The real impairment.

For the most part I’m looking to avoid single-source reaction posts here, but I’ve been struck by an eighteen-year-old piece by Sunny Taylor on impairment, disability, and work. It came to my attention from that piece in The Baffler about burnout that I addressed a couple days ago. It’s hard to tease out just one or two things but her discussion of institutionalization leapt out at me.

Crippled and elderly people have an especially precarious relationship to the machine that is production and consumption. People work hard, they age, their efficiency inevitably lessens and, unless they are fortunate enough to have some savings stashed away, they are too often put in nursing homes where their new value will be as “beds.” As Marta Russell has astutely pointed out, the institutionalization of disabled people “evolved from the cold realization that people with disabilities could be commodified…People with disabilities are ‘worth’ more to the Gross Domestic Product when occupying a bed in an institution than when they’re living in their own homes.”

This really is striking. We decide that since someone’s value and worth isn’t inherent and natural but arises only as a result of being economically useful, when they are disabled they must be made to be of productive economic use to someone. So we warehouse them for the financial benefit of institutions. Taylor points out that it’s more expensive overall to pay for the services of an institutionalized person compared to one living independently, which means we’re more interested as a society in transferring wealth to the institutionalized care industry than letting people live on their own but “on the dole”.

Taylor also provides one of the most useful and explicative outlines I’ve come across of the social model of disability by drawing the distinction between “impariment” and “disability”.

Disability theorists make this clear by making a subtle but significant distinction between disability and impairment. The state of being mentally or physically challenged is what they term being impaired; with impairment comes personal challenges and drawbacks in terms of mental processes and physical mobility. To be impaired is to be missing a limb or born with a birth defect; it is a state of embodiment. Being impaired is hard. Without a doubt, it makes things harder than if one is not impaired. However, more often than not, the individual accommodates for this impairment and adapts to the best of their ability. For example, I am impaired by arthrogryposis, which limits the use of my arms, but I make up for this in many ways by using my mouth.

Disability, in contrast, is the political and social repression of impaired people. This is accomplished by making them economically and socially isolated. Disabled people have limited housing options, are socially and culturally ostracized, and have very few career opportunities. The disabled community argues that these disadvantages are thus not due to impairment by its nature, but due to a cultural aversion to impairment, a lack of productive opportunity in the current economy for disabled people, and the multi-billion dollar industry that houses and “cares” for the disabled population that has developed as a consequence of this economic disenfranchisement. This argument is known as the social model of disability. Disablement is a political state and not a personal one and thus needs to be addressed as a civil rights issue.

I don’t want to spend too much time on this here, because I think there’s not much more to say about it. What I want to pull out of the above is this idea of our “cultural aversion to impairment”. It’s as if the presumptive idleness of the disabled puts the lie to the mythology telling us that working hard will get you ahead (despite the literal everyday in-our-faces evidence that this simply is not true for the vast majority of people), and we just can’t bring ourselves to acknowledge that lie.

Too many of us, I assume, have so deeply internalized the intrinsic field that rather than seeing the predicament of the disabled as evidence that there’s something fundamentally flawed about the way we’ve allowed things to be constructed around us that if fixed would benefit everyone, they instead dig in their heels and ask why someone else should get “something for nothing” when their own lives aren’t a picnic either.

The point is that it shouldn’t be this hard for anyone, and if we properly addressed the way we misconsider and misconstrue impairment and disability, and the degree to which the impaired and disability might need assistance to live dignified and independent lives (and deserve that assistance because our human worth isn’t calculated by our contribution to the GDP), we’d discover that maybe the rest of us shouldn’t have to work so hard to live such lives, either.