Disabled People Can Be Productive Workers, But That Shouldn’t Determine Our Worth
by Alaina Leary
As a disabled person, I have spent my entire working life trying to unlearn the idea that I’m not a productive or efficient worker because of my disability. I’ve also overcompensated for this concern in myriad ways, taking on extra unpaid work at jobs or having multiple side hustles to make sure that my resume shows that I go above and beyond. During the interview process, I often either hide or downplay my disability and any necessary accommodations, fearful of discrimination. I feel like I need to be at least twice as hardworking, skilled, and educated as a nondisabled person to get a job, keep it, and continue to get promoted.
Disabled people can be incredibly productive, talented, and capable workers, and our work has worth and value, despite ableist, capitalist ways of thinking that tell us otherwise. “Who really has the right to put a price on what someone’s value is?” asks Joel Hernandez, a gay disabled Latinx who is a senior manager of talent acquisition at a national nonprofit. “A person with a disability… might need accommodations, but that doesn’t equate to being unproductive or unable to work.” Any healthy, compassionate workplace needs to be flexible to meet the varied needs of all employees, whether they have a disability or not.
But we must also challenge the idea that someone’s ability to participate in paid labor is more meaningful than other forms of work. As Dessa Cosma, the Executive Director of Detroit Disability Power, who is also a wheelchair user and a little person, asserts, “By making paid labor the only kind of real value, we’re not only playing into historical and current systems of oppression that devalues certain types of labor, we’re also devaluing all of the lovely things that humans do without getting paid. What does that mean for love and friendship and volunteering?”
Notions about disability and productivity have a very real impact. Earlier in my career at a previous workplace, I used to answer emails 24/7—even at night, on weekends, and on holidays—because I was worried that if I wasn’t constantly working hard, I might be fired because I’m disabled. Disabled people who can’t or don’t work a traditional job or who might need to work part-time because of their disability can also be harmed by society’s perspectives on productivity. Consider, for instance, the circumstances of Nicole Zimmerer, who has a master’s degree but is unemployed and receives Supplemental Security Income and Social Security Disability Insurance benefits. She knows that she can’t be employed in the traditional sense because of the income and asset limits for people who receive these benefits, and she needs access to the health insurance that SSI/SSDI provides for disabled people through Medicare. These financial limits are essentially legislated paths to keeping disabled people in poverty.
Because she doesn’t work, Nicole has felt that other people devalue her. “My ten-year high school reunion is coming up and I’m probably not going to go,” says Zimmerer. “People would be like, ‘What do you do?’ and I would have to say, ‘I’m between jobs right now.’” Zimmerer knows that she can be a productive and creative worker, but she often has to stick up for herself because as a society, we make the assumption that someone isn’t valuable if they don’t contribute to the workforce through traditional full-time employment. “It’s hard to feel like a functioning member of society,” she says. When she’s asked what she does for work, she says she usually answers the question honestly and feels a change in how people are communicating with her, with pity or judgment. “There’s that change when you say that you’re not working, because you feel like you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing.”
Assumptions that disabled people can’t work or are only valuable if they do work are pervasive, including within nonprofits and philanthropies that often claim to hold progressive values.
Ana L. Oliveria, President and CEO of the New York Women’s Foundation, who is also disabled, believes that nonprofit and philanthropic organizations have a responsibility to transform their approaches to creating more inclusive workplaces. “The existing concept of accommodations means ‘making room’ for a certain dimension for people living with disabilities,” she says. “We need to transition to changing the reference altogether, from an ableist standard to an inclusive standard—not making accommodations, but instead creating shared definitions of talent that are needed.”
Hernandez highlights that organizations must be intentional about creating accessible workplaces. “We don’t have to wait until people are in an actual position to name that there is space for people with disabilities or that it’s a disability-inclusive workplace,” they explain. “One of the things that I was proud of doing in one of my previous roles was supporting an organization-wide inclusivity audit. In our phone screens, letting candidates know that if they have any access needs to participate in the process, to contact me. We were signaling that people might need an accommodation and that they can participate fully as themselves.”
Cosma agrees that nonprofits and foundations need to create people-centered environments. At Detroit Disability Power it’s important for employees to feel like they can work in ways that suit them and that they’re able to take care of their needs. “We are a four-day-week organization,” she shares. “We’re living in a really stressful time that is taking a lot out of people. A three-day weekend is massively better for rest and recuperation.” Further, Cosma deeply believes that workplaces must ensure flexibility and transparency for their employees, such as options for part-time or remote work, and transparent and consistent staff evaluation systems.
Detroit Disability Power’s entire staff are disabled people, which is an intentional choice that Cosma says has cultivated employees who have skills such as “creative problem solving, tenacity, critical thinking, flexibility, adaptation, knowing when to ask for help, pacing ourselves. These are all things that disabled people are required to be highly skilled at just to get through the day.”
As Zimmerer reminds us, disabled people are an asset to organizations because they can help make the workplace more accessible. “I honestly believe once you have accessibility for the disabled population, you make the world more accessible for everyone,” she says. While the burden should never solely be on disabled people to make the world, or workplaces, more accessible, there’s a net benefit for everyone if disabled people are in the room when decisions are made, because we’re naturally thinking with access at the forefront.
To truly shift toward more inclusive workplaces, Cosma calls on nonprofits and philanthropies to engage in a thoughtful deconstruction of the ableist ideas we hold about work. Oliveira suggests taking action on this “by creating a working group centered on people living with disabilities to examine the definitions of success, HR practices, institutional incentives and competence to value people living with disabilities, flexibility of positions, work styles” and more. By providing these spaces for conversations about access, workplaces will likely find that their current employees are better able to show up as their entire selves at work, and they’ll see a positive impact on the entire organization.
Cosma urges organizations to focus on “creating an environment where people can be their whole selves. When we have to leave any part of ourselves at the door, we can’t be as authentic, we can’t build as good relationships…We get better employees and we do better work [when we’re allowed to be ourselves].”
To be ourselves at work, we must all recognize that our worth is not inherently tied to our productivity or our ability to do paid work. And the work you do is worth just as much if you need accommodations, flexibility, or support in order to do it. As we look to workplaces of the future, forward-thinking organizations must not only prioritize, but also celebrate and uplift, the ways we all show up.
Alaina Leary is a program manager at We Need Diverse Books and affiliated faculty at Emerson College. Her work has been published in the New York Times, Boston Globe Magazine, Good Housekeeping, Refinery29, Glamour, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and more. She lives with her wife, three literary cats, and a rainbow bookshelf outside of Boston, MA.