I have a confession to make: I do not work. I am on SSI. I have very little work value (if any), and I am a drain on our country’s welfare system. I have another confession to make: I do not think this is wrong, and to be honest, I am very happy not working. Instead I spend the majority of my time doing the activity I find the most rewarding and valuable, painting.
The very first thing that people ask me when I say I am a painter is “Do you sell your work? Are you supporting yourself?” I actually do sell my work, but I do not support myself from these sales. I hate this question and I feel ashamed no matter how I answer it. This is because I always feel like this question is a test; a test to see whether my lifestyle and hobby are legitimate; and money is the gauge of this legitimacy. Is money really where all value lies? Are my art and my lifestyle really less meaningful because I do not support myself financially?
Due to my disability (arthrogryposis multiplex congenita), I paint holding the paintbrush in my mouth instead of my hands; I use an electric wheelchair for mobility. When I first realized that due to my impairment I might be unable to work in a traditional job, I was worried about my financial future, but it never occurred to me to worry about my life’s value as a “nonproductive” citizen. However, I think that I am unusually fortunate to have been raised with a belief in my own inherent value, because many disabled people seem to carry a deep “non-working guilt,” even if they are successful in other areas.
… Being impaired or not being normal (which, as I have said, with the help of family and technology and with perseverance can be overcome) is not sexy by common standards and neither is dependence. The fact is that impairment reveals our interdependence and threatens our belief in our own autonomy. And this is where we return to work: the ultimate sign of an individual’s independence. For many disabled people employment is unattainable. We often simply make inefficient workers, and inefficient is the antithesis of what a good worker should be. For this reason, we are discriminated against by employers. We require what may be pricey adaptations and priceless understanding. Western culture has a very limited idea of what being useful to society is. People can be useful in ways other than monetarily. The individuals who I marched with may not have paying jobs, but they spend hours each day organizing protests and freeing people from lives in institutions. Isn’t this a valuable way to spend ones time? Disabled people have to find meaning in other aspects of their lives and this meaning is threatening to our culture’s value system. Though education, legislation, and technological developments may work to level the employment field for some impaired individuals, we should keep some fundamental insights from Marxist economic theory in mind, particularly the theory of surplus value, which dictates that higher profits result from the ability to pay less for labor power than the value imparted by the worker. The same rule that often excludes the impaired from the traditional workplace also exploits the able-bodied who have no other choice but to participate. The right not to work is an ideal worthy of the impaired and able-bodied alike.