The Sick Day that Never Ends: Capitalism’s Pricetag for the Disabled and Marginalized

Capitalism is an economic system of convenience… that is, the convenience of management and CEOs.

by Melissa King on February 23rd, 2016

Capitalism abhors people like me.

I am a trans woman with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) – the latter catalyzing enough depression and anxiety to qualify me for disability. Whenever I try to leave home, I have to fight an anxiety akin to what one feels before going on a roller coaster. Its strength is dependent on factors I can not always predict – some days are better than others. A decade of forcing myself through my anxiety and out the door has established a learned response in my brain: Going outside is scary. Going outside will hurt me. This is assuming, of course, that I can even get out of bed.

Tangled sheets in a bed.

Photo CC-BY Maria Morri.

My depression and anxiety may not ever be ‘better,’ at least not in a sense where I can function as a worker in a capitalist society. Johanna Hedva defines sickness in her “Sick Woman Theory”:

“Sickness” as we speak of it today is a capitalist construct, as is its perceived binary opposite, “wellness.” The “well” person is the person well enough to go to work. The “sick” person is the one who can’t. What is so destructive about conceiving of wellness as the default, as the standard mode of existence, is that it invents illness as temporary.

Days where I am well enough to work are as common as sick days for a neurotypical worker. This means that my options for employment are extremely limited, and that I will likely be relegated to low-paying jobs. I have always wanted to be a game developer, but because mental illness is highly stigmatized in tech culture, any cracks in ‘passing’ as a perfectly healthy person has drastic effects on the chances of a career. The prevalence of ‘crunch time’ at the end of a game development cycle, and its general acceptance as a normal part of being a game developer, is something that would be especially difficult for someone like me. It is already brutal for a neurotypical developer – I can easily see myself having an emotional collapse.

Life may be better with therapy and medication, but they have not made me capable of career or part-time work. No boss wants an employee who frequently has to take sick days. The ‘smart’ business decision is simply not to hire someone like me – my transness only makes that an easier decision to swallow. Making it through an interview process is already hard as a woman; being trans makes it harder. February Keeney highlights, in her article on trans discrimination in the interview process, how antagonistic interviews can become once the interviewer figures out that she is trans. Her experience is supported by research pointing out that women with “LGBT indicators” on their resume or application are vanishingly unlikely to score an interview in the first place.

These biases and structural barriers persist despite anti-discrimination laws, which are supposed to protect LGBT people, and the ADA act, which should protect those with invisible illnesses and guarantee reasonable accommodations:

Reasonable accommodation is any modification or adjustment to a job or the work environment that will enable a qualified applicant or employee with a disability to participate in the application process or to perform essential job functions. Reasonable accommodation also includes adjustments to assure that a qualified individual with a disability has rights and privileges in employment equal to those of employees without disabilities.”

However, companies would still rather not hire people with ASD, and generally avoid making any formal accommodations. This problem is not isolated to the corporate world – academia has also let me down with its disability assistance, which was no more than a list of suggested ideas that my instructor had ultimate power to interpret or ignore. My school was only willing to guarantee “considerations” for accommodation – I was only really protected by the kindness of individual teachers.

If nobody can ‘reasonably accommodate’ my needs, then why are disability benefits are so difficult to obtain? Anyone claiming serious illness is viewed with suspicion, as if they are trying to game the system and get free money — the suspicion already aimed at the disabled is magnified when they are of color. Meanwhile, neurotypical, “well” people think we should simply function as they do. As my savings dwindle, my ability to seek mental health care suffers. Medi-Cal does not always cover adequate therapy, and will only cover autism treatment with special permission.

An electric sign above a garage reading 'Capitalism Kills Love.'Photo CC-BY Jeremy hunsinger.

After all, capitalism is a system that ignores human need. The rights that workers do have were forced into law under corporate duress. Concern for the needs of chronically ill and disabled employees would also have to be enacted under duress. There is no point where we will have “paid our dues” and can be allowed back into the the ‘standard’ workforce. The bootstrap theory is already insufficient to explain success, and the subaltern rarely have a boot to pull on in the first place.

Angry as I am, there is little I can do. I am only an inconvenience for a capitalist system – not a threat. Even protesting on the streets is beyond me, because leaving the house is a terrifying experience every time I try. If I could participate in protest, resistance will not feed or clothe me. My voice only reaches as far as others carry it — here, my white privilege benefits me greatly. In turn, I do what little I can to amplify the voices of queer people of color, for publications like Black Girl Dangerous, and individuals like Son of Baldwin.  

I wonder why disabled people should have any sort of loyalty to a system that will them as useless, and leave folk in poverty until it can find a way to monetize them. Capitalism is an economic system of convenience… that is, the convenience of management and CEOs. Perhaps I could contribute to society in the way that neurotypical folk can with enough therapy, medication, and space to mitigate my brain problems. However, those are the privileges of people better off than me – the same group who judges my existence, and denies me the tools to better my life.

This is part of the reason why #GiveYourMoneyToWomen is so important. It not only redistributes some of the wealth stacked so heavily in the favor of white cis men – it also helps marginalized women and non-binary folk survive a variety of problems including disabilities. I managed to avoid living on the streets because my loved ones exercise these qualities, and are financially better off than I am. In a system that absolutely refuses to value people like me, it is hard not to consider myself a burden to these important and kind people. But I am told over and over again that I provide a service to them. They say I brighten up their lives – and exercise my own type of caring and support.

After all, people like me are not tragic figures to be held up merely for a social justice cause, or an excuse for a corporation to pat itself on the back.

We need to eat, and be able to contribute to bettering the world.

As Hedva notes:

The most anti-capitalist protest is to care for another and to care for yourself. To take on the historically feminized and therefore invisible practice of nursing, nurturing, caring. To take seriously each other’s vulnerability and fragility and precarity, and to support it, honor it, empower it. To protect each other, to enact and practice community. A radical kinship, an interdependent sociality, a politics of care.”

I am alive because I care. I am alive because I have been cared for.