Disability, Gratitude & Interdependence

Author

Joseph Stramondo, PhD

Publish date

November 21, 2023

Disability, Gratitude & Interdependence

It’s November and I am grateful. Everyone has some reason to be grateful, even if those reasons aren’t distributed fairly.

Toxic Positivity

With that said, tis the season for folks with a whole lot of privilege to be giving lectures about how much people’s lives would improve if only they had more gratitude. This sort of toxic positivity can be dangerous.  This danger is pronounced for disabled people, especially those multiply marginalized by racism, misogyny, heterosexism, classism, transphobia, and such.  Showing gratitude isn’t going to lift you out of poverty, or heal your chronic pain, or give you a safe place to live, or enough personal care attendant hours. So, instead of telling you, dear reader, to find something you are grateful for this Thanksgiving, I challenge you to find something you are grateful for and reflect on why you don’t actually deserve it.  I’m NOT saying you shouldn’t have that good thing in your life, just that it probably didn’t find its way to you by your actions or virtues alone. As a philosopher who is also a disabled person, I should know.

Self Made Mythology

American capitalism spreads the myth of the self-made man[sic].  We are all characters in an Ayn Rand novel with whatever success we find coming from our own hard work and talent. Disabled people know this is false. Since we exist in a world that is not made for us and is hostile to our presence, we are aware of how we live lives of interdependence.  Disability underscores a web of giving and receiving help that we all call life, but in a way that can’t be ignored.  None of us, disabled or not, have singularly earned all we have.

I could easily fill an entire book with gratitude for the good things in my life and the ways in which I didn’t earn them solely with my talent and sweat of my brow. Instead, I will drill down into one example: my wheelchair-accessible van. I am the owner of a 2012 Dodge Grand Caravan with a Braun ramp conversion and high-tech electronic hand controls. Including these modifications, my vehicle’s cost rivals a high-end German luxury car. However, it isn’t frivolous, but necessary for me to function as a professional and a father.  Without my van, it would be impossible for me and my power wheelchair to commute to my university to teach or transport my two young kids and their paraphernalia to school and the park.

The Web of Interdependence

I am enormously grateful for my van, but it isn’t the vague gratitude to the Universe or good luck or God that we are encouraged to feel in our hyper-individualistic, capitalist society. My gratitude is tempered by the recognition that this vehicle only exists and I only have access to it because of the web of interdependence I am part of and the systems of oppression I benefit from.  I do not “deserve” this vehicle.  Like most academics, I grew up in a White, middle-class home with college educated parents that were equipped to advocate for me from birth.  The house they own is located in a good school district, almost entirely White and middle class, where my classmates and I were focused on raising our SAT scores and not surviving gang violence or malnutrition. I attended a prestigious, historically White, private liberal arts college while my parents continued to support me financially. To be sure, they worked very, very hard to give me these opportunities and my family was not wealthy.  I wasn’t accepted by this elite college because of a legacy admission or my parents’ potential to donate large sums of money to the school. When I graduated and later married, my family didn’t gift me with the down payment for a house like some of my friends received.  Nevertheless, I undeniably benefited from growing up White, cis, male, and middle class in a society built on systemic racism, misogyny, and classism, even if I have a very “severe” disability that disadvantages me in other respects.

Yet, the ways in which I don’t “deserve” my van go beyond this story of my family’s socio-economic background. Working full time and holding multiple college degrees meant that I could qualify to finance the purchase of the vehicle itself, no small thing for a disabled person. However, the many tens of thousands of dollars that funded the van modification were federal dollars from the Vocational Rehabilitation system.  Vocational Rehab agencies have different names in different states, but they are all bureaucracies that, at the end of the day, invest taxpayer money into disabled people in an attempt to make them into taxpayers also via paid work.

Fragile Status

On the face of it, this sounds like a terrific program.  For the most privileged disabled people like myself, it is.  However, my reflection on gratitude in relation to my vehicle would not be complete if I didn’t recognize how this system is set up to exclude as many disabled people as possible. This exclusion happens since the help one may receive with a basic need like transportation is tied to employment. The privilege I occupy within systems of class, race, gender, and sexuality means that I have been judged “employable” by bureaucrats over and again throughout my life, allowing me access to this help. But my status is fragile. As I move through the tedious process of getting a new van, this fragility has come into sharp relief.  My class privilege could be wiped away if I were not able to afford the van itself because of a life event like a divorce or a major accident.  Or, I could have easily lost my status as employable by contracting long-COVID and becoming more “severely” disabled.

Deserving

It’s become increasingly clear that I don’t “deserve” my van.  More accurately, I don’t deserve easy transportation access any more than any of the millions of disabled people that do not have it. If anyone deserves access to the basic goods of life, we all do.

That is what I will continue to reflect on this Thanksgiving holiday.

Joseph Stramondo, PhD (@PhilosopherCrip) is an associate professor of philosophy and humanities at San Diego State University, where he also directs the Institute for Ethics and Public Affairs and serves as chair of the Department of Classics and Humanities.

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