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March 24, 2013


Terry Ann Thaxton

Thank you for taking on this argument. I've been reading the Jofee-Walt NPR report with great interest, especially as the mother of an adult child with high-functioning autism (HFA) who, no matter what the "accommodation," I do not believe would be able to find/keep a job. I run a meetup group for adults with HFAs (and their caregivers/significant others/etc). Some of the HFAs have jobs; most do not. Why some of them are able to find jobs is not easy to explain. One of them is a free-lance computer expert. As long as he's not meeting the client in person to set up the initial contract agreement, he's fine. Then once he has the job, he can go in, complete the order, and get paid. Another HFA friend has a job where he is accepted for the little amount of time he can stay concentrated on the task required, and can then take long breaks. He works the graveyard shift so that he doesn't have to interact with too many people all at once. Most of my HFA friends don't have jobs because, as you so eloquently put it, "disability is a social construction." While most of the HFAs might not "look" disabled, they cannot work within the constructs society has built or that most job sites have built.

What is most difficult for society to "get"--it seems to me--is that just because one autistic (or blind or diabetic or deaf) person CAN get a job, then shouldn't every autistic, blind, diabetic, or deaf person be able to get a good job?

No. Doesn't work that way.


It doesn't work that way because of those social constructs that attempt to put every person --"dis"-abled or abled into a neat little box.

As a professor at a university where we do have an Office for Students with Disabilities, I can also say that Joffee-Walt's argument falls apart even at this level of accommodation. Yes, it's great that we have the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD), but the OSD has a prescribed list of accommodations professors are required to make. The most common accommodation is "double the amount of time for tests/quizzes." This accommodation is probably quite necessary for some disabilities, but for others it's useless.

Unless each individual professor is willing to make the appropriate accommodations, the OSD's prescribed list fails to actually accommodate, which is quite similar to society's job accommodations.

For example, an autistic--whose greatest problem is being in social situations--is required to take Speech class. Or in other classes is required to be part of a "team." These situations can send an autistic into a year-long meltdown. And yet these accommodations are not made unless the professor has experience with and can come up with some other assignment to meet the required outcomes.

Same is true in the world of employment. "Accommodations' has become a nice way to say, "Okay, you don't have to lift the 50 lb box, so we'll let you stand on your feet all day at the cash register." "Accommodation" let's a nation feel good about giving differently-abled people an opportunity, when really these types of accommodations merely cause many to feel worse about themselves.

Jeff Brune

Steve, I wrote to her and addressed her starting question of why disability roles have been growing. I suggested she read some disability history, especially Deborah Stone's The Disabled State, which explains the fundamental problem with the administrative category and political definition of disability; since the English Poor Laws it has been used as the term to distinguish the deserving poor (those who should receive public aid) from the undeserving poor. She doesn't seem to have read what disability historians have written.

Margy Dowzer

Thank you for addressing this radio piece.
I happened upon it at home, about mid-way through.
Felt like i had landed in an alternate universe- was getting more and more pissed off. Her naiveté about the lives of poor people, who often become disabled due to their working conditions and lack of medical access was especially galling. I couldn't continue listening.

Marilyn Lynds

I had polio when I was 3 months old and have akinble bodied strangers making assumptions about me since I could understand language. I really thought times were changing. Ira Glass must be finally running out of interesting, worthwhile material. PS, like most of the people with (physical)disabilities that I know,post I was self supporting from the time I was 17 until my early 40s when my doctor told me I could keep on working full time and be dead in ten years or go on disability. Compared to my salary, the disability money really is not even survival wages. I am fortunate that I managed to save a stack and have a gainfully employed spouse. For most folks, disability is a last resort.

Gregg Low

Great response; thank you. I was startled when I heard Chana Joffee-Walt talking with Ira Glass about: "the government also covers your health care." "Oh they cover your health care?" "Yes they cover your health care benefits, yeah." Of course they don't mention the the $140.00 or more they deduct from the Social Security Check every month. Nor do they mention that in order to have health care that covers more than the absolute minimum, which might not cover the actual disability you're seeking treatment for, you have to get an additional policy that costs $80.00 or more a month. And you still have to pay a $15.00 to $35.00 copay every time you visit a doctor; and there's a copay on the prescriptions you get, assuming the drug is covered by the plan. I don't call paying at least $240.00 a month plus copays the government covering your health care.

I encourage everyone to send comments to This American Life. They might actually get the message.


This backlash seems a bit hysterical to me, as I didn't interpret the piece as an argument against offering disability benefits at all. Granted, there were some moments that didn't really jive — "Think of what we could do with a quarter trillion dollars," suggesting that it's possible to *completely eliminate* disability benefits. But what you suggest, that reasonable accommodations could be made for many disabled workers, is one of the major things I took away from her reporting. I'm thinking of the woman who worked in a fish plant, and couldn't fathom a worker who didn't have to be on her feet all day except the people at the disability office. I saw the piece as an indictment against the brutal nature of the capitalist economy, unable to accommodate any health difficulty, and our government's refusal to properly acknowledge that a need for welfare exists. The Clinton administration preferred to pretend they had "solved" it, and ignore the other ways in which the growing need had manifested itself.

I think it's important not to overreact, and interpret any discussion or questioning of the way disability benefits have manifested as a threat to disabled people. In doing so, you miss the opportunity to have a difficult conversation that rarely comes up. Allow people the space to draw the right conclusions.

Stephanie Turk

I was directed here via Facebook, where someone posted a link to your post as a corrective to another post about the This American Life piece. I haven't listened to the TAL episode, but I did read the Joffee-Walt report. I was surprised to read your analysis of it, when I read it, I thought that the author very clearly demonstrated the social construction of the category of disability. That so many people can have their status change from "non-disabled" to "disabled" in the course of a doctor's visit underscored the social construction of the category, in my reading of the article. In fact, I forwarded the article to a friend of mine who is a disability historian with the comment, "Is disability, as a legal status, really tied [exclusively] to labor? Interesting."

I agree with you that what was not discussed were workplace accommodations that could be made to allow fewer people to fall into the category of "unable to work," but I'm not sure how relevant that is to what I thought the article's argument was. Which in my reading was something along the lines of the following: although welfare and disability remain bureaucratically distinct categories, in reality the difference between them is collapsing, such that both now function as social security programs for those who are, from an empirical rather than metaphysical point of view, "unable to work" for one reason or another. As someone in support of government programs that provide financial assistance to those who need them, I didn't read this piece as a description of a "scam," but more an indictment of the dismantling of welfare, and an argument for the continuation of programs that help make life more comfortable for people. Which doesn't seem to contradict a complementary argument in favor of removing barriers such that those who are "unable to work" actually can work.

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