NPR: Unfit to Write About Disability

There’s a piece by Chana Joffee-Walt on NPR’s website entitled “Unfit for Work: the Startling Rise of Disability in America” which is so ill informed about its subject it reminds me of one of those Ronald Reagan stump speeches. Driven by anecdote rather than cultural analysis, her thesis is simple: the number of unemployed Americans receiving disability benefits has skyrocketed over the past twenty years. She intimates without fully declaring it, that there’s a vast social “scam” taking place–in the absence of good middle class jobs, and following the “end welfare as we know it” enterprise, poor people simply decline into aches and pains, thereby getting themselves declared unfit for work. Alas, Joffee-Walt hasn’t done her homework, a matter that may be inapparent to many of NPR’s readers, just as Reagan’s audiences were unaware that behind the curtain the Gipper believed “facts were stupid things” and was untroubled by any and all of the misrepresentations of social programs that propelled his candidacy for president. Such arguments depend on pathos rather than facts. Joffee-Walt fails to address the biggest fact in the room, that disability is a social construction even more than a medical category, and in turn the artificial architectural and physical constraints marshaled against people with disabilities are both products of history and the industrial revolution. One wishes she had bothered to read Lennard J. Davis’ essay “Constructing Normalcy: The Bell Curve, the Novel, and the Invention of the Disabled Body in the Nineteenth Century”. Disability is entirely economic and has been so since the move to industrial models of labor. Those who cannot work in the factory were labeled “disabled” and that model of human economic utility largely continues to this day. Reasonable accommodations are the solution for workers whose physical capacities decline but as any seasoned person with a disability who has managed to remain in the workforce knows, obtaining accommodations is often so difficult, so humiliating, so Kafka-esque, most people give up. 70% of the blind remain unemployed in the United States, many of whom might well be able to work with the proper accommodations but employers don’t want to provide accommodations fearing the expense, though in point of fact most workplace accommodations are relatively inexpensive. Think of a laborer, someone who is required to lift boxes. He suffers a ruptured disc. He can’t lift boxes. Perhaps he could be retrained to work with software. Most businesses resist this kind of accommodation, preferring medical and social determinations that are no more sophisticated than those the Victorians had. Another way to say this is that a nation that believes in work is also a nation that believes in accommodations. Joffee-Waitt misses this dynamic and ongoing dialectic and fails to illuminate the true nature of disability and joblessness. 


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