BADD 2011: Disability and Work

The annual Blogging Against Disablism Day is upon us, and there’s an ongoing compilation of excellent posts on this topic going up which is worth checking throughout the day. Today is also, of course, International Workers’ Day, and it seems like every year, some people get extremely upset that BADD also falls on this holiday; why are people with disabilities taking over their day? Why can’t the organisers move it to a different day? Participation in BADD is sometimes framed as being anti-labour, or ignoring critical issues surrounding workers’ rights and exploitation.

These responses to BADD are a reminder of the importance of holding this annual event, and I’d argue that they’re an even stronger argument for keeping BADD on May Day, because, newsflash, there are tremendous intersections with disability and workers’ rights, whether you want to talk about the exploitation of people with disabilities by employers, discrimination against disabled job applicants, restrictive benefits systems making it impossible to work and remain eligible for benefits, or the exploitation of caregivers, many of whom are poorly paid for their work (if at all—family members are often forced to provide care for free, even though caring for a human being can be a full time job in its own right).

Disability and work are closely connected issues with a lot of intersections, especially when you add in factors like discriminations against disabled women and disabled people of colour and nonwhite people. The inclusion of people with disabilities in the workforce is an ongoing and important issue when you consider the fact that we still have to sue to be able to work, in some cases. To say that BADD and May Day are mutually exclusive is to blatantly ignore some pretty key disability and workers’ rights issues.

Generally speaking, people with disabilities are twice as likely to live in poverty as people without disabilities. This number is even higher for some disabilities. We are more likely to be unemployed, more likely to encounter discriminatory hiring practices, more likely to encounter problems with accessing and participating in our workplaces. We experience issues like wage exploitation at increased rates, and this is most definitely a labour and worker’s rights issue. For every ‘sheltered workshop’ where people with disabilities are legally paid less than the minimum wage, there should be outrage and fury about exploitation of workers and unfair wages, but there isn’t.

There are other work issues to explore here, like the enslavement of undocumented immigrants in ‘care’ facilities, a serious human rights and workers’ rights issue. Because caregiving is devalued as a profession, personal assistants, aides, and other caregivers are often overworked and underpaid. Exploitative and abusive conditions exist in many institutions and other facilities. These are a direct consequence of ableism and attitudes about the value of both people with disabilities and caregivers.

People with disabilities are so effectively erased from the workforce that people resent the establishment of an event discussing disability issues on International Workers’ Day because they assume, wrongly, that there are no intersections between disability and work. That we do not face very specific financial issues that should be of concern when talking about work, class, and exploitation, like the fact that in order to remain eligible for benefits, people must remain in an enforced state of poverty, that people with disabilities who want to work cannot not just because they are excluded from the workplace, but because they could lose everything if they started bringing in a regular wage.

People assume that we cannot contribute to the workplace, that we create hardships in the workplace, that accommodations for people with disabilities somehow ‘distract’ from important issues. When 20% of the population is disabled and our unemployment rate is extremely high, paired with lower educational achievement, and a tendency to live in poverty, this is an issue labour activists should care about. The labour community should be concerned about how discrimination against people with disabilities impacts the composition of the workforce. They should also be concerned about how disabled workers are exploited and erased, harassed and driven out of workplaces.

This is an area where we can work in solidarity with each other. There are tremendous opportunities for confronting oppressive labour structures and for challenging capitalism itself when looking at how disability and work intersect. Yet, this opportunity is often denied because people think there is no common ground here; the connections between class and disability often go unremarked, and I see very little attention paid to the fact that we are deliberately forced out of the workforce.

Rather than attacking us for ‘coopting’ May Day, as though two events cannot ever take place on the same day, let alone two events with obvious intersections, organisers of May Day events should be thinking about how to integrate disability into the conversation. Disabled people march in May Day parades. We fight on a daily basis for access and inclusion in the workplace. We are concerned about issues like unionbusting, safe working conditions, fair wages, and workplace harassment. There is a lot of common ground between the disability rights movement and the labour movement, if people would stop trying to create an adversarial relationship.

People with disabilities have been part of the labour movement since the beginning, fighting for equal rights for all workers, pushing for safer and healthier conditions in the workplace, questioning unfair wage practices and oppression of workers not just on the basis of disability, but also race, national origin, and creed. Does BADD belong on May Day? You bet your ass it does.