Thursday, June 21, 2012

Disability Theory, Motherhood, and a Case for Parental Leave

As someone with a hearing loss, I've been interested in disability theory though mostly as a sideline.  If I were to try to categorize theories, especially in relation to the dominant ones on display when it comes to disability, I'd say that there are two main views people tend to hold.  One is the medical model view: disability is something that needs to be fixed so that the disabled person can function as normally as possible.  On this view, disability is a curse, something to hide (and hide from), because no "normal" person can imagine being disabled.  People who tend to hold the view that disability is horrible and must be done away with also tend look at me funny - in my case, they wonder what country I hail from (because my speech isn't perfect), and they shake their heads and note that there's this great "new" technology maybe I haven't heard of - cochlear implants.  To which I just shake my head and say, again and again, technology can't solve everything.  Medicine can't solve everything.  I don't qualify for cochlear implants.  (And by the way, they're not a perfect fix, either.... but that's for another post.)  I don't even know what has caused my hearing loss: it's not genetic, it's not disease-related, so far as we know.  And so it is just not fixable in the way we'd like to think that most disabilities are fixable.

A second view is one I've heard called the social theory of disability.  This is a view that makes a distinction between being impaired and being disabled.  It is the case that bodies might be impaired - prevent from doing the functions that they would generally do.  Impairments can be temporary or permanent, so most people have some kind of impairment, even if it doesn't count as a "disability" in the medical model. Broken ankles are impairments; having short fingers might be an impairment; perhaps even baldness could count as an impairment.

What turns an impairment into a disability, though, is when that impairment prevents social interaction. But here's the kicker: in the social model of disability, it is SOCIETY that is often at fault for preventing an individual's social interaction: doors that aren't wide enough for wheelchairs, or rampless-sets of stairs, or counters that are too high for short people and those in wheelchairs, alike. 

Even more: what some studies of disability accommodations have suggested is that these accommodations actually end up being beneficial to a much wider group of people than the target "disabled' audience.  Ramps are often used by people who can easily climb stairs, but who find a ramp to be easier to navigate, especially in poor weather, for example.  Closed captioning systems are beneficial for people who don't have hearing loss but who find that captions aid in their visual and auditory understanding.

So by now you're starting to wonder: where's the motherhood and parental leave in this post?  Here it is: yet another story about a full-time professional mother who struggles, and fails, to figure out how to "balance" it all.   This story, too, about working parents struggling to care for their sick children also strikes a chord. 

Some of the commenters at that story suggest that the problem is the babies.  Women just shouldn't have children, or else they should be prepared to take knocks at work.  I think that kind of view of children shortchanges both children and their parents, because it presumes that each one of us exists in a kind of individual packaging, and that we, as individuals, exist primarily for the good of our workplaces.  It presumes, as well, that workplaces should have no interest in societal life beyond the internal functioning of the corporation.

But neither parents, nor children, nor workplaces can exist happily with that kind of a mindset, much as we like to think that we do.

I suggest that we've been thinking about having and raising children primarily in a medical model - one that presumes it would, indeed, be better not to have them, but if we do (pesky biology!) well, there's the possibility of 12 weeks' unpaid leave.  And heaven forbid the children get sick: as the boss of the woman in the second article says: "Might as well just not come back to work."

Such a view makes it seem that a corporation exists - and is supposed to exist - on its own merits, with no reference to human society.  In this medical model we are supposed to rid ourselves of everything that is not "normal", or at least, that does not help us pretend we are high-efficiency machines.

The weird thing about that is that we, as individuals, do not think about our work that way.  It does not exist on its own merits, but it exists for some human purpose, usually involving being able to pay the bills and ensure family livelihood.  There are other purposes of work, too, including personal fulfillment, and helping communities. 

Our work is necessarily tied to our social lives, but American workplaces try to maintain distance between us and our social lives.  Indeed, a 2010 study suggests that only 16% of major corporations now offer benefits like maternity leave compared to 27% a decade prior.  Yet at the same time, companies are experiencing workers with far greater job dissatisfaction, especially because of lack of flex time, leave time, and other types of family assistance.  (See here for interesting slide show on this issue.)

What if, instead, workplaces were to envision children along the lines of a social model of disability?  Having children only disables parents insofar as their working arrangements are unnecessarily made too inflexible to be good parents and good workers, both.  We have already generated a list of possibilities: telecommuting, day cares onsite, and so on.  People in other parts of the globe have also experienced a range of options and we could learn from them. 

Being able to do good parenting can be a factor in being able to be a good employee - but more importantly, acknowledging the need to help families in terms of child and elder care also acknowledges that we are all - corporation, employee, and family, in this together.  Just as a social model of disability is found to be beneficial for those not in the target group, so too I think that flex time and better sick leave and family leave policies can benefit people beyond the stereotypical "young family" that is the target of these policies.

1 comment:

  1. I always think these models of work to be a bit short-sighted about the good of children for the common good of society. It shouldn't have to take a rapid population decline that threatens the economics of a nation for them to realize the necessity of children for the future and to come up with better accommodations for working parents.