19 October 2009

A piece of ableist language I could really do without.

I've read a few posts lately about ableist language; things like 'blinded by privilege' or 'that's so lame' or that judge must be insane'. But there's one piece of ableist language that I personally could really, really do without.

It's that dreaded question, upon meeting: So, what do you do for a living?

It hurts. And what's worse, people often don't stop there; they keep on asking. 'Oh, you don't work? Why not? So are you on the dole then? Are you looking for work? But how do you afford to live? A pension? What are you on a pension for?"

Honestly, sometimes I just want to tattoo it on my forehead: "Hi, I'm Cinnamon Girl, and I'm insane. Thanks for the tax dollars!"

You see, I have a psychiatric disorder, and receive a disability support pension as a result. I don't work to make my living. I also don't want to disclose to every last person I meet that I have a mental illness. But, with that loaded innocent question, that's pretty much what I'm forced to do.

It hurts because there's a lot of people out there who resent pensioners. There's a lot of people out there who don't believe that mental illness is real. I've been sneered at more times than I can count by bus drivers who look at my card, look me up and down (noting the lack of wheelchair and apparently fully-functional body) and mumble 'yeah right' under their breath. I've had people get angry that they pay tax dammit and people like me are bludging off the system because we're just lazy and we're scamming their tax dollars dammit.

Never mind the excruciating and rigorous process I had to go through to get the pension - no, you'd think people just walk in off the street with a fake sickness certificate and sign on the dotted line.

Never mind the debilitating affect my illness has, how close I've been to death as a result, how much of my life, my life has been wrecked and ruined as a result of this illness. Never mind how crippling it is to my self esteem to not have a job. Never mind that I'm not fucking lazy, and that being able to be consistently employable and employed is my most deepest and most secret desire, and being a useless waste of space is my most secret fear. Never mind who I am, and what I've gone through - all that matters is I don't work and I get money from the government and I don't look sick.

And, although not everyone thinks like that, I don't know who does. I've been hit with other people's ignorance and prejudice too many times to think it's a minority who feel that way. And when you so innocently ask me what I do, my adrenaline starts pumping because I don't know how you're going to respond when I answer. Some of the responses I've had have been nasty and cruel, and my self esteem is fragile enough without spending another few days having to overcome that feeling of worthlessness that these interactions bring up in me.

And even if you don't think like that - maybe I just don't feel like telling you about my illness today, any more than I'm inclined to talk about my yeast infection with a stranger. It's personal, it doesn't affect you, and it's none of your business. Maybe I just want to feel like a normal person and be able to go see some music and meet people without having to disclose my illness - just once.

I keep myself busy when I can. I've studied, and things were easier then when it came to 'the question'. I've done a lot of volunteer work over the years, and sometimes when people ask the dreaded question I tell them what I do - without telling them it's volunteer. Because once they know it's volunteer, you're back to square one. 'But how do you make a living then?'

You see, somehow work has become synonymous with 'worth'. If you have a job which pays money, no matter what the job, you're worth more than someone who doesn't. Even if your job is cutting down trees, or killing people, or painting over old paint that didn't need retouching at all, you're still worth more than me - even if my time is spent revegetating riverbanks, helping refugees, or caring for injured wildlife. If no one gives me money for it, it's not worth shit.

So, if you are one of those people who doesn't think that a person's worth is measured by the fact they have a pay packet, if you're one of those people who understand that mental illnesses are illnesses, if you are one of those people who is mindful of ableist language - please, do me and others like me a favour, and stop asking people what they do for a living.

It would really help.


Issa said...

I'm on those people who doesn't think a person's worth has much to do with money at all. I've spent the last year not having a job and living primarily off my boyfriend for reasons that most people wouldn't consider "valid". Fuck that. There are a gazillion ways to get by in this world, and money doesn't equal value.

I'm also newly trying to be a person who is mindful of ableist language. While I already don't focus much on asking people how they make money, I will keep this post in mind if the question pops into my head in the future.

Summer Rose said...

Sending you BIG {{{HUGS}}}, it should not matter if you are an ablist or not, as you know both of my boys will have a tough time in the real world of work; both will have to deal with life challenges for now they are learning at their own speed as their mind is able them to learn. C is reading better than his brother, I do not ever tell Jr. he is not good enough at any thing he is finally grasping his reading in his first year of high school.

cinnamon girl said...

Thanks Issa! Yeah I think people with non-traditional lifestyles or choices (for lack of a better term) are less tied to the whole 'what do you do for a living' question. I've noticed in particular artists defining themselves by their art (eg 'I am a potter' or 'I am a musician'), rather than the shit-kicking job they pay the bills with.

Personally the question I like to ask is 'what do you do for fun'. That provides much more interesting answers.

Summer Rose, you'd have a special insight on the judgements other people make about ability with your boys. But the fact that you are such a supportive parent goes a long way to counter that.

I've never been to the US, but my impression is that it's even tougher there on people with psychiatric conditions due to the different kind of health care system you have.

Rebecca said...

I sure hear you on this one. I'm also unable to work and on disability benefits because of mental illness, and I'm so frustrated with either a) having to out myself because people won't mind their damn business, or b) having them assume that I'm just lazy if I don't. Grmph.

Heather Freeman said...

OH MY GODS YES. This, so many times this. Every time I get the "Do you work?" question it's like a stab in the gut. Because, yes, I work, I work my ass off keeping my body from completely crapping out on me, but I don't get paid for that, and so nobody cares.

It rankled even before I became disabled enough to prevent me from working, because I was an artist, and even that didn't count as a "real job" by most people's way of thinking. Even though it was my work (and still is, I'm just not trying to sell it anymore), the fact that I didn't make much money at it made me feel like a liar.

The equation of salaried work == identity is disgustingly reductionist and ableist.

Stlthy said...

I identified with every word of your post. I'm on DSP for reasons relating to mental illness, plus I have a chronic pain condition.

I was supposed to have all this fantastic potential at some point, but no. Getting pressed into telling people about my situation is something that never fails to bring up huge amounts of anxiety, followed by hopelessness.

Life should not be this hard.

Renee said...

I understand how you feel. Our jobs are also understood to be a huge part of our identity and without that we are often understood to be worthless. It hurts also when someone will complain about having to go to work and look at you like you are lucky not to.

To answer the question of what I do I tell people I am a writer. You have a blog and you can tell people the same. It does not matter that it does not make enough income for you to survive. You are being productive and contributing to the world

Renee said...

I understand how you feel. Our jobs are also understood to be a huge part of our identity and without that we are often understood to be worthless. It hurts also when someone will complain about having to go to work and look at you like you are lucky not to.

To answer the question of what I do I tell people I am a writer. You have a blog and you can tell people the same. It does not matter that it does not make enough income for you to survive. You are being productive and contributing to the world

CurlySue said...

This is a great post and, as a person with a long term (usually invisible) disabling medical condition preventing me from working, I can definitely relate.

However I don't think that merely asking what someone does for a living is ableist. People ask this question of each other all the time, it's just normal small talk in our society and I think quite innocent. If someone has just met you, how are they to know that they mustn't ask a question of you that they'd usually ask to other people? This is especially so if you have an invisible disability.

I don't particularly like being asked what I do for a living, in fact I dread it, but I can't blame the other person for asking, especially as my disibility is often invisible and so to them, it's a perfectly reasonable question. I can blame them however if, when told that I am not working right now due to ill health, they ask intrusive follow up questions. That's a different issue entirely.

I can empathise with the idea that we should not have to tell people about our medical status, that it's none of anyone's business. This is true. Sometimes I just say that I'm unemployed right now and leave it at that. It's not a lie, but it's not the whole truth. How I respond to that question depends on the situation and the person.

I do feel that our society places too much emphasis on paid work determining a person's worth and in an ideal world we would replace questions like 'what do you do?' with 'what do you like?' and so forth. However realistically I think we have to accept that able bodied people are going to ask us what we do for a living, perfectly innocently. It would be unreasonable to expect everyone to try and assess whether the person they are speaking to has a disability and therefore whether it is okay to ask what work they do.

It's not the asking of the question that is the problem really, it's the reacting negatively to the answer.

yond_cassius said...

Thank you for writing this post. Even at an age when I could conceivably be a full time student I find it difficult to take, especially when followed up with "well, what do you want to do" or having a series of questions that lead to having to explain my experiences in a way that doesn't frighten the other person (I have severe depression combined with psychosis and anxiety, and lost the last job because of the workplace's inability to cope with a severely depressed employee.)

cinnamon girl said...

@Rebecca - yeah, it sure is frustrating!

@Heather I know what you mean! Some days I spend hours and hours 'working', but all the work is in my head keeping things together, so it's invisible work, unpaid and so it doesn't count....

@Stlthy no, it shouldn't.

@Renee, oh I get that one a lot. 'You're so lucky you don't have to work' ffs, if it's that great and that easy everyone would go on the pension!

@CurlySue thanks, but I disagree - I think asking the question IS abelist, because the question assumes ability. I don't want people to ask every able-bodied person the question but somehow understand they need to make an exception for me - that would involve disclosure, the very thing I would like to avoid.

Sure, it's common innocent small talk - that's my whole point. If someone doesn't want to use ablist language, one thing they could do is remove this question from their repertoire of small talk.

@ yond_cassius thanks, it sure can be hard to explain psych issues to people in a way that won't frighten them.

alice said...

This is so spot on. I've hated the question for years, initially on bahelf of my mother, who didn't work for pay but was an artist, and now on my own behalf - I'm in a position similar to Issa's, and find that this question just end sup being invasive for all of us who don't fit the 'I go to ad office and have _______ title' mold.

There are so many alternatives to small talk that don't rely on the money=value paradigm! "how do you know [the people hosting this event]," "what do you do when you're not [attending this event]," " "what do you think of [thing you're in close proximity to]."

I really hope that we keep moving towards using those more genuine questions as a way to connect - even for people who have an 'easy' answer to the 'what do you do' questions, it sets up conversations along a narrow track that encourage classism and judgment - we all benefit from having more open ended questions to work from.