Column: Capitalist ethics, ideas influence ableist prejudice

For the longest time, I, as a person with Asperger’s syndrome, thought my troubles with time management were all my fault. I thought the fact that I couldn’t juggle elaborate, improvisational schedules very well, or keep up with instructions barked out rapid-fire, or manage to get to my work even when I had all the time in the world was a flaw of my personality or laziness.

Then, I found out about executive function: the fact that people with Asperger’s have a difficult time managing schedules, understanding instructions or finishing tasks. I was elated to discover that I was not weak-willed for having these problems.

But, there was also a far more troubling realization: Nobody would care that my Asperger’s was the cause of these habits and quirks.

People who are categorized in the autistic spectrum disorder, of which those with Asperger’s are only a small subset, are likely to struggle in the workplace. According to a 2012 study from the National Autism Society in the U.K., more than a third of autistic employees report workplace bullying. Furthermore, only 10 percent reported receiving the accommodations that they need, even though 53 percent said they requested them.

A brief by the U.S. Office of Disability Employment argues that one reason many employers do not hire the disabled is that they are perceived as creating “more work.” Many employers claim not to have the time or money to allocate needed resources to help accommodate disabled employees. Thus, those with disabilities often experience workplace discrimination and high rates of unemployment.

The core of this ill-treatment seems to spin from the influence of the Protestant Work Ethic in the U.S.: the belief that a person’s worth is determined by if and how much they can work and produce. According to this idea, if an autistic person can’t work as much as others or is perceived as unwilling to work, then they are lazy and deserve whatever they get. Our nation’s “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality can be used to discriminate against those who work or communicate differently from the majority.

Studies show that the higher one’s belief in the Protestant Work Ethic and the idea (myth) of meritocracy, the more likely one is to think badly of those with disabilities. And it’s easy to see how it’s only a short leap from there to the Social Darwinism of, “If you fail, it is always your fault; you deserve to be left to die.”

Which, by the way, ties in nicely with the state of the U.S. social safety net as of late. Why would we fund programs to help those who cannot obtain paid work if we believe that this inability is an inherent character flaw?

If you look up the phrase “welfare state work ethic” on Google, you will be greeted by mountains of articles whining about how the social safety net makes people work less, despite the fact that nine out of 10 people on welfare either hold jobs that simply don’t pay enough for them to survive, are elderly or have a disability.

A 2015 research paper by several prominent economists shows that, in fact, a more robust social safety net actually increases the ability for citizens to pursue entrepreneurship. The idea that supporting those who struggle with finding paid work within a capitalist system, whether in the short- or long-term, hurts our economy and that it discourages others from finding work is an idea that is flat out wrong. It’s also a damaging and discriminatory ideology.

If we want to eliminate disability discrimination, we must first change our attitudes about work and how work determines one’s worth. We must leave behind the notion that if you are inefficient, you are worthless under our system and should not receive accommodation or the monetary support necessary to survive.

A world without the leave-’em-to-die capitalism of people such as Milton Friedman or libertarian toadies like Penn Jillette and Raymond Joseph Teller would not just be a better one for the disabled — but for everyone.

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Tom Johnson is a film & television studies junior. Follow him on Twitter.


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