Finding Your Hive: Longing for Usefulness as a Disabled Worker Bee

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.

I Need You To Need Me

While on a camping trip one summer, my cousin came over to my chair, plopped her infant son into my lap, handed me some grapes to feed him, and headed off to do something or other with her hands. I sat frozen for a moment, taking this in. For the first time ever, someone automatically assumed I’d be able to look after their child while they were busy. I felt so normal and useful and…human. Never had I been allowed to cuddle a child without some concerned sighted person hovering anxiously at my elbow, offering to take them back after half a minute. Never had anyone trusted me to babysit. Never had anyone asked me to so much as change a diaper. Here I was, at long last, snuggling a baby like I was a normal person or something.

Disability is a package deal, and there’s no point denying it. Along with all the obvious stuff, like the inability to accomplish certain tasks, there is the dynamic in which you are receiving help and support more often than you give it. With notable exceptions, blind people are all struggling with that dynamic with varying degrees of success. I’m sad to say I’m one of the not-so-successful ones, though I’m trying mightily hard.

All relationships require interdependence—healthy ones usually mean the ratio is equal—and that’s okay. Humans should need each other; we’re social animals and supporting one another is what social animals do (when we’re not tearing each other to pieces over competition for resources, that is). This raises an important question, though: how much is too much? At what point does an imbalance of dependence in any relationship become unhealthy for both parties? I’m not sure that question has a definitive answer, but what I do know is that most blind people seem to have at least one relationship that is slightly unhealthy simply because of increased dependence.

Worse than this, though, is the common perception that we need more help than we actually do. Many people assume I need help with just about everything, but this is simply not the case. What does this misconception lead to? Well, many things, but the one I’m zeroing in on is the fear of “burdening” us by asking us to help out. Whether we’re talking about household contributions, childcare, or party planning, it comes to the same thing: people are loath to need us in any way…and we desperately want to be needed. Being depended upon is excellent for confidence and general mental health, so it’s imperative that we find a place of usefulness within our relationships.

The main issue is circular reasoning: we’re incapable because we’re never allowed to learn new skills, and we can’t learn new skills because we’re incapable. It’s a tough cycle to break, and can involve growing pains on both sides. We require a degree of trust from sighted people. We’re asking them to overcome their anxiety and trust us with difficult tasks. They hate to give us responsibility, thinking we either don’t want it or can’t possibly manage it on our own.

To add icing to this distressing little cake, (I’m hungry, and hunger always justifies bad metaphors), we end up proving people right because we are awkward and inefficient while learning something new. Instead of treating this as normal and letting us get on with it, people jump in and finish tasks for us because it’s quicker and easier. So, we never get to learn, and they never get to lean on us.

It saddens me that I have so few memories of being trusted with complex and vital tasks, and I’m sadder still that those few memories stand out in my mind with such clarity. I should not be ecstatic over being allowed to hold and feed an infant without anyone hovering over my shoulder. That should not be an aberration, and it definitely should not be as fulfilling as it was. Times like that make me realize how starved I am for the feeling of usefulness. I want to matter to people beyond, say, my ability to sing them a pretty song or act as a sounding board for their problems. I’m sick of being given busywork, or being ignored by other students because they think I can’t do the same work they do. I’m sick of being passed over because of the mythology surrounding blindness. I’m sick, most of all, of feeling helpless.

At the moment, I do feel appreciated for being a good friend and a good writer, but my friends don’t call on me when they need babysitting done, or when they need house-sitting done, or even when they need food to be brought to a gathering. More than once, I was told not to bring any food to a party, only to discover that everyone else had been asked to bring something. I am capable of cooking, even if my repertoire isn’t huge, and I’m more than able to just go out and buy something. The Martha Stewarts of the world might clutch their pearls in consternation, but most people wouldn’t care.

The only remedy I’ve found is to be pushy about what I can do, and to be honest about what I can’t. I barge my way into a situation where I think help might be needed, insisting I would like to pitch in and not leaving people any room to protest. I’m adamant about assisting where I can, and also more insistent when it comes to learning a new skill. After numerous discussions with blind people from all walks of life, I have concluded that this is the only way forward for us. I hope that, in time, things will get better. Until then, I ask only that sighted people open their minds and allow me a way in. I can be useful, too.