Gatekeeping Disability

The Intersection of Ableism, Austerity, and Capitalism

When I first became chronically ill, I found myself identifying more and more with disability. But with that identification came a feeling of guilt, one which is familiar to many within the disabled community. I’m not disabled enough, I thought. Disability was something other and extreme, reserved for those who had conditions much worse than mine. Despite my illness massively affecting my life, I was riddled with guilt whenever I identified as disabled — even if only in my own head.

But there are over 11 million disabled people in the U.K. where I live, and the disabled community has a diverse range of experiences, so why do so many of us feel guilty for identifying as such? I think the answer lies in a deep intersection of ableism, austerity, and capitalism.

The idea that a person is not “disabled enough” is an ableist narrative — one that is tied up with ideas of limited resources (austerity) and productivity (capitalism). This ableist narrative does not recognise the diversity of experience within the disabled community. Instead, disability is both homogenised and othered. Representations of disability in the media are restricted to a white person in a wheel chair (often portrayed as either a suicidal burden or inspiration porn). The homogenisation of disability sets small and restricted parameters in which to identify. It sets disability up as a competition; if you do not comfortably fit within those parameters you are not disabled enough, you’re a fake, you’re stealing resources from “real” disabled people.

“Stealing resources” is where the ableist narrative intersects with austerity. Austerity tells us that there is only enough money in the pot to help those with the very worst conditions. It tells us that we’re not disabled enough and to say otherwise would be to steal limited resources from those who really need it.

Ableism and austerity are thus interdependent. On the one hand austerity produces the competition aspect of ableism — the idea that there are only enough resources to help those with the “worst” disabilities means that in an ableist framework there is a contest between different disabilities. On the other hand, the homogenisation and othering of disability that happens through an ableist narrative produces the standards by which austerity decides who is disabled enough.

But if there is money in the pot for parliament to spend £3.7m on food and wine for MPs and to give corporations big tax breaks, then why is there not enough to provide help to all disabled people? Austerity has been linked to the deaths of over 120,000 people, many of whom were disabled people that austerity deemed were not disabled enough. Why were their lives deemed less important than the comfort or profits of the countries elites?

The intersection of capitalism and ableism answers this question. Capitalist society dictates peoples’ value based on their productivity — a very specific productivity, one that contributes to the economy. Through the lens of ableist and capitalist narratives, disabled people are not seen as productive. Ableist narratives homogenise disability, wiping out the diverse range of experiences that make up the disabled community, restricting disability to an impossible other with little to offer to society. And capitalist narratives do not recognise the wealth of creativity, support, wisdom and love produced by the diversity of the disabled community as productivity, because to them it has no economic value.

The combination of these ableist and capitalist factors means that disabled people are not viewed as productive members of society. And under austerity, only those deemed most productive — the countries elites — are given priority.

Ableism, capitalism, and austerity combine to make disability seem alien and impossible to accommodate. This, I believe, is the root of the guilt (as well as many other things) that many disabled people feel when identifying as disabled, including me. People can find it difficult to view themselves as disabled when the idea of disability seems so far removed for participation in society.

But disability is diverse. There is no mould you must fit to identify as disabled. Having a good day does not invalidate your disability. And your disability does not invalidate your productivity, whether that be cultural, spiritual, or economic. You do not need to prove yourself or compete with other disabled people; diversity of experience a huge part of the disabled community. You are enough.

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