Image description: photograph of a brown-skinned person with black hair and beard, sitting in a sporty wheelchair and fishing off an accessible wooden pier. They are wearing a flowered shirt and blue shorts, and are surrounded by trees and water. A wooden pavilion can be seen in the distance.
(Image credit: Va. Dept. of Conservation & Recreation. Used under a Commons licence. Original here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/vadcr/2223214501/in/album-72157603425439433/)
(Note: A slightly shortened version of this essay was given as a speech on May 06, 2022, at the Shabbat Itanu event held at the Danforth Jewish Circle congregation.)
Intro: condescending proverbs vs. respect
Most of us have likely heard or seen some variation the saying: “Give a man a fish; he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish; he will feed himself for a lifetime.” There is a wealth of assumption and relentless social pressure present in that saying. We cannot guarantee that teaching someone a skill will enable them to be self-sufficient for the rest of their life. We also really shouldn’t say or imply that providing folks with survival resources is a bad thing. Sometimes people do need material help. Sometimes for a few days, more often for months or years. This is normal. This is okay. Especially in the lives of disabled people.
When I hear the saying about the man and the fish, aside from feeling frustrated that we are only concerned with male humans, and non-binary people and women apparently don’t count — perhaps we are assumed to all have a male human conveniently handy for attending to our food-provision needs? — I also feel dismissed and excluded as a disabled person, considered less-than. Because the reality is that there is no simple skill I could be taught that would make me self-sufficient at this time in my life. I already have achieved excellence at and found employment with skills that work well with my disabilities — but because our society values arts workers quite badly, and because my body cannot work full-time, those skills cannot make me self-sufficient. But I am not broken or less-than. I have not failed to become a full member of society.
Jewish communities have developed the deeply practical concept of tzedakah, precisely because some among us will always not have enough and need a redistribution of resources to allow us to survive. Notice that tzedakah usually focusses on the giving of resources, not teaching folks skills so that we can earn the resources ourselves. Though I have seen the tzedakah ‘pyramid’ that says the highest level of giving is helping someone become self-sufficient, I choose to interpret this rung as recommending a focus on activism to make universal basic income a reality.
I know of many programs and charities who purport to help disabled people but who, in keeping with the bromide about men and fish, focus on vocational rehab: teaching us skills that they say will make us employable and self-sufficient. Their selections of those skills reflect what society thinks we are worth and what we are capable of. And that reflection is not pretty. The work we are encouraged (or forced) to train for is boring, sometimes risky to our physical or mental health, and will always be badly paid, even should we become proficient at it. Very little extra support is given to disabled people who want to work at highly skilled, well paid “brain jobs”.
In the US many disabled people are working for sub-minimum wage, at jobs they neither enjoy nor want; this is allowed by a federal legal loophole. That issue has been broadly publicised, especially when a story broke about American Goodwill widely exploiting disabled people at meaningless menial work, for literally pennies an hour. What is less well-known is that this happens in Canada too. E.g., several disabled people in my life have worked at the café located inside the 519 Community Centre, for $2 an hour — ostensibly because they were being trained and “readied” for legally waged employment — but the work was menial and no unique skills were taught. The vocational rehab system has a shameful, centuries-long record of exploiting disabled people in the name of helping us — look up the history of “sheltered workshops” if you have the stomach for it — though the actual result is someone else’s financial gain at our expense, and depriving disabled people of work-related self-esteem and agency.
This is one of the many reasons I am opposed to the focus on teaching us disabled people skills. Most of us already have many. If we are not currently employed with those skills, it’s often because of systemic ableism. For example, many disabled people have fantastic organisational, advocacy, research, communication, resource-seeking, and problem-solving skills — not to mention persistence, creativity, and determination — that we’ve had to develop as a result of living disabled lives in an ableist society. We would make excellent workers in workplaces that value disabled employees and provide all the accommodations we need. And yet, if our disabilities are visible or known ahead of time, we are usually not hired, and often not even interviewed or considered. As a result our unemployment rate is staggeringly high; in any given year only 22% of disabled North Americans over the age of 16 are supported by paid employment.
I know this kind of statistic can tempt compassionate non-disabled folks to try to create charitable job programs for us. Don’t. Until systemic ableism is massively decreased, we will keep seeing dismal numbers like these — and a push towards funnelling us into menial, badly paid, sometimes illegally low-paid, work.
But also, we as communities, and eventually we as a society, need to make peace with the idea that some disabled people will always need income support, and that that doesn’t make us failures. People can be contributing members of society without earning, by ourselves, all the money we need to be financially independent — which would need to include money for our medications and remedies, assistive devices, health services, and attendant care. It is okay if universal basic income or resource redistribution through community programs help support us. Disabled people are worthy. We are enough. We actively resist the idea that only waged work is meaningful work. All of us do important emotional and community work that contributes positively to our communities: work of emotional and practical support, education (about disability management and accommodation, as well as other topics), resource-sharing, community organising, activism.
As an example, I have personally done hundreds of hours of resource sharing, tenant activism, peer support, anti-rape culture activism, education on disability, gender, and life skills, and accessibility organising. It is all important, necessary work, even though usually unpaid. I would gladly say yes to being paid for it — but our society mostly doesn’t plan budgets for these emotional and community skills. We are expected to use them for everyone’s benefit for free. Which might not be a problem if our basic needs were already and consistently taken care of.
It is also true that disabled people are more expensive to support than abled people. But we need to push back against the idea that that makes us burdens, that our lives are not as worth supporting, just because a larger amount of abled people could be kept alive for the same amount of money. That’s just late-stage capitalism scarcity thinking. Our world can absolutely support basic resources for everyone in it. We’ve just let sickening corporate greed convince us that we have to compete for crumbs, while worldwide 85% of the resources is owned and mostly squandered by the top 12%.
Consider: what if disabled people weren’t stigmatised for using more resources to survive, while often earning less than abled people? Currently we are. Sometimes directly, when e.g., someone points out how “unreasonably” expensive we are, and argues for giving us even less, or for letting us die. Sometimes indirectly, when e.g., disability support programs provide only half or less of what’s given to abled, employable people when they temporarily need income support — thus tacitly communicating that we who cannot do as much work-for-pay should survive on scraps? (We saw this, really painfully, during the height of the pandemic, when CERB payments were twice what most disabled folks were getting on disability — but we were not allowed to apply for CERB, as supposedly the income support we were assigned to was already providing for all our needs. Even though our basic needs generally cost a little more than abled people’s, theirs were somehow assessed at twice the value of ours. This is what institutional ableism looks like.) And what if our world supported, cheered on, our survival anyway? These are, unfortunately, radical questions to ask in today’s climate, when one of the things “austerity” means is “supports for disabled people disappear first”. When people spend more time debating some disabled folks’ need for plastic straws than pushing corporations to pay their taxes and otherwise take ownership of huge problems, including environmental devastation and climate change, that they’ve overwhelmingly contributed to.
Right now charities for disabled people treat us as toys that they get to decide how to arrange, and they rely on the non-disabled public to think of us as helpless objects of pity. A disturbingly large share of advertising for disability charities is based on encouraging pity, and often also disgust and revulsion — trying to get abled folks to see our lives as pitiful and unwanted. Implying or outright saying that no one would want to live this way. But we do want our lives! Most of us love being alive and love the lives that we have. They are not pitiful or unbearable. According to studies, many non-disabled people, including, most troublingly, 83% of doctors, regularly and vastly underestimate the quality of life for disabled people, and our desire to keep living.
We don’t want the charity model. We want a society that sees our unique contributions, and values our lives. Imagine a world where that is true. Imagine, e.g., that a common first reaction to seeing someone using a wheelchair might be admiration for its eye-catching colour or its sporty lines. (I’ve used several sleek purple wheelchairs myself. They are things of beauty.) Imagine autistic workers safely disclosing autism-related niche skills at job interviews and being enthusiastically hired, rather than persistently rejected due the stigma of the ASD label and an unwillingness to accommodate us. Imagine knowing that, wherever you go, there will be ramps, functional elevators, steps marked with texture and bright colours, accessible single-stall washrooms, braille signs always right next to print ones, and other basic architectural accommodations. Imagine wide-spread, fast access to fully covered attendant care, for anyone who needs it. Imagine going to an event, and knowing that there will be ASL and live captioning and a scent-free policy and comfortable seating/lying down arrangements. Because of course disabled people will work and live and play everywhere, and will be attending — or headlining! — that event. Imagine no one correcting the phrasing “disabled person” to “person with a disability”, because the stigma associated with disability has lessened enough that we all know being disabled is not shameful — the same as being Jewish (not “a person with Jewishness”) is not shameful.
So, say you’ve taken all this in, and you want to meaningfully support the disabled people in your community — but you now know that contributing to charities that focus on vocational rehab is a bad idea. The solution is actually pretty simple: give money to directly support disabled people. Don’t donate to agencies that purport to support us. We will never see most of that money. It will get used on overhead, admin work, and “support” that’s been decided on by others, not the disabled consumers. This is a bad use of your money. (It’s a bad use of everyone’s money.)
Instead, give money directly to a disabled person you know is financially struggling. Or, contribute to their RDSP (registered disability savings program) account, where the government will often triple-match your contribution, and the account will then earn substantial interest till the disabled person reaches old age and start cashing it out. Your money will go far this way.
Contribute to individual people’s fundraisers for medication, for assistive devices, for attendant care. These are real needs, that are persistently under-met by any other social supports, including government ones. E.g., my flimsy government drug plan doesn’t cover a number of necessary medications — I am left to cover over $1000 of out-of-pocket medication expenses per year, on my tiny income. If you are a disabled person who needs to buy a wheelchair, the Canadian government will pay for at most 3/4 of the cost. Sometimes not even that, if you can’t get the right kind of prescription. I know of people who’ve had to pay for their $5,000 wheelchair entirely out of pocket.
And if you want to financially help disabled people on restrictive government assistance, you can. Those programs usually make exceptions for “gifts” up to a certain amount, payments for medical needs up to an even larger upper limit — and contributions to our RDSPs.
Hard truths about economic exploitation & volunteering
Also, very importantly: please pay the disabled people in your life who do any sort of work. And pay us a living wage. We have so often been exploited for our work, that it’s one of the main ways you can help redress centuries of ableist oppression: pay the disabled people. This is of course similar to one of the ways you can redress historical oppression against BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour): pay the BIPOC who perform any services in your life. To course-correct from centuries of economic exploitation, we have to make sure that BIPOC and disabled folks are the first ones to get paid. If your organisation relies on volunteer labour, how can you make sure that it’s not BIPOC and disabled people who are over-shouldering that burden? What if you just didn’t allow a program or event to happen if a BIPOC and/or disabled person were expected to contribute all their labour for free? What if we just agreed that we all have to experience the austerity, rather than expecting some of us to not get paid so that the more privileged among us can access an experience?
Yes, volunteer labour is the lifeblood of many communities — but you have to recognise that the concept lands differently for disabled people. When we do volunteer work, it’s often because we recognise that the labour to be done is vital to our survival, or the survival of other marginalised folks, and no/not enough abled people are doing it. But what if that labour was prioritised by others? What if for example, non-disabled members of our congregation made sure to join the Accessibility Initiative and help do the necessary work? What if our DJC community fundraised until our shul had the means to employ a part-time accessibility coordinator, so that this committee of disabled volunteers wouldn’t have to do so much for free? Which is, just to be clear, hundreds of hours of work.
Final practical recommendations
And please choose to patronise disabled creators and service workers. Make sure to include work by disabled writers, performers, and visual artists, in the cultural work you take in each year. If you access our educational work for free, and find you learned something, check if there is an option to tip us a few dollars (via Ko-Fi, CashApp, Buy Me a Coffee, etc.), or to contribute to our Patreon, and do it if you can. That helps us know that our work is valued, and supports our survival. If you can’t tip, you can recommend our work to others. You can also check out disabled creators’ books from the public library — and use the request feature in Overdrive if the books you want to see aren’t yet included.
If you hire us for services — and please do! That helps with that enormous under-employment rate — make sure you pay us fairly. Don’t use our disability as a reason to pay less. And sometimes people do. They use the fact that some of us are slower, or less able to understand complex concepts — or use even just their assumption that a particular disabled worker is slower or less able to understand — as a way to devalue our time and work. This is never okay. Whether it comes to disability — or race, migration status, class, etc. If anyone is achieving the work that’s been agreed on, they should be fairly compensated, whatever their intellectual processing capacity, physical spryness, education level, or place of origin.
And, whether or not you have the means to give money to disabled people directly, please advocate in your places of employment and leisure, that disabled people be hired, and always paid fairly. Agitate for government financial supports to us to be created or increased. Commit yourself to activism for universal basic income. It will be good for everyone.
One final thought: if any of us wanted to learn to fish, we could. So definitely don’t put resources into planning to teach us. ♿