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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

When Will We Be Paid For The Work We've Done?

FWD/Forward alerted me to this story, about Mary Brown, a woman with Down's syndrome who does unpaid volunteer work as a classroom assistant in a "special education" primary school classroom (in the US, although extremely similar things happen in the UK and other places). The news story presents this as an unequivocally good thing, something that is a great beneficial opportunity given to Brown, without ever seeming to consider that there might be some injustice in such a set-up:

Brown’s unpaid job is to be a teacher’s aide in Masaki’s classroom. While the position is voluntary, Brown works like the two full-time paid teacher’s aides, Rita Evans and Wendy Usary. The paid aides help Masaki with the classroom teaching everything from potty training to table manners to play time to desk work.

Brown helps control the children and helps keep the classroom running the three days a week she’s there.


Firstly, there's a bit of an ambiguity here - Mary Brown "works like the two full-time paid teacher’s aides", but then distinctly different descriptions are given of the work that the paid aides do and of the work Brown does - although it could be an actual material difference, or it could be essentially the same work described differently, with emphasis given to different parts of the job (perhaps to make Brown's work seem more trivial, less truly necessary work and more something she has been "allowed" to do as a favour?). Secondly and more importantly, if Brown "works like the two full-time paid teacher’s aides" - and therefore her work has the same value as theirs - then why isn't she also paid? It seems to be seen not just as perfectly acceptable, but somehow as a laudable, philanthropic act of "assistance" to them, to have disabled people doing the same work that non-disabled people get paid for, and give them nothing in return for it - and yet, apparently, it was the "fast-food place" Brown was working in before - in which she was presumably paid - that was "taking advantage of the fact that she was disabled"!

The vast majority of the quoted speech in the news article, and the to-camera interview footage in the accompanying video, is by Brown's "employers", teacher Barbara Masaki and principal Debbie Gill, who get to describe and define both Brown herself and her "employment" situation. Where Brown herself gets quoted, the newspaper seems to do what many similar articles and interviews i have read seem to do with/to people with learning difficulties/developmental disabilities/intellectual impairments [is there a generally agreed-on term for these sort of impairments? I see different terms used, both across the UK/US divide and as claimed to be preferred by different organisations of people with such impairments themselves... in this post i'm using them fairly randomly without intending to assign different nuances of meaning to the different phrases] - deliberately editing her speech (as all quoted speech in newspaper articles is deliberately and selectively edited) to appear as as inane, childish and ungrammatical a collection of non sequiturs and statements of the obvious as possible, presumably with the intent for the reader to look down on and patronise her, and/or to portray her as incompetent to be considered an adult human being. (I have to confess that, due to the combination of my auditory processing impairment with Brown's rather quiet speech, Southern US accent, and the lack of captioning in the video, i couldn't really make out much of what she was actually saying in the (very short) time she got to speak in the video, but it certainly seemed like she wasn't given the opportunity to say much of meaningful content.)

Gill's comments are the usual rather sickening "inspiration" stuff, but nowhere near as offensive as some of what Masaki says...

First, Masaki describes Brown as "a poster child for what a Downs can do" - "a Downs"?!?! OK, i'm not that into "person-first language", and do sometimes describe myself as "an autistic" - but "autistic" is an adjective, and there isn't really any equivalent adjective for Down's syndrome, and "Down('s)" is an eponym, an impairment named after the doctor who "discovered" it, and using it like that as a noun to describe a person with the condition feels incredibly dehumanising to me (i would be not at all happy to be referred to as "an Asperger's"... [eponyms such as "Asperger's" and "Down's" take an 's in British English but not in American English]). It implies that Brown is nothing more than her impairment, and that people with it can be dismissed as a homogeneous category completely without individual personhood. Of course, in this quote she also calls the 23-year-old Brown a "child", as she does again in another quote:

“She will always be a trainable child. Even when she is in her 80s, she will still be functioning on the level of a trainable child,” Masaki said. “But wouldn’t it be nice if there was a little bit of the child in all of us?”

There are several horrible things here. First, the uncritical use of the term "trainable", dating from the workhouse-era classification of intellectually impaired people into those who could be "trained" to do "useful" work (often with "training" methods that basically amounted to torture) and those who could not (particularly disturbing coming from a "special education" teacher!). Second, the assumption that her "functioning level" (a heavily loaded and problematic term in itself) will never change throughout her lifetime, and that, despite Brown demonstrably being in reality an adult, her "functioning level" is that of a child, meaning that Masaki buys into the "eternal child" stereotype of learning-disabled people - historically and still used to deny them adult sexualities, adult roles within families, and all the basic rights, freedoms and responsibilities that anyone else is assumed to gain automatically on reaching chronological adulthood - which is perhaps even more disturbing as an attitude held by a teacher whose pupils she considers herself "mentor and so much more" to. Thirdly, the glib "wouldn't it be nice" comment, which is more patronising "inspirational" crap, making disabled people into ciphers of innocence rather than real, flawed and complex people.

After all this, Masaki then says, with breathtaking hypocrisy, “I’m disgusted when I see people reacting to her like she’s a disabled person. She’s a person.” - which firstly implies that, to her, the categories of "disabled person" and "person" are mutually exclusive, and that a disabled person is an inherently disgusting thing to be, and secondly seems to imply that Masaki sincerely believes herself to be not discriminating against Brown, but treating her equally to a non-disabled person!

Another quote that shocked me is “I would love for her to get a part-time job in a day-care center [sic] or in a classroom setting if they will work with her.” Mary Brown already has a 3-day-a-week job in a classroom setting - she just isn't getting paid for it!

There's a lot more that could be said about the whole context of a segregated "special education" classroom, and a whole lot of analysis could probably be got out of Masaki's comment that “She sees things from the disabled point of view... and when she comes out here with them to calm them down or play with them, they don’t see her as the big bad authority figure like they see us. They see her as one of them.” - the "us/them" distinction, the idea that a member of a minority "service user" group who is on the "service provider" side of the line in a service setting is tactically useful for forming a "bridge" between "us" and "them", and whether or not the teacher is being ironic or self-deprecating in her description of the kids' perception of herself as "the big bad authority figure" - and, of course, the authoritarian nature of schools as a whole - but if i tried to do all that now i think it would grow into a whole separate post about "schooling" and education...

Also, although no mention of it at all is made in the article (and i apologise in advance if, coming from the UK, where "race" is quite different to what it is in the US, my analysis or language use is wrong/inaccurate here), the ethnic/racial context of this is horrifying. Mary Brown is black (African-American). Her "employer", and all of the children attending the school that we see in the photos or video shown, are white. This is in South Carolina, the founding state of the Confederacy. A black woman is doing unpaid labour - of a type that was very much coded as "house servant" work in the slavery- and feudal-era US South - for a white "employer" who is portrayed as her benefactor (and gets to patronise and speak for her, even explicitly describing the adult Brown as a child - just like the "girl" and "boy" terminology of slavery), and she is expected to be grateful for it and regard it as the best opportunity she can get.

This sort of thing is really not that unusual. In several places in the UK, i've encountered caf├ęs or shops in council-run buildings or parks/leisure facilities that were "staffed" by people with learning difficulties, who on a bit of enquiry turned out not to be actual paid staff, but on "work placements" from day centres, considered to be "therapeutic" or "opportunities for personal development", and therefore not at all exploitative (sarcasm). Even things like this, at a "disability rights festival" (which i have been to a couple of times, and which does showcase some genuinely radical art by disabled performers), are unclear about whether their "students" are actually paid for the work they do, or if "enabl[ing them] to develop catering, social and life skills" is considered "payment" enough.

Government also often uses similar rhetoric to justify placing disabled people (often effectively forcibly, with the threat of loss of benefits for "non-compliance") in unpaid "work placements", the purpose of which is supposedly to teach them relevant skills for "the world of work" (even though these are often skills they/we already have, and it is not lack of ability to do a job, but lack of opportunity to get a job due to physical and attitudinal barriers put up by employers, which results in us being unemployed). In the UK, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron's "Big Society" rhetoric makes it explicit that disabled (and other unemployed) people are to be expected to do "voluntary" work to "justify" receiving state benefits (and that work regarded as vitally necessary for society, and previously done by paid public sector workers, is going to end up being done by such "volunteers"), while when DAN cornered his government's "Minister for Disabled People", Maria Miller, in Manchester in June, she repeatedly used the phrase "job placements" without ever clarifying if it meant real jobs or such forms of exploitation "justified" by paternalism (in a way heavily reminiscent of the similarly pseudo-paternalistic "White Man's Burden" rhetoric of slavery and colonialism). And, of course, exploitation disguised as philanthropy has been the core business of disability charities such as Scope (the rebranded "Spastics Society"), Leonard Cheshire, etc. since their founding in the Victorian era.

As a broadly-communist anarchist, i obviously have much broader criticisms of the whole concept of wage work - but i still think it's a massive improvement on slavery. And while Mary Brown has not been physically forced to work with no pay - and so calling her situation "slavery" as such would be an insult to her (very recent) ancestors who were literal slaves - it's still a horrible example of discrimination and exploitation, made more horrible by the way that it is portrayed so uncritically as a gift or favour to her - when it's Brown herself who is giving her labour freely in a context where she would be more than justified in demanding payment for it. While wage work exists at all, disabled people do not our unpaid labour exploited under a crudely euphemistic guise of patronisingly "giving us opportunities", or some bizarre "preparation" for future "work-readiness" - we want real work for real pay and equal pay for equal work. When will Mary Brown - like all the other disabled people exploited in similar situations - be paid for the work she's done?

15 comments:

Adelaide Dupont said...

The other context in which I hear the "trainable child" is within religion. He/she is meant to be bendable and pliable or biddable.

The very first Staple Singers song was called, "Why am I treated so bad?"

And Paulo Freire had a lot to say about this: education, work and the rest.

susanreads said...

I reckon I can make out more of what she says in the video than you can. It starts with her naming children off-screen: David ... Angela ... Luke ... June

Then she's interacting with the kids and I can't really hear what she's saying.

Later she speaks to camera: I get [up in the] morning, get ready, be on time for work

And finally: I love my job, I really love it ... I really love it, I like it here

So she regards it as a job, at any rate.

Lindsay said...

Wow, that's one of the more patronizing articles I've read in a while!

And yes, Mary Brown is working a part-time job as a teacher's aide; she should be paid as one!

Her employers seem to think they're already doing her a big favor by *letting* her work in the classroom at all that the idea of paying her for it sounds utopian to them. Never mind that they're getting more out of the arrangement than she is...

Lindsay said...

Also, I don't know how prevalent it is in the UK, but here in the US there's been a worrying trend in recent years of extracting skilled work from people for no pay --- the person is supposed to be grateful for the *opportunity* to work in their chosen field, even for free!

Workplace dictatorship, I tell you.

shiva said...

Well, there is one whole huge problematic area that, in my rush to get this post finished before i got to bed, i completely forgot to include, which is how Mary Brown herself feels about the situation. (I kind of feel like i should edit the post to include it, but don't think i will have the time in the next couple of days). If she doesn't *feel* that she is being exploited, but instead enjoys what she is doing and doesn't mind not getting paid for it (as i do think voluntary work, even within a capitalist wage-work system, can be a legitimate and non-exploitative thing... although i do think that there are a lot of dodgy "charitable"/paternalistic ideologies tied up with it), is she still actually being exploited? I don't know whether i have an answer to that. Does whether her impairment affects her understanding of things like money (which is a massively non-intuitive thing for many non-neurotypical people, including myself, to attempt to understand) have any bearing on the "validity" of how she feels about it? (I'm very disturbed by the idea of going down the route of considering anyone's impairment to invalidate their thoughts or feelings about anything...)

Any thoughts?

Natalie L. said...

I have an aunt who has a severe cognitive impairment--she is unable to live independently (I don't know if this is because she was never taught or if there is a real inability there--her abilities are all over the place, so it's hard to tell). For as long as I can remember, my aunt has worked--for pay, but being paid by the piece. And if she works too quickly, she will make too much money, which will affect her disability benefits. So I suspect that if Mary Brown were to be paid the same as the other aides, she would exceed the (ridiculously low) income threshold to continue to receive her disability benefits, which is not only a monthly check (which I suspect she does not have direct access to), but which likely also includes things like medical coverage and housing (if she is not living with family members or friends).

It's a gigantic mess, in other words--people who are on disability and who want to and can work are often unable to do so to the full extent of their abilities because of the way the system is structured. Which is a problem.

Quijotesca said...

Lindsay - she probably doesn't have all the educational qualifications the school district would want her to have to actually pay her, which I'm scarcely saying is fair. I've had a couple of different types of volunteer jobs within school districts and that's what it came down to, no matter how hard I worked. Once I helped set up a library in a new school and unlike the other volunteers, I stuck around during the school year. The librarian genuinely tried to figure out how to hire me as a paid aide, but the school district wouldn't have it despite the fact that it wasn't the first library I worked in. She wound up hiring someone else, which I just found kind of awkward since I'd been there longer.

I'd love to actually take relevant classes, but without a real job, I don't have the money. None of the "services" I've been hooked up with seem to actually want to help me try to figure out how to get training so people will actually want to hire me, and it's darn frustrating.

StefHeartsYou said...

@Natalie L - this is a great point. My little sister has Prader-Willi Syndrome and if she works too much she starts getting benefits deducted. Trying to find the "sweet spot" of working enough that she can do a job and have a fulfilling out-of-home life and not making so much that she can't get disability is a tricky one.

tara said...

You will start getting paid for the work that you do when you stop getting paid not to work. Just like everybody else.

Louna said...
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Louna said...
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Louna said...

@ tara: It's more complicated than that. Disability benefits usually also include, as was mentioned, medical coverage. It might also include assistance for everyday life tasks and accessible housing. (Many people with disabilities, even when they don't use a wheelchair, need their housing to be accessible in some way.) Part-time jobs often do not include medical coverage. Loosing disability benefits can thus cause a person to become significantly poorer, because of medical expenses (that may be higher because of the disability) and the other expenses related to living with a disability. It can also lead to a person not receiving the help ze needs for everyday life tasks and thus actually make that person unable to go to work. The system is seriously flawed.

Also, people don't get paid not to work. They get paid so that they are, hopefully, able to lead a humane life.

Holly Salsman said...

Very well written and thoughtful post. I completely agree that when it comes to work placements, they should be paid like everyone else. To not do so would give the impression of exploiting someone.

dknyida said...

I am wandering why this problem of how much you can work without loosing your required help (whether it be money or help from e.g. support workers) seems to be occurring in so many western societies?
Cheers,

I

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