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. The school system by far was the arena where I experienced the most difficulties navigating as disabled because of its centering of productivity. Ever since the age I was able to attend school, academia has been a primary source of stress and poor self-worth for me.
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. Combinations of my blackness and lack of productivity caused by disability resulted in teachers and peers marking me as lazy, or a problem; one teacher going 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. Isolation and shame resulted out of these experiences. Eventually, I was given the necessary accommodations for the worksheet, but even with these accommodations the surrounding shame and isolation remained, if not intensified with the stigma of disability.
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, you must prove 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, reproduce children, ride a bike or be successful in an academic task. In failing to be useful, we are told we are not of value or valued as less than. It is these bodies that fail to meet social standards of productivity that are most often marginalized.
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 over all 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 set-up into systems that prepare them for this reality, through the issuing of grades which measure and reward productivity at an early age.
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It is in examining these standards of capitalism and productivity which 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 introduces an appearance of uncontainability: a body out of control. Without accommodations or adaptations, the distinctive divide between able-bodied and disabled takes place, the primary difference being in usefulness or its ability to be used in the context of normative means, or without accommodations and adaptations.
Within the economic and social landscape, the bifurcation of the normative abled bodied citizen and disabled one creates an assumption that a proper citizen is an able productive one, that 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 then simply as just less.
It is the inherent ableism of society, of capitalism’s productivity, that teaches us that we must be of use, that we are tools to be used to produce and that our entirety our purpose is hinged on a framework of productivity.
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 that 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 mind frame can prove to be even more harmful.
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The shame and isolation I felt as a child surrounding my productivity are traumas that still follow me and impede on my self-worth. Even now when trying to keep up with capitalist demands of labor and productivity with work and daily struggles this notion continues to catch up with 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 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 of how much labor you have to perform. You do not have to be useful.
Practicality and function do not factor into how you should be treated in regards to your humanity. Your personhood, your value does not correlate with how measurable your achievements are on a wider scale or how they benefit the capitalist underpinnings of society.
You do not exist to be used.
The body is not a tool to be used or disposed of regardless of your ability or productivity. 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. You are not here to fulfill a purpose or function that’s been set out for you that’s normative, expectable or respectable.
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 stands against the wall looking at the camera with long black hair wearing a tank top and fedora. Flickr.com]