and mobility challenges. For those who want a traditional career, I encourage them to succeed in their goals. However, for those who would like to be creative with their productivity whether it is creative artwork or just being more engaged with their community, it is important work that should be valued at least with acknowledgment. For some people who communicate with AAC, just staying engaged with their surrounding community might be a full-time job in itself.

Editor’s Note: Tomorrow is Blogging Against Disablism Day (BADD), and many members of the community take the day to blog about issues like those we cover here at DRN. To learn more or to find out who is participating afterwards, follow the link.

The Debate About Euthanasia

by Lateef H. McLeod

Recently there has been a resurgence of debate of whether or not euthanasia is a viable ethical option for people with disabilities. Proponents of euthanasia stress that since all Americans have the right to life and have the authority of how to end it. They argue that it is better to end their life now instead of waiting until they need palliative care. They also argue that an early death will avoid their family and loved ones from having to pay expensive medical costs to take care of them. This self-centered line of argument goes well with the American value of being self-reliant and the abhorrence of being a burden to taken care of by others. It continues to reinforce the dominant stereotype that a non-able bodied life is not worth living.

There are many reasons why this euthanasia debate is ableist in nature. The California Foundation For Independent Living Centers delve into some of the reasons on their website. They state that euthanasia statutes are aimed at eliminating the bureaucratic red tape that prevents terminal ill patients from ending their lives and will also make it easier for people with non-terminal disabilities to argue conditions where they would be justified in taking to take their lives. This type of argument should be avoided at all costs. It promotes the narrative that some disabilities are too difficult to live with and people thus impaired should have suicide as an option at their disposal. This type of argument is insulting and demeaning to people with those disabilities who decide it is better to live with their condition.

This narrative has drastic negative consequences. We just have to look at the case of George Hodgins, a young man with autism who was fatally shot by his mother, Elizabeth Hodgins, who then committed suicide. Besides the story being tragic, it provides the example of how the euthanasia narrative leads this mother to do this heinous deed.  She most likely thought that the responsibility of taking care of her son sat squarely on her shoulders and did not ask or take the offered support of family, friends, and community members. Too often disability is seen in our culture as a personal issue or something that the intermediate family has to deal with.

The devaluing of the lives people with disabilities that euthanasia debate proposes has wider consequences in society. A person with disabilities could be deemed expendable where an able-bodied person would not be. This is evident in the case of Stephon Watts, a fifteen-year-old boy with autism who the police shot to death in front of his home.  As in many other instances, the police thought they had a right to murder Stephon even though he only had a butter knife and could not begin to be a threat to the police officers present.  The police reaction to the situation illustrates the disregard for life, as they could not resolve the confrontation without murdering the boy.   No doubt if Stephon was able-bodied or even a lighter hue, more effort from the police would be given to more peacefully resolve the situation. The history of devaluing people with disabilities influenced by the euthanasia debate gave the police license to use the lethal force they deemed necessary to quell a minor domestic dispute. The lack of amount of coverage this story received from community groups or from the news media even after the national uproar over the tragedy of the similar Trayvon Martin case exemplifies people’s reluctance to validate and protest when people with disabilities are murdered unjustly by individuals or by the state.

Euthanasia is used in this culture as an argument for not identifying or accommodating for the lives and struggles of people with disabilities. Society already dismisses people with disabilities as being either the heroic person who achieved to great heights in despite of his or her challenges, the helpless person whose disability causes them to be a drain on society, or the expendable exemplified by the euthanasia debate that basically argues that people with disabilities are better off dead than alive.  We in the disability community need to change this narrative and keep illustrating that our diverse and complex lives are worth living.