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The Right Not to Work: Power and Disability

Some of us here in the UK are in despondence after what happened yesterday in Parliament.

And today we chanced on this reflective article by Sunny Taylor which is very appropriate in the context of disability politics – even if she is writing from an American perspective. Ultimately we resonate in our shared experiences of our rights in society and how we are percieved as disabled people.

She writes:

“I want to make clear that I am not saying people should stop fighting for equal rights in our current system, but that we should simultaneously think beyond the system in place. Many disabled people want to work and can work, but are discriminated against by insurance companies and employers. It is very hard as a disabled individual to go to college (every school I’ve applied to have discriminated against me despite the ADA), and so the disabled have a hard time competing for better jobs. Another catch-22 is that because better jobs are often better paying they can sometimes threaten our SSI insurance, which for the severely disabled is often the only insurance that will cover essential needs; this encourages more people than you would think to stay out of the workplace. The paradoxes and difficulties and the economic and social challenges of being disabled and living on SSI astound me daily; still, I remain unconvinced that fighting for equality within the current system (that is, to some extent, the right to be part of the exploiter class as opposed to being part of the exploited) is the ultimate ideal worth fighting for.

Is the goal to be “mainstreamed” into our current society or to change society? As Michael Oliver says: “It is bizarre for people to think that we as disabled people can live in Britain with full civil rights and all the services we need without fundamental changes. We are not actually talking about tinkering around at the edges of society to let people in. For disabled people to play a full part in British society, this society will have to change fundamentally.” Fundamental social change looks like it is a long way off, I’ll admit, and in the meantime we are frequently told the only way to change the system is to participate in it. The more economic and social affluence one has, the more one can maneuver within the system. I am told the way individuals achieve this is through building a successful career, through working. All of this holds some important truth. The first step to equality is independent living and getting people out of nursing homes. Once out of nursing homes, impaired people also need an accessible environment so they can interact with others who live in their community and share their interests and overcome the problem of geographic and environmental isolation. These material changes (accessible buildings and transit, and independent living) are absolutely necessary for the liberation of the impaired population. Many disabled have in fact fought for a living wage (it was an early disability cause in Britain), a cause worthy of the support of advocates for the impaired and for humanity in general; yet this cause necessarily demands a reevaluation of the role and significance of work and implies a right not to work as well as a right to live.

Sunny Taylor, Self-Portrait (2003)

In a capitalist consumer society where everyone wants the perfect face, perfect job, perfect family, and perfect body, disability will never be appreciated or even fully accepted. In a culture in which the appearance of self-sufficiency and autonomy is essential, the dependence of disabled people (because they do not live up to this myth), may always be reviled or at least patronized. Even progressive institutions and people have discriminated against me more times than I can count. Progressives, like most able-bodied people, are loathe to identify with crippled people and more often than not refuse to acknowledge two simple truths. The first is that they, if they live long enough, will join our ranks. Impaired advocates sometimes joke that people should actually consider themselves “temporarily abled.” We all age and most people end up infirm. It is astounding how little concern there is for the quality of life and the unfreedom of the elderly in this society; I can only surmise that it is the result of a collective coping mechanism of denial. The second fact is that the treatment of disabled people is merely a more pronounced form of the condition of other populations in the contemporary workplace. Many Americans lack affordable health insurance, secure employment, and are also denied the right not to work. The casualization of employment, inadequate wages, the return of many senior citizens to the workforce when they can’t make ends meet after retirement, the lack of paid vacation, the encroachment of the work week on our weekends and evenings, and mounting debt for the poor and middle classes, all evidence a lack of freedom from work oriented activity and anxiety. Working masquerades as the ultimate freedom and the premiere signal of independence, and yet more commonly seems to represent just the opposite of those two ideals.”

Read the rest of her article at Monthly Reviewer

Her website is at

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