At the end of 2017 I had one of the worst few weeks I can remember in terms of impairment pain, discomfort, immobility and general health problems. A routine medical appointment resulted in three admissions to A&E for suspected urinary retention, emergency catheterisation and severe bladder pain.
I don’t usually write much about my impairment mainly because I am more interested in theories around social constructionism. However, at times like this the relationship between disability (social creation) and impairment (bodily difference) isn’t straightforward.
I had not had any of these medical difficulties before – they were both excruciating and also exacerbated my existing impairment (cerebral palsy). Like a domino effect, I managed to also gash my eyebrow in a fall and catch a nasty chest infection. It wasn’t a good time.
A strange paradox …
Although I was mostly unable to function during this period, I did manage to briefly check my social media. In a strange paradox, my news thread seemed to be filled with comments from disabled peers highlighting their excellent levels of productivity. Feeling anything but productive, I wished I’d stuck to morphine and the dulcet tones of Nick Drake.
I was relieved to discover that, rather than a weird cyber conspiracy, these statuses were refutes to Phillip Hammond’s absurd comments about disabled workers. But despite this realisation, my semi-conscious self twisted these posts into lucid nightmares about piss, productivity and personhood.
Entwining Facebook posts and the psychotic chants of sound artist Bruce Nauman “Work work work work work …” “Live and Die, Die and Die, Shit and Die, Piss and Die…” these dreams were like a particularly horrific and personalised episode of Black Mirror.
Perceptions of productivity…
This illness certainly made me revisit and re-evaluate my own relationship with productivity and usefulness.
Mainstream notions of ‘productivity’ are often based on ableist normativity and ruthless individualism. By pushing productivity as the main way to measure people’s contributions we are diminishing our perceptions of value to being about economic usefulness.
This not only undermines the value of disabled people who don’t work, but also many of us who do work. I may have a rewarding part time career in sound art now, but at times my relationship with work has been difficult. The reality is that my impairment sometimes compromises productivity in terms of the type and amount of work I can take on. Measured against mainstream notions of productivity, my human value is substandard.
I understand the good intention behind disabled workers emphasising their levels of productivity. But these statements inadvertently promote hierarchical notions of worth that only serve to pit us against each other. After all a barrier-free utopia, in which all disabled people can work, is not possible.
In a tweet about Phillip Hammond’s statement, Dr Lucy Burke questioned these responses too, she says:
“I don’t think any of us should counter Phillip Hammond’s ridiculous statement about the negative impact of disabled workers on the country’s productivity by saying “I’m disabled and much more productive than non disabled colleagues.” (or some variant of that).
To do so legitimises the claim that productivity is somehow about the efforts of individuals rather than the organisation/nature of work. It therefore shifts the focus from the economic failures of this government and colludes with Hammond’s symbolic conflation of a “sluggish” economy with disability.
Secondly, we have to challenge the underpinning claim that being “productive” is a measure of worth/human value. We need to change the terms here. There are other reasons why work is important in a qualitative sense but there is also a strong case to be made for valorising ways of living that don’t involve going to work.”
Human value …
Clearly, Phillip Hammond shouldn’t undermine the contributions of disabled workers. However, in agreement with Burke, I think we should be challenging the structure of work and advocate other ways to value people.
Human value should not be measured through the lens of wage labour and consumerism.