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What Does it Mean to Be “Productive”? A Conversation Between Disability Allies

By Susan Mahipaul and Erika Katzman

Neon sign on a side of a building, “time is precious”
Neon sign on a side of a building, “time is precious”

Resisting Ableism and Redefining Work: A Conversation Between Allies

We are two critical disability scholars who came together to talk about ableism through our embodied experiences in academia. Despite having remarkably similar qualifications, one of us secured a tenure track faculty position and the other remains precariously employed as a sessional lecturer (part-time instructor). One of us is visibly disabled and the other is not. Both of us are impacted by expectations of (hyper)productivity in our academic workspaces: our workloads are assigned by task without clear indication of the time we are expected to contribute; lunch hour meetings are the norm; we always seem to be squeezing in another task, extending workdays well beyond a conventional 9–5; and the boundary between weekday and weekend easily erodes as deadlines appear on any day of the week. Through conversations like this one, we support each other to recognize, theorize, and resist ableism in our everyday lives.

Erika: On September 1, 2020, an impending sense of doom gripped my heart. The Fall semester would start next week. At eight hours a day, five days a week, that gives me 40 working hours per week. 40 hours sounds like a lot until I start to split it between the eight research and writing projects I have on the go (collaboration on two large grant projects, a literature review, a textual analysis, a discourse analysis, a conference paper, and revisions for a journal article as part of the peer-review process); service work for my program, department, faculty association, and school; meetings and other responsibilities for the non-profit board I sit on; and teaching three undergraduate courses this upcoming term. 40 hours suddenly does not sound sufficient.

Susan: 40 hours does not sound sufficient to me either. This summer, for the first time in years, I took a two-week vacation. I was burnt out, not managing well, in pain, and unsure where I could find the physical and mental energy to chip away at the projects I have going on. Colleagues were emailing me to meet over Zoom. Peers were asking me whether I could guest-lecture in their courses. COVID-19 has become the new normal and now all of my specialists are calling me, often on Mondays, telling me that I have a phone consultation or follow-up with the specialist that very same week. All assume that I am free and available. My schedule looks like a colorful puzzle that causes my heart to palpitate because I don’t know how I’m going to fit it all in. I don’t even know how I will feel tomorrow, let alone by the end of the week.

Erika: As I strategically allocate blocks of time between teaching and research, I am uncomfortably aware of the improbability that I will truly be able to commit eight working hours every day for each of the coming weeks. Rather, I should say, I am uncomfortably aware of the consequences. This morning I sacrificed two hours of work time to complete a virtual ergonomics assessment. The chronic pain in my back, neck, and shoulders have exacerbated significantly over the past few months of working from home. My home workstation may be the culprit. It could be the exceptional number of hours I’ve spent at my computer since the pandemic ushered work from home orders nearly six months ago. Or, it could be the weighty stress of uncertainties, both practical and existential. Regardless, the ergonomics assessment is one more attempt to reduce the pain, which contributes to my fatigue, which together reduces my ability to work an expected eight- (or more)-hour day.

Susan: Expected…that is an important word for me. I struggle to imagine how I would feel working an eight-hour day…or a 40-hour week. On a “good day” I can fit about three hours of productive work into my day. I feel that this is such a small amount of productive work. Here I am, comparing myself to you. It’s hard for me not to do this. On a typical day, I wake up around 6:00 am and drag myself into my day. I take my medications — those for chronic pain and others to allow my organs to function. I take care of my dog with the help of my husband, making sure that she has her medications and food. Then I start my physiotherapy program to stretch my muscles and joints. By the time I get dressed, three hours have passed, and I find myself reflecting on how tired I am already. Should I give myself a 20-minute break for self-care? Or start working while I eat breakfast? I try to protect time in the morning for writing. My afternoons are filled with meetings, usually starting over the lunch hour — at least, on days when I don’t have specialist appointments. As 4:00 pm approaches, I have to inject more medications. These ones make me feel nauseous, exhausted, and cause more pain. Sometimes I try to stay productive, writing emails while I take these meds. Other times, it’s simply too much to even sit up. I want to do it all, but I can’t. How do I explain this to people?

Erika: We’re ambling on in ways that are similar, but different. Similarly, because we are learning from one another how to navigate the same system. Different, because our bodies are different, our lives are different, and the ways the world around us perceives and interacts with us are different. I get up in the morning, I make my coffee and breakfast and then I dive into work. Our mornings look different, but the way I see it, you also wake up and dive into work — it’s just that the work we do at some points in our days is not seen and valued equally in this world. The writing and lecture prep that fills my mornings are seen to be more valuable than the time you spend keeping your body well. If we understood the time you spent keeping your body/mind well as disability work, our days wouldn’t look so different.

Susan: When you describe my three to four-hour workdays as equitable, I feel buoyed. It’s one of the most supportive things that anyone has ever said to me and helps me to challenge internalized feelings of inadequacy; like, I’m expected to fit all of my personal care in and still work eight-hour days. I do manage to fit an awful lot in. Currently, I teach one half-credit course a year. I’m a consultant on two large research grants. I write with colleagues and on my own, and I free up time for guest lectures to teach about critical disability studies — though outside of a tenure track academic position, this is all unpaid work. I am not lazy or unmotivated, though I fear that’s how I’m perceived when I prioritize personal care. This is not a privilege for me, it’s a necessity; it’s essential. It is work. But writing this out makes me feel vulnerable because I have been taught my whole life that I should not talk about this “side of my life”.

Erika: The notion that pursuing tenure track is about time management fails to acknowledge a lot about care: personal care, caregiving, and the legitimacy of the work we do in the name of care. As we strive to survive within ableist workplaces, there is an ever-present need to choose between health and well-being or income and employment security. This is something I’ve learned from you. I feel so caught up in the grind like it’s never okay to rest. You’ve given me permission to take the breaks I need to protect my physical and mental health. You shamelessly (but always gently) give me advice that is resistive.

Susan: Health and well-being should be as important as income and employment security, but for me, I have to choose the former and sacrifice the latter. And you never judge me for making this choice. You give me permission to be disabled and to claim it in my life and in my work. You help me to understand and voice the emotional labour of my disability as work and the extent of my role as a caregiver. You remind me that it’s okay to operate on crip time, the pace my body moves at, no matter how hard I try to meet able-bodied norms. You validate the importance of my disabled wisdom — the particular ways I understand and navigate the world through my lived experience of disability — and how my commitment to prioritizing my survival has taught you to take better care of your own body and mind. Most importantly, however, you help me to challenge my own entrenched and internalized ableism.

Cross-Ability Solidarity: A Better Way Forward

We’ve been in the midst of a global pandemic for more than half a year now, and as the adage goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. At a moment when the general public seems to be waking up to the harsh realities of late-capitalist grind culture, the academic world barrels ahead: fall courses started as scheduled, students and faculty are shouldering typical full-time workloads. Has anyone stopped to consider the toll that a dramatic and sudden shift in pedagogical norms is taking on us all? We’re not sure; but we’re not optimistic, either.

We describe this academic culture as ableist because the level of productivity expected always assumes normative or non-disabled bodies and minds. While accessibility is often framed as a “disability” issue, workplace cultures that place excessive emphasis on (hyper)productivity uphold standards that privilege those most “able,” without considering other factors like gender, race, and class that shape our opportunities to create, produce, and succeed. These practices exclude people with diverse lived experiences, hindering the quality of — and range of perspectives represented in — scholarship produced within our institutions. They also compromise the health and well-being of all involved.

As a disabled woman and a non-disabled ally, we learn from, mentor, and guide each other. We give each other permission to work and to be productive in the ways that we can. We see each other and the unique struggles that each other faces as we pursue our parallel career paths: one, a tenure track faculty member, the other a precariously employed academic. We have regular conversations about what we are doing, what we are shaping, and what shapes us. We push each other to integrate the disability theory that we research, write, and teach about into our personal lives. And, we support each other to recognize and resist academic ableism in our everyday working lives.

The conversation between us is ongoing. Shedding light on our common experiences is one small way that we can begin to chip away at the ableist structures that are taking their toll on us all. We are hopeful that by sharing our dialogue, others might also begin to share, listen, and hear.

Susan Mahipaul, PhD, MScOT is an occupational therapist and lecturer in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies, Disability Studies Program at King’s University College. Her interests include critical disability theory and rehabilitation.

Erika Katzman, PhD, MScOT, is an occupational therapist and assistant professor in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies, Disability Studies Program at King’s University College. Dr. Katzman’s work identifies invisible forms of labour performed by marginalized people and groups that are not typically thought of or valued as ‘real’ work.

Spark: Elevating Scholarship on Social Issues

The Online Magazine of the National Center for…

National Center for Institutional Diversity

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We produce, catalyze, and elevate diversity research and scholarship.

Spark: Elevating Scholarship on Social Issues

The Online Magazine of the National Center for Institutional Diversity

National Center for Institutional Diversity

Written by

We produce, catalyze, and elevate diversity research and scholarship.

Spark: Elevating Scholarship on Social Issues

The Online Magazine of the National Center for Institutional Diversity

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