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Back in the eighties I worked with mentally and physically disabled children and adults as a playworker and carer.

It was at an integrated playscheme, meaning that, in the school holidays, children without disabilities were also present. They were great with the children with disabilities, and their parents were often also on board, as occasional volunteers for lots of different projects. It was a good mixture, and it worked well.

However, when we put on fundraising and open day events, lots of the people who came to them had little experience of disabled people.

These fundraiser things happened a few times a year. Though they were worthwhile, they were often excruciating. Workers in all professions have codes that only their colleagues know about, and we were glad of them at these events. They usually took the form of a mingle-type thing in a marquee. We were working, strictly speaking, but also very exposed to the guests. Every time one of them said to us, “You must find your work so rewarding,” in that I’m-the-first-person-who-ever-thought-this kind of way, we would put a hand up in the air to alert the others that we’d had a rewarding hit.

Of course, some guests noticed, and sometimes said, “Uh, what does that mean – your hand up in the air?” We had to wing it and come up with something like, “I’m just calling for more food,” and point either to their empty plates or meaningfully towards some imaginary vol-au-vont-less guests. Then we used to have to worm our way out of it pronto before the imaginary waiter failed to materialise.

The guests were afraid of saying the wrong thing, of course, so sometimes went to extraordinary lengths not to be offensive, yet often ended up saying things about our charges like, “Well, as he’s a… a… you know.” And we’d go, “No. What?” “A… a, well, it’s not very nice to say it these days…” And we’d have to go, “What – spastic?” or something, and they’d look relieved and say, “Yes!” And we’d have to say, “Well, that’s not exactly true… and you’re right: it’s not very nice to say it these days, or any days.”

We were terribly low-paid – and usually not paid at all for the fundraisers – and faced with some everyday miseries at work, so we were messing with them just for a laugh, and to relieve that misery in some small way. Few of them meant to be offensive.

They meant well. We knew that. It was just mildly irritating to us that everybody used exactly the same words each time: it was nearly always those exact words: you must find it so rewarding. Our noting and marking each dubbing of our minimum-wage working lives as rewarding was a way of poking fun at them without being hurtful to their faces. After all, some of them were donating money, or something else, of course, though there were also people along just freeloading – people will eat even the worst food if it’s free. Some felt they had to be there because they’d been pressured into it – you could tell by their long-suffering rictus smiles; at least they rarely said anything, just looked at us all, workers and our charges, I thought sometimes, and wondered what on earth made us do such a job.

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Chris Hearne via Flickr

The COVID virus and its attendant crises has thrown into sharp relief the nature of jobs such as caring, and the yawning gap between how much they are needed, and how much they are valued. I believe the concept that working with disabled people is ‘rewarding’ is one thing used to devalue it in terms of paying such workers a decent wage. Under the surface, it says something like, ‘As you’ve got such a rewarding job, you must feel smug and satisfied about it, so you don’t need to be paid very much.’

It was one of my part-time jobs when I was doing my degree and teacher training. I enjoyed the work, and got something out of more than the minimum wage it paid, for sure, but I don’t think I felt as rewarded as some people seemed to think I was. Ultimately, it was just not valued, and therefore not well paid enough, and to a ridiculously low level, so I basically couldn’t afford to stay in it. It’s probably much the same now, though, without a doubt, it is surely still rewarding in ways that can’t be articulated by anybody, even the most well-meaning of well-wishers.

Cover image courtesy of Simon Matzinger via Flickr

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