Capitalism prioritizes productivity: your value and worth lie in how much you can produce for profit. The idea of constantly striving toward production is interwoven at the individual level, as evidenced by the urge to ask kids what job they want when they grow up — as if we dream about labor — and at the societal level, where a price tag is put on everything we do.
This productivity-driven mindset permeates everything in a capitalist society.
I grew up idolizing certain jobs: doctors, lawyers and scientists. But, my admiration wasn’t based on how these professions helped people. It was mostly because I was taught to prioritize their salary, recognition and prestige. In turn, people who didn’t choose a traditional corporate job were knocked to the bottom and unfairly branded as lazy, useless and undeserving of respect.
I’m still working to dismantle this mindset that has become ingrained in me, but I’ve realized it’s even more important to do so when capitalism is integral to modern day ableism.
So, what does capitalism have to do with ableism?
Ableism is a product of capitalism. Simply put, the system isn’t made for people who are different. This includes people who have different ambitions, prioritize happiness or family over work, or have a different scope of ability.
The ableist-capitalist relationship means that even if not explicitly, society makes it unnecessarily difficult for disabled people to find work. Non-manual labor jobs often tack on extraneous physical requirements that are inherently discriminatory, despite claiming to hire regardless of disability. Especially in academia, when jobs listings require “walking, talking and hearing,” for example, it sends a very clear message.
When a disabled person secures a job, the employer might have to shift the functions of their role, or spend small sums of money to comply with requirements set by the Americans with Disabilities Act. So, the net profit exploited from a disabled worker may be less than that from an able-bodied worker.
To compensate, many businesses use a loophole in the Fair Labor Standards Act to justify paying disabled workers subminimum wage. It’s worse than it sounds — disabled workers often earn pennies, or even gift cards, and are labeled as “substandard” because their disability can affect productivity.
Before 2014, disabled people who received benefits such as Medicaid payments or Social Security Disability Insurance were disqualified if they had assets totaling more than $2,000 or if their monthly earnings exceeded $700.
The job hunt is very discouraging when you know you’re going to face these obstacles and could eventually be forced to forfeit your benefits. If you were to lose your job, you would have to reapply for these programs, which often have waitlists a mile long.
The Achieving a Better Life Experience Act was passed in December of 2014, allowing disabled individuals to open savings accounts for certain disability costs such as education, housing, transportation, health and basic living expenses.
But the limitations of the ABLE Act still put disabled people at a disadvantage — the annual gift tax exclusion, which was $15,000 in 2020, is the limit for account contributions, and individuals must be diagnosed with a disability before turning 26 to be eligible.
As if that’s not enough, the ableist-capitalist treatment extends beyond the workplace into daily life. Social Security rules create penalties for disabled people who want to get married.
Sure, they’re legally allowed to marry. But if they do so, they’re faced with the possibility of losing their health insurance, earning a lower monthly income or losing their benefits altogether.
Why do people have to choose between basic necessities and love? Able-bodied, heterosexual people can joke about getting married for the “tax benefits” while disabled people are forced to forfeit their right to marry so they can survive.
By only rewarding those who are able-bodied, capitalism feeds into ableism. It produces and then exacerbates inequalities between the “normal bodies” and those who are disabled.
It seems obvious a system that relies on the exploitation of individuals would in turn enable the devaluing of disabled people because they may require more accommodations and aren’t as easily exploited.
During the pandemic, it’s also become obvious that accessibility is possible. Remote work is possible. But until a global pandemic struck, our capitalist society has not considered it a possibility — even for disabled people who could greatly benefit from these accommodations.
It certainly makes one thing very clear: capitalism deems disabled people unworthy of the time and effort it takes to dismantle the barriers it is responsible for.
If we able-bodied people want to be allies for those who are disabled, we need to take on an anti-capitalistic lens. You can’t separate the two. If you want to fight ableism, you must be able to recognize that it is, and has been for a long time, rooted in capitalism.