My stomach rumbles, so I emerge from my cave of books and hobble the few blocks from my office on a quest for a Crunchwrap. In the distance, I hear the mechanical coughing of a cracked muffler: a relic of an automobile, some half-rusted, almond jalopy. The car slows down and swerves over, almost jumping the curb. The passenger rolls down the window—literally rolls down the window, because their car is about as old as I am.
The stranger leans out and hollers, “hey r*tard, who taught you how to walk!”
I lean on my cane to slowly turn my body toward them, and hear the driver thoughtfully add to the conversation “get a job!”
As they drive away, I hear them giggle like middle school boys upon spontaneously hearing the word “ovary.” This sort of jeering is fairly common in my life as a visibly disabled person. I prefer the hurling of words to the hurling of beer cans—that’s also something that happens sometimes.
But dipshits heckling me is such a typical part of my life that I mostly forget about them as I muddle my way into the Taco Bell parking lot. But there it is: their almond jalopy parked outside. My hecklers, finishing their cigarettes, step out of the car. They see me and erupt into more laughter, and I notice their Taco Bell staff t-shirts and caps. They clearly have jobs, and—based on the driver’s offhand comments—they believe that I do not.
Not that it should matter—and not that I care to explain it to every jackass who assumes disabled people are parasites—but I do have a job. I’m an assistant professor of English who researches disability, and I spend a lot of my time teasing out cultural assumptions about disability.
And I deal with parasitic misconceptions of disability and labor frequently: Strangers say ableist shit in grocery stores. Movie theatres. My own college campus. Airports are the worst—both in terms of ableism and more generally.
When disabled people go out in public, we’re too-often assumed to somehow not be part of that public, but metonymically associated with parasites.
And this is a calculated, intentional move by early 20th century eugenicist assholes, whose responses to disability ranged from thinking disabled people like me should be sterilized against our will to straight up murdered. My “get a job” hecklers may not know the philosophical origins of this line of thinking, or that this ideology relates directly to the racism inherent to American policing and xenophobic immigration policies. They don’t know, but it’s the legacy they invoke.
In 1888, Rev. Oscar McCullough of Indiana likened disabled folks like me to parasites in his infamous The Tribe of Ishmael. Blending a hatred of people of color with a dash of bigotry against disabled people, McCullough argues that giving charity to disabled folks was a “cruel kindness,” that we were beyond help and giving us scraps to stay alive only meant there would be more generations of disabled folks, comparing disabled people to literal parasitic creatures. McCullough’s fiction is connected to a whole range of bigotry against disabled people, often invoking this parasitism echoed by “get a job.” This same metanarrative gets taken up by Reagan’s welfare queen bullshit. Parasitic, ableist dogma is the favorite bedtime story of those Americans hellbent on dismantling social safety nets.
But disabled people are certainly not parasites if we do not have a job title that fits neatly into the little boxes capitalism has created. Many jobs were made to exclude disabled people. If you’re abled and don’t understand this, I want you to pay very careful attention to the next job you apply for. You may notice a job that has nothing to do with lifting requires you to be able to lift 40 pounds on the application. Or you may notice a job that has no indication it expects you to operate a vehicle requiring a valid driver’s license. Of course, these limitations work at the intersections of differing kinds of oppression, like excluding those without US citizenship, or the elderly (who are also more likely to be disabled), or any number of other marginalized identities.
And a shit ton of disabled people have jobs. If you didn’t know, the Center for Disease Control estimates some 61 million American adults have disabilities—roughly 1 in 4. While it is true disabled people are much less likely to be employed than our abled peers—for reasons that are complicated and nuanced, involving public policies and personal circumstances—around 20% of us are employed. But even then discrimination is a huge issue. Distilling the idea of the disabled person as parasite into official policy, the “Fair Labor Standards Act” makes it legal to pay disabled people less than the minimum wage (a subminimum wage). More than 400,000 disabled adults are paid a subminimum wage, making $2 an hour—or worse, in some cases.
And many of us that don’t have jobs still do a hell of a lot of work. Many of us not only look after our own needs, but of other disabled people, too. And this “care work”—as described by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha—is disproportionately taken up by disabled femmes of color. This work is needed and necessary, but because some corporate taskmaster isn’t profiting off of it, it doesn’t count as a “job.”
Back at the ranch—or rather, the Taco Bell parking lot—the boys are still giggling.
“What about me is so funny to you?” I ask them.
“No offense man. Did it for the LOLZ!” Yes, dear reader, our passenger is the sort of fuckboi who says “LOLZ” aloud.
“I don’t see why it’s funny,” I answer them.
So I added, “Maybe this is something your manager might help with, and see if we can find out why it’s funny?”
In that moment, the giggling completely stopped like an orchestra as the conductor motions them to rest. Until the fella who was driving blurts out loudly in contrasting staccato, “At least I work!”
And there it is again—this eugenic, ableist ideology bubbling to the surface.
I follow them inside. They’re listless as I order my Crunchwrap and a ludicrous-sized Baja Blast. I pocket a fistful of hot sauce packets and take a seat in view of the counter. The passenger, working the till, eyes me like I’m a wild animal.
Look, I just want to make these guys sweat a little. I want them to maybe think about not fucking with disabled people “for the LOLZ” next time.
I don’t really want either of them to lose their jobs. Me threatening to go full entitled-white-person and get the manager involved is a lie. I’m not really wanting to pop off at a 20-something-year-old Taco Bell employee with a car as shit as mine.
I’m not sure what their wage is, but I’m sure it’s not a living wage. And I couldn’t do their jobs.
Quite literally, I am physically and mentally incapable of their jobs: I’m mobility impaired, chronically ill, and autistic.
None of these markers are inherently bad, mind you, but it brings us to our bullshit American capitalist social contract: we all trade on the possibility of our labor, that we will be able to exchange our labor for our boss’s money. And this is the justification for treating disabled people like crap. We believe that we have so many working hours we can cash in on, that we can trade the work for the money.
But in all likelihood, there will be a time when that’s not true for every one of us, a time when we cannot trade on this imagined future labor value.
But the employee’s response—at least I work—references his basic, most metonymic understanding of disability. It’s painfully clear that to these young men making my Crunchwrap—white, abled men—I am a parasite. I’m some sort of deviant. They assume I’m squelching on the social contract.
But that social contract dehumanizes all of us. It asks us to trade on our projected futures, assuming able-bodiedness that is only ever temporary. It takes for granted an assumed-to-be mental normate that frankly doesn’t exist. Disabled identity means hobbling towards something else, hobbling toward living más, despite often having less—less money, less time, less resources—than our abled peers. I want to live in a world where, should these same Taco Bell employees become disabled, they would have agency and be treated with respect and dignity. A world where disabled people aren’t seen as parasites, and where labor isn’t coupled with our “value” or “worth” as people.
I lean forward and push against my cane to hoist my body from my chair. I approach the counter again, wish my hecklers a good day, and then stroll away.
Adam Hubrig (they/them; Twitter @AdamHubrig) is a multiply-disabled caretaker of cats. Their writing has been featured in Brevity, Typehouse Magazine, and Disability Invisibility. They currently resides in Huntsville, Texas, where they are an Assistant Professor of English at Sam Houston State University.