Value and worth are based on all sorts of things. There’s material value, namely, the kind of house you own, the kind of car you drive, the balance on your bank account. There’s emotional value, which I think means your support network, the people who are still there when you’re being whingy and clingy and annoying. In today’s fast-paced world, value is obviously placed on the person who can perform the most tasks within a set time frame. Words to describe this person might include dynamic, motivated, driven, dedicated.
From the cradle to the grave, it seems as if life can feel like a great big competition. Babies’ weight and height are constantly compared. From the moment our children start school, there are art competitions, handwriting competitions, sports days. Although our job as parents is to teach our kids that they can only do their best, somewhere along the these kids learn that it’s important to be the best, it’s important to win. Just today, my three and a half year old daughter came home, devastated because she didn’t win a game of musical chairs at playschool. She’s learning that sometimes she loses, that she can’t win all of the time. This is something that I as a parent must teach her, and yet, I can empathise with her. I know what it’s like to lose in a world where winning seems so important.
As the loyal followers of my blog will know (hi dad!) I’m on a six month career break at the moment, and although I am enjoying it, it’s hard as well. We are born into a society where we are taught from an early age that having the best job, the highest paying job is something we should aspire to. As a person with a disability, our narratives are quite different. First we are born, and most of the time our parents are told not to expect too much. If we live past a week or two, that in itself would be a remarkable achievement. Our parents don’t love us objectively, however; to them, we are everything. They push us through the system, ignoring the derogatory comments, challenging the lack of educational supports, tolerating being called delusional and stubborn. They don’t accept that their children are not worthy of equal treatment, and in turn, as we grow older, we must continually challenge the system too, proving ourselves to be capable, autonomous individuals.
Historically, man’s worth has always been connected with their physical and intellectual strength. During the Stone Age, people with physical impairments were often left to die. During the Christian era, people with disabilities were viewed as objects of pity, as charity cases. Then of course Charles Darwin came up with his riveting ‘survival of the fittest’ theory, a notion that Hitler took very literally as he carried out ‘assessments’ on people with disabilities, where he decided whether people could live or die based on their physical and mental capabilities. Granted, Hitler was a lunatic – few would dispute that – but in spite of how controversial his plan of creating the perfect human race was, sometimes it feels that we haven’t moved far from the idea of equating somebody’s worth with what someone can physically do.
When I was in college studying feminism, we used to discuss something called ‘the virgin/whore dichotomy’. Basically, it was this notion that women were either one or the other, and that in failing to live up to the ideal of the perfect virginal woman, they were imperfect, damaged, inferior. I often feel that when a story is told in the media about disability, the subject is either portrayed as being super-inspirational or vulnerable. You know the stories I’m on about (I’ve written some and been the subject of others), they normally go along the lines of ‘Despite being in a wheelchair and taking ten tablets a day, Joe has managed to learn Chinese and Computer programming,’ or ‘Because of the cutbacks to her Personal Assistant Service, Emma may not be able to enjoy living independently in her own home for too much longer.’ Stories like the latter are often the only way to highlight how the recession has affected people with disabilities. We sacrifice our dignity in order to get our point across. And I believe this should not be necessary.
People with disabilities have much to offer society, and they are worth far more than a paltry €30 on a Jobbridge Scheme. All the new plans to create jobs for people with disabilities are laughable because many of us don’t want to be segregated from the main workforce. All we want is equality, which is not the ability to do as much as our peers, but to be recognised as useful, productive members of society. Hopefully the UN Convention on Human Rights for People with Disabilities will be ratified next year, even as a tokenistic gesture that everyone should have equal rights.
We are worth so much to society, and now it’s time for us to be more vocal and construct our own narratives. There is no need to feel small and insignificant. Shout loud. Make sure your voice is heard. Don’t let people make you think that your issues don’t matter because they’re only perceived to affect a small number of people.
We deserve equality, in spite of our limitations. We are worth nothing less.