This article was written by guest blogger Malou Miedema. Malou goes to Amsterdam University College and she interviewed activist Naomi Doevendans for this piece on ableism and intersectional feminism.
In April, Tamara van Ark’s proposal for new government regulations that would allow differently abled people to earn below minimum-wage was met with a public outcry. In response to what they see as a structural condonement of discrimination directed at the differently abled, the organization Wij Staan Op (‘We Stand Up’) filed a petition in early April that was popularized by Noortje van Lith’s plea to prime-minister Rutte. The petition, which was an initiative of Wij Staan Op member Naomi Doevendans, received wide-spread attention and amassed approximately 87.400 signatures in total, pointing at widespread support against the proposal.
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), approximately 42% of all differently abled individuals currently has paid work. In an attempt to tackle this issue, Tamara van Ark has proposed regulations that would enable employers to pay their differently abled employees for their work-productivity, rather than compensating them with at least a minimum wage salary. Van Ark’s initial reasoning was that such regulations would make differently abled individuals more attractive employees, in turn spiking employment opportunities. Yet, a study conducted by the Central Planning Office (CPB) near the end of April revealed that the regulations would have next to no effect on employment rates, which indicates that the regulations would be exclusively beneficial on the side of employers.
The result is that differently abled employees, and especially those who already work full time, get the short end of the stick. The system currently in place compensates employers who have hired differently abled workers with a wage subsidy, which brings with it the administrative burden of dealing with those subsidies. If van Ark’s proposal is to come into being, the administrative burden would be displaced from employers to employees, who would need to apply for welfare benefits to make up for the discrepancy between their salary and the minimum wage. Yet, those who are in possession of savings or have a working partner won’t be eligible for the benefits, which makes it nearly impossible to save up for their retirement.
But aside from the economic implications for the employed and differently abled, these regulations suggest that individuals with a disability aren’t to be granted the very wage floor originally cemented to secure an income necessary to ensure a certain level of wellbeing. To monetize the worth of the differently abled employee in terms of their productivity and to devalue it is an act of exclusion that negates the value of their labour and further deepens the conviction that differently abled individuals are somehow of lesser worth. There is a tendency to view those who are differently abled or have a mental or physical illness as the parasitic underside that underlies the foundation on which liberal democracy is built; a tendency that ultimately fosters the belief that, to be a valuable member of society, there’s a certain level of productivity necessary in order to fulfil that role. And so, a wage doesn’t simply come to stand as the product of a transaction, but also symbolizes the ability to be a “worthy” member of society. Taking that away from those with a work disability is to take away a vital sense of self-worth which is partly enabled by the right to work and earn just like any other member of the workforce.
The fact that the petition received such wide-spread attention indicates that more and more people are coming to that insight. However, it also points at the fact that, for intersectional feminism, there is much to do if it is to incorporate ableism more fully into its general programme. I should add that it was my encounter with Naomi Doevendans, the young woman who has filed the Wij Staan Op petition, that made me understand to what extent the differently abled people are discriminated against on both a structural and individual level and how little it has been touched upon in intersectional activism. Interestingly, Naomi too mentioned she felt there was little activism, even in the more radically intersectional circles, that truly directed its attention at discrimination against ableism. At the time, now 3 months ago, she expressed that she felt disability was still often overlooked in intersectional activism as race and gender took the mainstage. Yet, according to Doevendans, the whole discussion that fired up in April gave the organization an opportunity to direct attention to the larger issue of discrimination against differently abled individuals. “I feel like things have been shifting in activism; and because there is just a lot more “out there” about differently abled people and their experience with ableism, I’ve heard much more about ableism in activistic circles – which I am really happy about,” says Doevendans. Now, she feels that “the first steps have been made towards an intersectional activism that includes disability.”
And so it seems that in order to make intersectionality more radical and more inclusive, ableism needs to be further implemented into its list of considerations. If our feminism is bullshit if not for intersectionality, then it needs to regard all dimensions of intersectionality, including abilities. A further awareness of ableism is extremely necessary in the public domain, where a general level of sensitivity concerning issues of both race and gender is also still not fully implemented (to say the least). This needs to start with a basic level of awareness of the impact that ableism has on those who have to deal with it. Out of sensitivity for the issue, I don’t want to prescribe what needs to be done – because this is evidently not my domain of expertise – but I do want to say that this debate has shed light for me personally on the lack of awareness that characterizes the role of abilities in intersectional feminism.
But even if, according to Doevendans, the past months have helped to open up the debate concerning ableism, it is yet to be seen what will happen to van Ark’s proposal and what form it will take on. The debate has been characterized by a relative silence since the end of April, yet, there is a lot of work being done “behind the scenes”, says Doevendans. That means the organization is currently working on an initiative for municipalities to “stand up” against the proposal, and especially local factions of the SP and the ChristenUnie have expressed a general disdain for van Ark’s plans in their current form.
Let’s end on an optimistic note, though. Wij Staan Op is keeping the lines of communication open with Tamara van Ark as experience experts, and have even been asked to do workshops with the VVD about privilege and ableism. How is that for progress?
Text: Malou Miedema