May Day and the Value of Work

The first day of May has been celebrated as a holiday across many European cultures since the Middle Ages. May Day marks the approximate halfway point between the Vernal Equinox and the Summer Solstice. In addition, May Day has also been celebrated as International Workers Day since the late nineteenth century, a day where the victories of organized labor have been celebrated.  It is a time to reflect on the victories of workers’ unions establishing the eight hour work day and the weekend, and to setting the minimum wage. 

Disabilities and Working

Working for pay is a complicated topic for the disability community.  According to some public policies, the very concept of disability is defined as an inability to work. To get some benefits, one needs to prove that they cannot work and are, therefore, “really” disabled.  Of course, all disabled people know that this is complete and utter nonsense.  First, many of us do work full time jobs. Being disabled and working for a living is not an oxymoron. Second, it’s also true that even more of us could work if given the chance.

Barriers to Working

Schools can be ableist to the point that disabled students face barriers when trying to graduate with high school diplomas, trade school certifications and college degrees that would qualify them for many jobs. Then, hiring practices are often discriminatory. Anyone with a disability has a harder time getting their foot, wheel, cane or crutch in the door. Once we are hired, the common practices of work life often are inaccessible, from the transportation used to get there, like personal cars, to the structure of schedules that don’t allow enough time to do simple things like use the restroom.

It’s important for disabled people to NOT blame themselves for these things. We must remember that inaccessibility that creates barriers to working is not the same thing as being unqualified or unable to work.

The Value of Work

Lastly, even though some do work for pay and others could if ableist barriers weren’t in the way, we also need to recognize that there is a big group of people that may not be able to work in ways that is valued by our economy. They definitely work, however, and make important contributions to our society. There are countless ways this happens, but here are a few examples.

Working Without Pay

Disability activists and advocates that volunteer their time (and that is the majority of them), whether they are working with an organization like ADAPT to try and fix federal laws or launching their own campaign to make their school more accessible. Another way disabled people work without getting paid is by teaching others about disability. Most of the disabled folks I follow on social media that teach me daily don’t receive any sort of compensation for their posts. Also, you should consider what disabled and nondisabled people both do to take care of their families and friends as work.  Listening to someone who has had a hard day and needs to figure out a problem that is stressing them out is absolutely a kind of work that brings great value to our lives, even if it is unpaid.

So, this May, I invite you to think of all the labor you and others close to you perform that is undervalued by our society. Nevertheless, the work is critically important. Take a moment to celebrate this work.

About Joe Stramondo: Joe is an assistant professor at San Diego University and is extremely active in the disability community. Joe uses an Edge 3 Power Wheelchair to maintain his mobility and independence. In his spare time, Joe strives to be the best father he can to his children. Click here to learn more about Joe.

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