Trauma and lived experience sell. But the disabled can’t make a profit. Nevertheless, there is a particular type of trauma that’s effective. Cookie-cutter trauma: some will cut at your trauma until it bleeds in a palatable, marketable shape.
Our trauma is, of course, created by the same systems, the same unbroken cogs in the machine. Place your trauma and lived experience in, and what comes out will invariably be a ticket of admission: you can join the non-disabled, entertain them with your tale of woe or inspiration – and they will admit you for a brief period, believe in your humanity, as far as they’ll allow it.
But once they used up your worth as an educational tool and as a piece of entertainment, your power to make others think they are progressive and inclusive, you’ll be kicked out.
But don’t worry, it’s all in the name of progress – as much as it ever was.
I am often asked to work for free – to educate others about my disability or raise awareness about what it’s like to be a disabled woman – to experience emotional manipulation, what it’s like to be groped in the street – it feels like exploitation.
So does a system designed to tell disabled people that their only worth is sharing their trauma, for free, of course.
We’re told how to tell our stories: only a sob story, strictly no sob stories, make the worst moments of your life uplifting leave it on a hopeful note – write it cleaner, sharper, how did you feel, why?
Recently, I was asked to share my lived experience of having a disability with a company. I wondered how much I would be paid for my time. As a disabled freelance journalist, I have to think about the time and effort I put in.
Somedays, I struggle to remember essential words, or I have an unexpected bout of exhaustion. Although the company didn’t expect to have to pay me for my time, “we thought you’d want to help other disabled people get into work and show that other disabled people can work.”
It’s emotional manipulation, but it also made me think about how many disabled people have been caught in this cycle before and after.
In 2021, the trade union body’s analysis of Labour Force Survey statistics found that non-disabled workers earn 16.5% more per hour than those that meet the definition of disabled under the Equality Act.
We’re not better off for being complicit in our devaluation. Once I agreed to terms with the company, I was a passionate advocate for disabled people’s rights.
But a part of being a suitable advocate is also about recognising that I shouldn’t contribute to the idea that disabled people offer their expertise because we have a duty. I’d only be contributing to a system that does not see us as living, breathing human beings but as free content.
I note two things: that any company that really valued disabled people, our work and inclusion would pay for our expertise, and that the company hasn’t paid me yet.
It feels like a radical act to suggest that disabled people deserve to be paid for our labour – and our emotional labour – because we’ve been told for generations that our work and contributions to society matter less.
It’s a non-disabled world, and we’re just trying not to die in it.
It’s a non-disabled world, and we’re just trying to share an unpalatable truth in it.
It’s a non-disabled world, and we’re just trying to get a fair wage in it.
Future generations of disabled people deserve better – we deserve to be paid for time, knowledge and lived experience – we need to say no and work to dismantle systemic imbalances.
We need to continue to turn these industries upside down – we need to stop trying to earn the respect of the non-disabled if admission on their terms costs us and continues to let them devalue us.
So, when I am asked to work for free in the future, I won’t. So, we can discuss the importance of education, raising awareness, and exposure, but let’s also discuss why we’re being asked to expose ourselves for free. Why it’s presumed that disabled people don’t have bills to pay, even as that tremendous looming stereotype – the scrounger – the work-shy – the unproductive – is tied to us.
We need to stop being grateful for inclusion – and start seeing what we bring to the table – a table that otherwise would be content to give us scraps and platitudes.
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