The Inherent Ableism of Being “Productive”

I remember thinking at some point around the age of 17 or 18 that my days of having summer and winter vacations were over forever. My aunts, uncles and cousins told me to savor it while I had the chance, because soon those blissful stretches of unaccounted time would be gone; and I completely believed them, because it seemed true. It was true for them. I worked all through high school and undergraduate careers. Immediately after, I joined the service industry and started down the long, winding road that eventually led me to library school. Until recently, it was true for me too.

But, not anymore. A full decade later, I am unemployed, in graduate school, and just had a full six weeks off where absolutely no one had any interest in what I did with my days (except my fiancé, occasionally). In fact, this was even more true than it was during previous breaks because I wasn’t expected to go anywhere or do anything for the holidays. In fact, quite the opposite (thanks, pandemic). It was a long stretch of downtime that I think most working folks would be unbelievably grateful for. If you had asked me a year ago, when I was employed full-time and going to school if I would like six weeks off, I would have asked what demon I had to sell my soul to in return for such luxury.

I was, I am, incredibly grateful that I was able to spend this time at home, staying safe and resting. But, at the same time, I often found myself suffocated by anxiety, worried that I should be doing more. I was plagued by the idea that if I truly just took all that time off, it was time wasted. Surely I needed to produce something with those empty days. Simply existing wasn’t good enough; and I spent most of those days wrestling with this idea, oscillating between fits of forced productivity that led nowhere coherent, and actively attempting to melt myself into the fibers of my couch.

And then one day I listened to a podcast that smacked me in my oily, unwashed face. Just Between Us is a comedic variety show that includes interview segments with experts who discuss topics from mental and sexual health, to relationships, pet psychics, and everything in between. Co-hosts Allison Raskin and Gaby Dunn are incredibly open with their guests and audience, which makes for very vulnerable conversations on topics that are often considered taboo. The particular episode that walloped me that day was Disability Visibility with Alice Wong, Harmful Therapy and Compliments. While a range of topics are covered in this episode, I was particularly struck by the conversation with disability activist Alice Wong. I would encourage everyone to listen to (or read) the full conversation, and check out Wong’s amazing work. During the interview, Wong shared Talia “TL” Lewis’s working definition of ableism, which I will provide for you here:

A system that places value on people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normality, intelligence, excellence, desirability, and productivity. These constructed ideas are deeply rooted in anti-Blackness, eugenics, misogyny, colonialism, imperialism and capitalism. This form of systemic oppression leads to people and society determining who is valuable and worthy based on a person’s language, appearance, religion and/or their ability to satisfactorily [re]produce, excel and “behave.” You do not have to be disabled to experience ableism.  Talia “TL” Lewis, 2021

To be clear, I do not live with a disability that prevents me from conforming to most of the norms that our society expects of me. But, after hearing this definition, I realized that I had let that privilege blind me. This ongoing argument I’d be having with myself about productivity was not only fruitless, it was deeply ableist.

By allowing myself to believe that I needed to be productive in order for my time to be valuable, I was working under the assumption that my ability to produce is implicitly tied to my worth as a human. For starters, this is a faulty equation, as there is really no standard by which to measure what level of productivity is the ideal for any given human or field. What might be a productive day for a chemist probably looks very different than one for a cartoonist. But, more importantly, this link between worth and production suggests that unproductive days, and unproductive people, are worthless; and that is simply false. No person’s worth should be determined by their output. We are not machines; and, depending upon the obstacles any person may be facing, whether that be disability, chronic illness, homelessness, food insecurity, or something else, their ability to be seen as productive will undoubtedly be affected. Reducing the equation down so simply, as I did, ignores the complexity of these experiences, and ultimately makes me a less compassionate person.

But, unfortunately, it’s not as if I pulled this twisted belief system from thin air. I (and others) have written before about the persistent faulty idea that we should value our work more than we value ourselves; and, while I am still very excited to be learning about and joining the information science profession, I can’t let that notion erase the necessity for personal boundaries and structural support when it comes to caring for our communities. I think this is an especially pervasive issue now, as so many of us are working from home, and the lines between work and rest continue to blur.

As I move forward through my next semester, I want to remember this lesson, and continue working to break down my beliefs around productivity; and the next time I find myself with time off, I promise I’ll just take a nap.

Mary Elizabeth Allen is an MLIS student at San Jose State University. She holds a B.A. in Literature with an emphasis in Fiction Writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her professional interests include: archives studies, the intersections between critical librarianship and social justice, and radical feminist scholarship. Photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash

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