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The Disability Paradox

Further thoughts on inequality, disability, and the imaginal

Recently, Chiara Bottici and I discussed the disability-to-work campaign currently being promoted on New York City subways from the perspective of what she calls the “imaginal.” She offered her reactions to the campaign in a piece on October 12; here, I provide my own, which come from the perspective of a former eight-year career as a paralegal, with the final five spent doing substantive work exclusively in disability firms.

Do you have a disability? Do you want to work? This seemingly innocent pairing of questions should immediately raise a red flag, for it is technically oxymoronic: in the United States, the disabled, by definition, are those who cannot work, at least in any significant sense. Granted, disability falls on a continuum, and answering to this continuum is a parallel benefits scheme for some workers — specifically, those whose disabilities have resulted from their employment. These are the Workers’ Compensation programs, each state with its own, which take “disability” to mean the degree to which one is incapable of using an affected part of the body. One may work with a disability under such a program, so long as the worker has not significantly lost the ability to use the body part in question in the completion of work duties.

But the image we are presented with here suggests something else: a dichotomy between disability and work. It assumes the disabled person who is not employed, who does not possess an earning capacity, and therefore it offers to provide services that will change this circumstance. In doing so it points directly to the paradigmatic disability program in the United States: that of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and its very similar sibling, Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

As outlined extensively in the Code of Federal Regulations, an individual can receive benefits through SSDI or SSI if, and only if, the degree of disability from which he or she suffers is sufficiently severe to prevent the completion of substantially gainful work. The ability to perform work is what the lawyer or judge would call prima facie evidence, and what the social scientist or humanist would call an a priori condition, of non-disability. The two cancel each other but for exceptional cases in which one can work, but in such a limited capacity that it is not considered gainful within the standards of the national economy. The burden is, for the most part, on the claimant to demonstrate that he or she suffers from a legitimate and objectively demonstrable medical condition that is severe enough to create functional limitations commensurate with this highly circumscribed legal definition of “disability.”

So what are we to make of an image that encourages the disabled to work?

The Social Security benefits system is often thought of as a welfare system, as an achievement of the bygone Keynesian social-democratic state that attempts to attenuate the harmful effects of market economy. But, of course, the social state is under siege, and much literature has now examined the strong resurgence of individualism, meritocratism, and laissez-faire economics in the moral consciousness of America. In this social climate, as “disaffiliationist” scholars point out, a typical subject-consciousness has been formed that increasingly sees itself as disconnected from societal forces and institutions and more responsible than ever for the creation of its own self and destiny.

Consistent with these developments, the image pits “work” against “disability” in an implicitly pejorative manner, championing the opportunity for a liberated agency over the stigma of dependency upon the state. For if American political culture truly respected the disabled as disabled, why would it ask them to work? Who would patronize a vocational rehabilitation program in a society that deemed the disabled to be necessary recipients of social support, and that allowed the disabled to imagine themselves in this way?

Instead, the image (re-)presents a social reality in which the disabled are discouraged in their own disability. The disabled individual is entreated to re-enter the work force, to disconnect him- or herself at the first opportunity from social support, to earn his or her living in the legitimate economy, side-by-side with legitimate subjects. The disabled non-worker, the recipient of benefits, is delegitimized as a person — from without and from within. For how else could it be that a “disabled” person would “want to work”? What is the explanation for the paradox in which the people who have made claims for social support based on their inability to provide for themselves can also seek to reintroduce themselves to the very economy from which they have fought to prove themselves barred? Or the paradox in which we ask the very people we define legally as incapable of work to capitalize on a desire to work?

It’s this: the disabled subject in today’s United States is one who laments the inability to make him- or herself through work, to fashion a socially legitimate identity that is capable of independence and achievement. One whose self-worth is diminished by requiring support, whose concept of personal value is tied to the ability to be economically productive. The terrible situation of the liberalized disabled individual is to be ashamed of his or her ineligibility to be used by the market, for whatever purposes it may have. To echo the famous remark of Joan Robinson, not being exploited becomes the true evil.

And the state responds accordingly. Far from being a socialized implement of support, Social Security’s disability programs function as a last resort for only the most intensely economically ostracized individuals. Entry to the benefits programs is highly gate-kept, favoring the elderly, the inexperienced, the uneducated, and the catastrophically impaired. And those who manage to get onto the disability payrolls submit to an ongoing Foucauldian medico-legal surveillance, which ensures that no benefits are paid to anyone whose status changes in favor of employability. Routine check-ups are conducted to determine whether beneficiaries have had any change in their status, medical or otherwise, which would allow them to be kicked out of the program, and successful claimants face the ever-present threat of suddenly receiving a decision on their “improvement” in the mail. Individuals whose claims are pending are allowed a six-month “unsuccessful work attempt” in which they try out gainful employment, and successful claimants are given the opportunity of a similar nine-month “trial work period.” Meanwhile, beneficiaries are offered training, education, and rehabilitation programs, any of which may provide them with new skills or abilities that render them capable of performing work they couldn’t before. And in some jurisdictions, the U.S. District Court contributes to the normative character of homo economicus by holding that the most credible disability claimants are those who try to work, and who profess a sincere desire to work, but simply and honestly can’t do it.

In other words, the individual is constantly reminded that the possibility of becoming a worker exists, and the system is structured in such a way to produce this result and slough off its recipients as often as possible. So, then: what does it mean that this image, which tells the disabled person to re-legitimize him- or herself through work, which asks its viewer to overcome his or her own body and mind in order to be weaned from the state, has no white men in it?

So far as statistics tell us, white men are by far the most common recipients of Social Security disability benefits. Though the Administration appears to have ceased tabulating racial demographic data in 2010 (even an internal report from 2014 is based on aged data), its 2009 report indicates that of 7,788,013 recipients that year, 5,658,054 (73%) were white and 3,005,142 were white men (that’s 39% — a plurality — of the total population, and a majority 73% of male recipients, which totaled 4,100,400). Further, among white recipients, 53% were male. Similar results obtain for previous recent years. What is the imaginal import of the fact that the most common recipient of disability is wholly absent from the image?

With Bottici as my interlocutor, the picture that comes into view is one in which society views the “minority,” the non-white, the non-male, as the natural recipient of support, because of weakness or some other inferiority. It is not shocking for the minority to appear in such an image, identified as incapable (even if only temporarily) of being independent, of being legitimate. To associate the inability to achieve, to prosper, and to take responsibility for oneself with the minority is a default. While the majority enjoys the assumption of being capable of the most socially normative achievements, to the weaker others in society falls the patriarchal “care” that is domination cloaked as compassion.

Or perhaps it is the other side of the coin: that we cannot bear to implicate the strong, proud, dominant, self-made white male with weakness, with dependency, with inability, with compromise, with need. We cannot delegitimize him by allowing him to be seen in this way; we cannot place him on those lowly rungs with the others (the Others); we cannot reduce the emblem of our society to his antithesis. Our association of the white man with success, stability, and ability is osmotically transmitted to us in our historical consciousness and in the structure of our socialization. He is the last thing that comes to our mind when we discuss failure and assistance. He is already outside the purview of this image.

Zachary Sunderman

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