Over the past few years, I’ve been focusing less on sheer survival and more on living in a way that brings me lasting contentment. Common wisdom for such a pursuit most often begins with ‘find your tribe’ sentiments.
Said wisdom did seem to be working well for most everyone I knew. Each time a friend picked up a hobby or clicked with a social group, their general happiness seemed to improve tenfold. Then there was me: phenomenal friends, supportive coworkers, closely knit family, thriving romantic partnership. My social life was thriving for the first time since high school, and loneliness had become something other people suffered. I was even beginning to explore creative hobbies after too much time spent in stagnation. My writing showed promise, and music, that stalwart friend, was a central part of my life again.
So where was the life improvement squad? Where was the revelatory sense of purpose? Where was the click?
Maybe I was supposed to order it. Maybe I’d have to go online and fill out some form and half the fields would be unlabelled and everything would be colour-coded and then the CAPTCHA verification would be inaccessible and maybe I should just have a nap?
Anyway, just as I accepted my destiny as incorrigible malcontent, I found a comfortable niche at a new job. The work I do offers abundant opportunity for individual accomplishment, but there is also a lot of work that’s unglamourous, uncredited and, therefore, quite unpopular. It needs done, and when it’s done well it brings enormous value to the team, but no one likes doing it.
Well, no one but me.
Once I developed a widespread reputation for being the person who’s up for anything, always willing to embrace the ‘hard’ in ‘hard work,’ I felt it — my resounding click. I was useful, and that was just what I’d been looking for.
You see, like many rural kids, I grew up in a culture obsessed with usefulness. There was always work to do, and if there wasn’t, you weren’t looking hard enough. All around me, my sighted peers were making themselves useful mowing acres of grass, feeding livestock, doing renovations, operating farm equipment, changing someone’s oil. You name it, someone my age was doing it.
As for me, I could usually be found unloading the dishwasher or doing laundry while everyone else rushed about doing things I was too blind to tackle. In an environment like mine, if you couldn’t drive, couldn’t see, couldn’t learn purely by observation (no one had time for adapted training, even if they’d known how to carry it out), there was no sugar-coating it: you weren’t of much use. I know plenty of rural blind people learn most of these things by grit or gumption or good, patient teaching—see you in the comments, guys, keep it civil—but for reasons that are numerous and complicated and not at all relevant here, I didn’t.
So, in effect, I spent my formative years knowing I was not very useful, while up to my eyeballs in a culture devoted to utility. As you can guess, that understanding sank deep into my marrow and helped forge who I’d become: A restless, rudderless person who couldn’t work out what would make her truly happy.
Being academically inclined was nice. Being reasonably intelligent was handy enough; that would help me make money later, maybe. My singing brought others joy, even if it wasn’t going to babysit their kids or cook their dinners. But I felt like a defective worker bee in a very busy hive, and no one seemed to know what to do with me.
It took me way too long to realize what I need for true contentment is less ‘find your tribe’ than ‘find your hive’. I’m not wired for attention and I’m not especially motivated by approval. I like working with other people, but community, important as it is, doesn’t fulfill me on its own. As it turns out, finding my people is my nice-to-have, not my must-have. What I hunger for isn’t attention, recognition, or a group of people who ‘get’ me, though I won’t say no to them. Instead, I am the ultimate team player, totally invested in a job well done. I want to have your back, not take your limelight. I want you to notice me for my dependability, not so much for my brilliance, though again: I won’t say no to that either. If I’m competing with anyone besides myself, it’s to see who is most helpful, not who is most impressive. I hunger for the knowledge that because I’m around, doing my best work, someone else’s life is easier.
I wonder, as I write this, whether other disabled people have the same worker bee drive. Plenty of nondisabled people crave this sort of external validation, of course, but I have a feeling there are a lot of disabled people out there who, having been labelled ‘of little use,’ have grown into restless, rudderless people like me, asking themselves why they never feel whole unless others are counting on them.
And I’m sure there are many more out there who have yet to feel useful, at least by society’s narrow standards. Isn’t most disability defined, after all, by the work a person can or can’t do? By our earning potential? By our limited ability to contribute financially via the labour market? Don’t so many of us find that the only thing worse than a bad job is no job at all? Beyond financial constraints, what would unemployment say about us and our worth?
I think you’re out there, worker bees. I think you’re worried about whether you’ll ever be useful enough, and I think you find meaning in what you manage to get done. I believe you have mixed feelings about the fact that the toxic mentality that made you feel small and inadequate is giving you such fulfillment. I expect you live to hear people say, “you really helped me out today,” and I’d bet some part of you balks at the very thought of being so vulnerable to how others feel about you.
If I were to guess, I’d say you might even question whether enjoying your usefulness demonstrates a lack of self-respect, a brokenness, an internalized ableism you can’t quite shake.
Am I getting warmer?
So if you’re out there, worker bees, I propose the middle ground, as I so often do. Delight in your usefulness. Find the niche that lets you be a go-to person, even if it’s for something simple. Relish it without apology.
Yes, our society is obsessed with measuring the utility of human beings and punishing or rewarding them accordingly. Yes, that obsession is more pronounced and more damaging when those humans happen to be disabled. But don’t let that deprive you of the pride and fulfillment you derive from your ordinary, unglamourous work. Don’t chase admiration simply because someone told you that the only good disabled person is an outstanding one. Most importantly, don’t you ever buy in, the way I did, to the idea that your value lies in how well you stack up next to nondisabled people. That way lies madness. Life doesn’t have to be a competition. The unremarkable, uncredited tasks you perform every day have weight. All you have to be is the best version of yourself.
Go, worker bee, and find your hive. And when you do, take what brings you happiness and leave the rest.
The way my mind is ticking over about this post and feel free to correct me or nudge me in the right direction here but from where I sit it’s about trying to find work and people questioning how one is going to be useful in that job? When I had my job I had my routines and was useful doing the tasks I was doing for 12 months but when you’re struggling to find work you’re also struggling to find your usefulness as a worker disabled or not. I did work placement at a joinery place attached to what I would call a sheltered workshop I was putting together notepads with a stapler and answering the phone along with directing emails to the staff concerned as couldn’t transfer the calls but making notepads was such a menial task but it was a task anyway. When I was with employment agencies they were saying look at volunteering and that volunteering could potentially lead to paid employment and the last agency I was with were pushing the neighbourhood house where I currently volunteer to look at paid work options for me but the sticking point was that there would always have to be somebody supervising me and this was something that they weren’t prepared for which always seems to be what agencies offer by law and for me it takes me back to feeling segregated from others I just volunteer my time at this neighbourhood house by shredding documents and occasionally answering the phone menial but it’s better than nothing at all. I said in a previous comment to you that the agency I was with told me back on November 14th that they couldn’t place me into employment anywhere as there were too many barriers I’ve written out a complaint and am going to get ready to send it to the disability commitioner so called disability service providers don’t have a clue how to acknowledge people with disabilities and for me to consider working in a sheltered workshop is beneath me as far as i’m concerned I’m venting now and i’m sorry you have to see that and I wish I could protect you from seeing my cranky side but I don’t want the reality that I will never find meaningful paid employment I have the right to work like anybody else it’s just getting employers and the federal government to sit up and take notice of how unemployment affects a person who wants to work but can’t find meaningful paid work. I know I need to try to be positive and just forget about the negativity but that’s where it stands for me at the moment there are people out there who just don’t have a clue and my resume has what i’m capable of and I know myself what i’m capable of.
Hello and thank you from the bottom of my heart for this. Have so much struggle with this. You have touched my heart depression is so awful. Self worth and trying to feel useful hurts tremendously I am blessed to read your post but know that sharing isn’t easy. Hugs and thank you.