My childhood was colored by my experiences navigating my disabilities. At an early age I was diagnosed with ADHD, hearing loss, and dealt with a neuromuscular disease that was later in life diagnosed as myasthenia gravis. Ever since the age I was able to attend school, academia has been a primary source of stress and poor self-worth for me. The school system was by far the arena I experienced the most difficulties navigating as disabled because of its centering of productivity.
In third grade this stress manifested itself in the infamous ‘100 problems worksheet’, an American classroom staple where children are required to complete 100 arithmetic problems in under 5 minutes. I’d be handed one of these worksheets every day at the beginning of class to barely pass the first 15 problems before time ran out. I watched peers progress to the point of completion easily. When I failed to complete the same task I became a target for ridicule.
The combination of my blackness and lack of productivity caused by disability resulted in teachers and peers marking me as lazy, or a problem. One teacher went so far as to advise me to copy the student beside me, just so I could keep up with the pace and production of the class. These experiences resulted in my isolation and shame. Eventually, I was given the necessary accommodations for the worksheet, but even with these accommodations the surrounding shame and isolation remained, if not intensified by the stigma of disability.
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Unfortunately, shame, stigma and isolation are all too common experiences for those unable to keep up with the expectations of productivity.
From a young age we are taught that our bodies and our purpose is to produce within effective normative means. That in order to be something of worth, we must prove our productivity. The ideology of productivity in life purpose extends far beyond the school system. Expectations of productivity range from being able to get out of bed on a bad day to reproducing children, riding a bike, or being successful at an academic task. In failing to be useful, we are told we are not of value or valued less than. It is those bodies that fail to meet social standards of productivity that are most often marginalized.
Productivity: The Ableist Heart of Capitalism
Many of the pressures of productivity that we face stem from socialization under capitalism. At the heart of capitalism is the idea of productivity. Our economic growth and overall measures of prosperity are labeled in measures such as GDP (gross domestic product). The most valued and rewarded workers and general members of society are those who create the greatest output. Even children are placed into systems that prepare them for this reality through the issuing of grades, which measure and reward productivity at an early age. It was in examining these standards of capitalist productivity I first experienced in the school system that I found my disabled body in opposition.
Often times the narrative of disability is regarded as an isolating personal tragedy that one must adjust to or overcome. This is because the disabled body is viewed by society as being uncontainable: a body out of control. When accommodations or adaptations are denied to disabled bodies, the ableist divide between able-bodied and disabled bodies takes place.
Within the economic and social landscape, the bifurcation of the normative able-bodied citizen and the disabled one creates the assumption that a “proper” citizen is an able-bodied productive one. In so doing, the economic and social value of personhood is conflated with restrictive notions of productivity. The result of this binary is that the disabled body is rendered as “other”, less useful, and then simply as just less.
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It is the inherent ableism of society, of capitalist productivity, that teaches us that we must be of use, that we are tools to be used to produce and that the entirety of our purpose is hinged on a framework of productivity.
When Productivity Becomes Body Terrorism
In evaluating our life purpose and the value and purpose of others within a framework of capitalist productivity, we not only shame and isolate bodies that aren’t valued as productive — we unleash a form of body terrorism that communicates it is not one’s body that should be valued but rather what that body can effectively produce.
When we value bodies for simply what they can produce, we dehumanize them and turn them into tools. The internalization of this mindset can prove to be even more harmful.
The shame and isolation I felt as a child surrounding my productivity are traumas that still follow me and impede on my self-worth today. Even now, when trying to keep up with capitalist demands of my labor and productivity, both in work and in daily struggles, these notions continue to weigh on me.
I’m just beginning to unlearn these behaviors, to deconstruct internalized ideas about how my body is to be used, what purpose I am to have in life, and the shame of not being able to fulfill these expectations. It is in the little things — in the subtle implications and the 100 problem worksheets — that I was taught these things: to feel broken, to feel less than, to feel isolated. It is important, no, it is crucial, that we dismantle these ideologies and learn to understand and value life beyond its potential for productivity.
In this life your purpose is not dependent on your productivity, on how much labor you can perform. You do not have to be useful. You do not exist to be used.
Your personhood, your value, does not correlate with how measurable your achievements are or how they benefit the capitalist underpinnings of society.
Do not let any system or person convince you that you are disposable or less because you cannot be used to measure up to ablest notions of work. Your life is of purpose because it’s yours. Because you’re here, you exist in this moment, to be here, to be as unapologetic and unwaveringly unproductive as you so desire. Life’s purpose is for you to define; its value is inherent.
[Feature Image: A person with brown skin and long black hair stands against a light-colored wall. Their gaze is slightly downcast as they look into the distance as if they’re lost in thought. They are wearing a black tank top and fedora and have their hands on their hips. Source: Flickr.com]