Speaking at a protest, Ed Roberts, regarded as the father of the independent living movement, once said that “politics is pressure.”

For people with disabilities, as well as other groups increasingly marginalized by the current political and economic context, that statement rings true today as much as it did decades ago.

Today, we acknowledge the struggle of disabled individuals in the workforce and highlight the importance of applying this aforementioned pressure to institutions. We can send this message through the celebration of May Day!

What is May Day?

May Day, also known as International Workers’ Day, is a long standing cultural and social holiday celebrating workers’ rights ever since the late 1800s (https://www.iww.org/history/library/misc/origins_of_mayday).

In the United States, we do nationally recognize the first Monday in September as Labor Day. Its intention is to honor the American labor movement. However, Labor Day in America is more like Independence Day Lite™, or perhaps Black Friday, with a slightly lower casualty count (http://blackfridaydeathcount.com/).

Like any American holiday, it’s a socially acceptable justification to grill hot dogs and hamburgers (though, we don’t need an excuse!), and spend money on things we don’t even want, in the name of getting “a great deal”. Thus, a day for the celebration of the workers feels appropriate. It is a day to recognize the labor of the working class, and a day where workers may feel liberated as they experience a sense of community.

Often, due to the nature of their work, laborers are divorced from feelings of empowerment or unity. Work can be isolating, disengaging, and constricting. May Day celebrations appreciate these sentiments, and supports the workers through direct action.

This action can look a few different ways–cookouts, parades, parties, community art+activities, free school initiatives (http://www.antiuniversity.org/ABOUT), and connecting workers with local community projects and organizations are all common practices, but are not confined to these. Local communities can really get creative with their celebrations–but the atmosphere of empowerment and gaiety is always at the heart of it.

Disability and the Workforce

Disabled individuals are unemployed at strikingly lower rates than non-disabled people, and when they are employed (for 2018, disabled people are employed at about 19%, while non-disabled people are employed at about 66%) (https://www.bls.gov/news.release/disabl.nr0.htm), their income is at about half of what other people are making, sometimes significantly less than minimum wage (https://www.vox.com/2018/5/3/17307098/workers-disabilities-minimum-wage-waiver-rock-river-valley-self-help). Working for little or no compensation is slavery, or at best, indentured servitude.

Due to disability being a marginalized identity, disabled people may have a different experience and journey towards self-authorship in the workplace (though we can imagine how this extends to other spaces they occupy throughout their lifetimes) compared to their able-bodied and neurotypical peers.

As a result, work places ought to be equipped to support disabled people in a way that may be different than what support looks like for the non-disabled community workplaces typically engage with.

Branches of Life and similar organizations are an effort to stand in the gap for so many shut out of opportunities. Such efforts are inclined to be a witness for those “othered” in our society–and these efforts are a direct response to the dominant narrative which warrants a powerful counter-hegemonic response. This dominant narrative we strive to counter is as follows:

  • Disabled people are demotivated to work, and their abilities and skills are non-conducive to a productive work environment.
  • Behavioral issues and achievement issues are common in disabled people, due to an intrinsic faults within the individual themselves.
  • A workplace devoted to addressing the support needs and acknowledging their skills and interests is not a priority.

Those who wish to counter this narrative acknowledge that it is a perspective rooted in ableism and capitalism. In short, it minimizes the unique perspectives and skills of disabled individuals, and prioritizes profits over people.

It is not rare to find a workplace that espouses their support of diverse identities. In the social sciences, we call this “cosmetic diversity”–meaning, an institution that touts words like “diversity” and “inclusion”, but fails to celebrate marginalized identities meaningfully and consistently.

Think: advertisements from companies, using visibly disabled models for their (very public) adverts, but not hiring disabled people to work for their company. In this way, companies feel satisfied, because they are maintaining a facade of progressive politics without actually having to meaningfully acknowledge disabled individuals.

It’s, of course, a hollow attempt and non-committed to deconstructing power differentials between able-bodied and disabled people. We implore workplaces to be a space of true inclusion and support for all marginalized identities, specifically disabled individuals who have been consistently shut out of the workforce.

Looking Ahead

To challenge this dominant narrative, we must propose a counter-narrative. Put simply, when disabled individuals feel supported and acknowledged in their workplace, we live in a more just world. Disabled individuals are able to bring their unique skills, knowledge, and experience that their able-bodied and neurotypical coworkers do not share.

Because of the likelihood that a disabled individual has experienced discrimination and lack of support from prior institutions and even family in some cases, the institution of labor ought to finally be a space of equality. Disabled individuals must become a priority for workplaces, in the most non-negotiable terms.

Today, we recognize disabled individuals all over the world. The disability rights struggle relies on the mobilization of community support to combat dominant narratives and actions that promote violence and disrespect towards the disabled community.

Let’s acknowledge the resistance our disabled loved ones have persevered through, and create some brouhaha today for all their accomplishments!