Different Bodies, Same Expectations: How Capitalism Fails the Disabled

Art by Mara Henao

By: Maddie Rose & Zoe Belinsky

Ability across all people varies—from attention span, to walking long distances, to eyesight. Many abilities are demanded and expected: cognitively processing lectures, climbing stairs, holding conversations with strangers. The limited ways in which people are expected to think, move and communicate are taken for granted. This makes disability a spectrum—always in relation to what is “normal” ability. You are not dis-abled in your body but made disabled through conditions that don’t align with your body’s abilities and needs.

Perhaps the biggest expectation is your ability to work. We all have different work capacities, and yet under capitalism your labor and my labor are measured according to the same standard—the wage. And one worker is exchangeable for another: If your boss is not satisfied with your work, they can fire you and replace you with another laborer. For this reason, despite being a completely different person, any other worker will have their labor measured according to the same standard. Those who can only  labor under certain conditions (only while sitting down, no face-to-face interaction with customers, or only for short periods of time) are considered just inadequate workers.

You cannot measure able-bodied labor and disabled labor in the same manner without accepting the disabled people’s differing levels of productivity. Disabled people are people who—for various reasons—cannot produce at the same rate as abled people. But this is seen as disruptive by the capitalist system.

This extends to the work of able-bodied people as well. For example, workplace protections that exist for disabled people aren’t in place, because they don’t really exist for anyone. It may be technically illegal in some places for a transgender person to be fired for being transgender, but employees can be fired for any vague reason at the discretion of the employer. A person without enough money to own a car may lose their job when the bus is late one too many times. Similarly, a workplace may insist it is welcoming to disabled employees but will still fire off the chronically ill for calling in sick one too many times. Under capitalism, we are expected to leave our needs and personal limitations at the door upon clocking in. But disabled people are simply unable to forget about their bodies and needs.

Furthermore, as demands rise, more bodies become disabled. The need to work 60 hours a week to support oneself with a body that can’t maintain that is a dis-abling condition. The requirement of standing at customer service jobs is a dis-abling condition.

But disabled people are brought into poverty in very specific ways. Disabled people are legally allowed to be paid below minimum wage, depending on the nature of their disability and the nature of the work. Further, obtaining publicly assisted housing and applying for food stamps or supplemental security income (SSI) is even more difficult for those with cognitive impairments and mental illnesses. The welfare state can only assist with meeting the needs of those who can work through the bureaucratic demands to receive help. What’s more, obtaining a diagnosis (which is needed for assistance) is often too expensive for those who cannot make regular specialist appointments. Fitting into the category of a diagnosis is also difficult—many people fall outside criteria for certain diagnoses and, as a result, aren’t covered for certain kinds of help. Misunderstood diagnoses like chronic migraines, fibromyalgia or bipolar disorder fall through the cracks. Stacked disabilities, where several illnesses considered minor add up into dis-abling circumstances, are also left unseen. Intersecting disabilities affect work capacities in ways that are unrecognized, much as disability is affected by the intersections of race and gender. The ability to be recognized by doctors is also tangled in racial and gender biases in which pain is not believed, or individuals are perceived as criminal rather than neurodivergent or mentally ill.  

Disability, like race and gender, forms one of the contradictions of capitalism—disabled people fail to be incorporated neatly into our capitalist economic system. Followers of Bernie Sanders love to echo, “No one working 40 hours a week should be living in poverty.” The emphasis is meant to be on the latter half, but the former is revealing of liberal capitalist thinking. Why should that much labor be a requirement for having earned your share? Labor continues to be the starting point for deserving human status, despite our abilities to labor all varying. Ableism doesn’t need to be prejudicial—it can stem from oppressive economic conditions and from any ideology using labor as a starting point for humanity.

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