Must be your lucky day. You’ve been invited to another one of those fundraisers to re-elect a local politico. The room is shoulder-to-shoulder solicitous BS and you know one more person than you did at the last one. What the heck — maybe this will be a great networking opportunity. A fellow walks up holding his third glass of Shiraz. You know the type — smiling too much, he introduces himself. Then comes the standard query:
“So, what do you do?”
“Me? Well, let’s see.” How do I answer that? I get up. Take my meds. Do some half-hearted range of motion stretches. Check my butt. Get dressed. Empty my piss bag. Take a dump and roll downtown to get some breakfast. You don’t say things like that to a casual acquaintance, do you? So, instead I offer, “I’m retired.”
“Oh. That must be nice.” The honey-and-molasses voice drips all over me and I think, “That’s your first mistake, buddy.” Don’t do it. He’s a walkie. He doesn’t know any better. Just let it go. But, I can’t.
“Actually, I fought forest fires for a few years, climbed every major peak in the Pacific Northwest except Jefferson and Rainier, worked at a halfway house for delinquent boys, finished concrete, coached football and taught high school for 32 years. Then, I went off a roof on a construction job. Figured I’d slow down some. What about you?”
Pause. The rosy nose gets a little rosier and the lips open up, but no sound comes out. I love it when that happens. I wait with the expectant your-turn look. Finally, he manages a, “Will you excuse me for a moment?” and disappears into a group of up-and-comers wearing sport jackets, jeans and tennies.
I’m really not a cruel man. I don’t seek out idiots to help them confirm their condition. That’s just not nice. But, you gotta admit: It makes an exquisite clarifying moment!
But, back to the ignominious question, “What do you do?”
There’s a suggestion in there that disturbs me. If you don’t “do” something, your inherent value just fell several points. If you don’t contribute to the GNP, you’re excess weight. And don’t even think about suggesting our society is duty-bound to take care of its own. No self-respecting capitalist would think such a thing. It’s un-American.
So, what about it? Is there a tacit imperative out there that the disabled person must return to the work world to confirm his worth?
I propose there are two classes of people in our society — the employed and the unemployed. The second group breaks down into the fired, laid off, riffed, the I-can’t-find-work, or the I-don’t-want-to-work. A significant segment of our society believes the second group’s unsuccessfulness can’t possibly be due to anything but their own laziness and lack of initiative.
A life-altering trauma has nothing to do with it.
I grew up in the glorious era of black-and-white TV, Pall Mall, Lucky Strike and Camel cigarettes — no filters. Back then, there was no such thing as a liberal — they were all commies. And Sunday picnics after church were as much a sacrament as salvation. If you didn’t attend, your name wasn’t in the book.
In those days, it was a universal law that if you worked hard and lived right, then the world was your oyster. And if things weren’t going quite right, it was because you were screwing up someplace. “Living right” really meant “working hard.” Simple. If you worked hard, you didn’t have time to get into trouble.
It was also a law in those days that if you didn’t work, you were to blame. Not your socio-economic status, not your race, religion, sexual orientation or lack thereof. That stuff was all part of the communist plot to weaken America from within, which was as good as Gospel in those days.
Today, if you make enough money, you’re a mainstreamer, a citizen of these United States. We closely tie having money to success and, therefore, to our personal worth. Not wealth, worth.
If our society continues down the path it appears to be following, Congress will not address issues like complex rehab technology or ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It won’t even go near ADA compliance. Instead, Congress will legislate on economically profitable ways to deal with populations that drain society’s resources.
So, there you have it, Mr. or Ms. Gimp. What do you do for a living?