Tegan Tuesday: Art, Disability, and “Real Jobs”

One of the most common themes of this blog is an unending rage against the way our society devalues humanity. Usually, this is focused on the fairly direct destruction of life for profit. Unfortunately, that’s not where it ends. Both Abe and I have been involved in education for a long time, and we’ve both been frustrated by the way the education system — and by extension, society — treats art as a luxury. As frustrating as that is, it gets worse when you enter the workforce. Art, in all its forms, has always been vitally important to every human society we have ever known about. Those societies we remember best and know the most about, tend to be the ones that invested some of their excess, when they had it, into art and culture. But just as human life must be sacrificed for profit, so to must human enjoyment, because funding art for its own sake will not make anyone rich. Artists must either already have money, or scrabble to find the time and energy to do that work, on top of doing work for the benefit of others to make ends meet.

I am an artist. Therefore, I have had a lot of jobs. I have worked in sit-down restaurants, in commercial food prep, at farmer’s markets, in fast food and ice cream scooping; I have worked in translation and real estate; I have worked in gas stations, and theatres, and schools K-12 through graduate programs; I have answered phones and scrubbed toilets; I have worked in clients’ homes, in my home, in basements, in parks, and in churches. I have been working constantly for the past 18 years, and there are very few areas of employment that I have not had some experience. I work and work and have almost always been poor, because I have never lived in places that were cheap while working a job that paid enough to build savings. Amusingly, I also made too much to merit assistance, as Abe and I found out when we initially became a single-income household — in one of the most expensive cities in the US — and we were eligible for $15 of food stamps per month. In all of these jobs, my problems with it were rarely my coworkers, and even-more-rarely the clients. I’m an extreme extrovert with ADHD — I like how a customer-facing role is wildly different from day to day and even the most bizarre (non-violent) encounter with the general public just makes for a great story, and doesn’t actually impact my life significantly. No, usually my problems lie squarely with my bosses or the company higher ups.

I’ve had a boss who drunktexted my coworkers and installed spyware on our computers. I’ve had multiple bosses who would watch the security feeds and call to ask questions about what they were watching. I’ve had bosses who preferred to hire 16-year-olds because unexperienced workers don’t notice the many, many, labor violations employees are required to perform. I’ve been fired by text and I’ve been replaced by someone I trained without the notice of being demoted or fired. On one memorable occasion, I had an argument with a boss about simple arithmetic. With all of these shining beacons of industry as my leaders, small wonder that some of my favorite employment has been self-employed.

This goes beyond simple preference, as well. If one person is drained enough by their work that they can’t make themselves do extra on the side, another may have problems – like neurological disorders or physical disability, that mean they hit that point where they can’t work more faster, depending on working conditions. For a non-insignificant portion of the population, self-employment has often been the only employment. Writer Siobhan Ball recently headed a twitter thread discussing the intersection of “real jobs” and disabled lives.

The discussion is filled with artists and freelancers of all types: writers, musicians, visual artists, sex workers. Many of the “real jobs” come with requirements that are physically, mentally, or legally not possible for large swathes of the population. I think back to one of my theatre jobs, which was impossible for someone with mobility issues. Even if I was able to get into the theatre next door to make one of their employees run the service lift for me for every shift, I still would not have been able to use the bathroom, as there were two steps from the floor up into the stall. Many jobs also have high mental strain. Anyone who has ever worked retail or even observed the astounding lack of humanity that shoppers unleash upon the staff can picture how those types of service jobs have an emotional (and often physical) toll upon the employees. Call center employees are worse-off still than retail for a mental and emotional load. The legal restrictions on disabled folks is even shittier. I know in the US there are caps on the amount that someone on disability can have in savings (and it’s small, it’s something like $1000) and restrictions on how many hours they are allowed to work or how much money they can make in those hours. This video by Jessica Kellgren-Fozard, a disability activist, does a decent overview of some of those issues. But running an Etsy merch shop, or doing cam work, or writing and editing freelance are all jobs that have less oversight, work around a person’s schedule and needs, and are just flexible in all the ways that life can require.

We need people to do these jobs! There’s no question that they provide great value to all of our lives. As discussed at the beginning, art is an important part of what we are. When we had to cope with isolation during lockdowns, we turned to art. We read more, we watched more movies, we listened to more music, we watched more YouTube, and yes, more people joined OnlyFans too. Art gives us connection with other people, and that was at a premium during the past few years of pandemic. But even is it uses the work of artists, of freelancers, of those casually employed in non-“real” jobs, society as a whole hasn’t bothered to appreciate this work anymore than it has what was recently called “essential” work. If we as a society don’t value artists, and don’t value disabled people, how much worse is the disabled artist?

I’m just as guilty as the next person — I see post after post on social media of people who are disabled, or neurodivergent, or queer, or just poor, and who are raising funds by selling art and I have a gut reaction to wonder why they can’t just “get a real job”. I am not sure if there’s the possibility to change our acceptance of this labor as valid without also decoupling a person’s worth in our society from their ability to work. It seems like a massive undertaking, but it’s a task that needs doing. For now, it’s a good day to remind ourselves: each person has value just by being themselves and deserves to live their life without “earning” that value through an approved from of labor.

Abe here – f you like the content of this blog, please share it around. If you like the blog and you have the means, please consider joining my lovely patrons in paying for the work that goes into this. Due to my immigration status, I’m currently prohibited from conventional wage labor, so for the next couple years at least this is going to be my only source of income. You can sign up for as little as $1 per month (though more is obviously welcome), to help us make ends meet – every little bit counts!


  1. K says

    This post made me do a lot of thinking; there’s so much to unpack. As for the disabilities; I have been temporarily disabled a couple of times in my life. My current workplace would be completely inaccessible. The homes around here would be inaccessible; in my area, they haven’t built single-story homes in decades.

    As for art and valuing art: that’s a chicken-and-egg issue in the USA, I think. My first run-in with an art teacher was in 1968, in preschool, when we were told to color pictures of chickens coming out of eggs. It was near Easter, the way it is now, and in my house we’d colored real eggs with dye…so I colored in the picture of the egg before me in stripes like my favorite dyed egg. The teacher bent down, and nose-to-nose with me, screamed that it was WRONG and I had colored INCORRECTLY.

    That set the stage for all other art teachers I encountered in school, and I was delighted when I reached the 8th grade (13) to not have to take art anymore. I found art teachers to be brittle and quick to lose their heads and scream that whatever art the classroom were making, it was WRONG WRONG WRONG.

    Is it any wonder that art gets cut in schools? It’s an unreasonable traumatic class for so many.

  2. K says

    True! I had only great teachers in music class, in shop class, even in gym class. It was only art teachers who seemed angry and malicious.

    Ironically, my job as a web dev has often included creating graphics. Based on the feedback I got from a school career of art teachers, you’d think my art would be horrible. Instead, it’s gotten great feedback. If only I’d had a good art teacher, maybe I would have appreciated art class.

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