If You Like It Then You Shoulda Put a Paycheck On It: My Real Problem With The Mighty (#CrippingTheMighty)

The Mighty, a content site catering to parents and families of disabled and chronically ill people, has been criticized repeatedly in the disability community for its continuous publication of mocking, demeaning, or “inspiration porn”-y stories that are, like so many things about disability, about us without us.

This time, the outcry addressed a piece by a parent of an autistic child, called “Introducing: Meltdown Bingo.”  The piece mocked the acute distress that autistic people express during meltdowns.

The Mighty later removed the piece (a cached version is available courtesy of Un-Boxed Brain here). The site also issued an apology of sorts.

Many bloggers in the disability community have called out The Mighty both on this particular misstep and on missteps in the past.  I agree with the way in which posts like these have gone to the heart of the matter, and I see no reason to repeat their many excellent points.

Instead, as a professional writer and an editor who works with a press specializing in disability-related texts, I want to point out a deeper problem The Mighty has: it does not pay its writers.  Specifically, it does not pay its disabled writers – members of the very population it claims to support.

The Mighty actively solicits submissions from its readers, with a large yellow “Submit a Story” link placed front and center on its main page.  Many of the writers who submit pieces to The Mighty are disabled.  In its apology for the “Meltdown Bingo” fiasco, The Mighty specifically asked for more disabled writers to step forward – and the site’s Twitter account, @TheMightySite, “followed” just about every disabled writer and activist whose name was recommended to them in the #CrippingTheMighty hashtag (including yours truly).

The Mighty’s tagline is “we face disability, disease, and mental illness together.”  The stated goal of its founder, Mike Porath, was to “build a media company that actually helps people.”  Boasting hits in the tens of millions each year, the site could be a force to be reckoned with in the battle to end disability discrimination and demand the full respect of disabled people as people.

It could.  But it’s not.  And not paying its contributors – especially not paying its disabled contributors – has everything to do with that.

Disabled people are notoriously unemployed and underemployed.  According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 17.1 percent of disabled U.S. adults were employed in 2014.  17.1 percent.  Employed.  Not “employed full-time”; employed at all.

(By contrast, 64.6 percent of non-disabled U.S. adults were employed in 2014.)

When disabled adults are employed, it is frequently “under”employment: employment for fewer hours per week, or at less challenging tasks, than the individual is willing and able to do.  We are one of the few populations in the United States to which it is legal to pay only a handful of pennies per hour, under Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).  It’s no secret that undergraduate programs do not want to accommodate us, graduate programs do not want to admit us, and employers do not want to hire us – and that when we are “let in,” we are under-utilized, under-respected, under-retained, and underpaid.

If this sounds like exploitation, that’s because it is.  And The Mighty is participating in it.

Despite being a site dedicated to the topic of disability, The Mighty has yet to hire a single disabled editor.  Despite being a site that actively solicits the writing of disabled authors, The Mighty does not pay these writers – or rather, it claims to pay with “exposure.”

As I said in another blog post earlier this week, a site that offers to pay you with “exposure” falls into one of two categories.  Either it’s too small for the “exposure” to be worthwhile to you, or it’s big enough to make the “exposure” worthwhile – and therefore is big enough to pay you.

The Mighty, with  a claimed 80 million visitors, falls into the second category.  It’s got enough clout to make the “exposure” worthwhile.  And with a seed round of $2.5 million, a claimed 300 non-profit partners, and paid advertising landing in front of the eyes of every one of those 80 million visitors, it has enough money to pay its writers, as well.

Instead, The Mighty does what every “for exposure” outlet does: it begs for charity from its readers by asking them to submit the results of their labor, to generate ad revenue clicks, without compensation for their work.  The Mighty claims to have the backs of one of the most unemployed, unpaid, and exploited populations in the United States – and IT asks THEM for charity.  Proudly.  When asked for compensation, The Mighty pays out – to a non-profit instead of to the writer whose labor pads The Mighty’s bottom line.

In a recent blog post, David Perry proposed two possible ethical futures for The Mighty.  One was to incorporate itself into the community it purports to support; the other was to “be professional” and pay its writers.

I propose that these two futures are actually one future: that The Mighty cannot be an ethical participant in the disability community without compensating the disabled writers from whose work the site generates its revenue.  We are, as I mentioned, an exploited community.

To those who object “But how is The Mighty supposed to pay writers?”, I point back to two facts:

  1.  The Mighty started with $2.5 million in seed money,
  2. Autonomous Press exists.

Autonomous Press, founded in 2015, has published only one book containing the works of disabled writers who were not paid cash money for their contributions.  The writers were, however, compensated with at least one physical printed copy of the book apiece (to my knowledge, The Mighty does not print copies of contributors’ submissions for distribution).  Contributors to the press’s second compilation, The Real Experts, were paid with contributor copies and cash; contributors to its third, The Spoon Knife Anthology, will be paid in similar form.  Every single-author book Autonomous Press has produced to date is also paying royalties to its respective author.

(Incidentally, AutPress’s payment to me for my own contribution to Spoon Knife is the most any publisher has ever paid me for a single piece of short fiction.)

If AutPress can produce physical, printed books with a four-figure startup budget and compensate its contributors, The Mighty has no excuse for running a digital-only realm on a seven-figure startup budget and not paying its writers.  And a print publication outranks a digital one on a CV every time – which means that, in at least one sense, AutPress is offering better “exposure” as well.

As David Perry put it, “I don’t actually think [The Mighty’s goal is to] “give people a platform to share their stories.” It’s to make money while feeling good about themselves.”

And, I might add, while exploiting the very population they claim to help.

This is my problem with The Mighty.  This, as I see it, is a bigger problem than inspiration porn, bigger than all the stories that broadcast the personal details of disabled children’s lives in order to mock them.  As long as The Mighty continues to exploit us by demanding our unpaid labor to pad their egos and their bottom line, the site will do damage to the disabled community that no quantity of good writing from disabled contributors to the site can ever hope to repair.

Want to prove you value the lives of disabled people, The Mighty?  Value our labor.  Pay us.

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The Social Model of Disability: A Rather Short and Very Simplified Introduction

I wrote this just now for a person on Facebook who asked for a shorter and simpler introduction to the social model of disability than Google offered.  Since I imagine it will be useful to more than just the person to whom I originally responded, I’m reposting it here.

Think of “disabled” or “disability” as a verb. A body/brain condition you have is a “disability” not because it exists or because it differs from body/brain conditions a lot of other people have, but because the world you live in is not set up, socially or otherwise, to let people with your body/brain condition access it easily.

The condition “itself” – say, like having chronic migraines or not having legs – is typically called an “impairment,” especially if the medical world has criteria for diagnosing it.  Impairments can come with their own non-social hardships.  Migraines, for example, can be very painful, cause difficulty thinking, nausea etc. But any body/mind condition, “impairment” or otherwise, is a “disability” only when the way society is structured is the reason you can’t do the things you want to do when you have it.

A rather simplified example: I have chronic migraines. I see the pain as an “impairment,” because no amount of social change will ever make the pain not suck for me. But whether or not I can hold a full-time job with my chronic migraines is a “disability,” because it depends on things like how work is structured in a particular society, what tools I have to do work in alternate ways during a migraine, etc.

My chronic migraines were a full-blown “disability” when I worked as a line editor, because there my employer refused to structure the job so I could do it during a migraine. In other words, I was “disabled” from doing that job by my employer’s rules about how the job “should” be done. But the migraines were less disabling when I was a lawyer or now, as a professor, because both those jobs are ones I can structure (and have structured) so I can do the work even during a migraine.  I can schedule work so that I’m working at home on migraine days; I can lower the lights in my office/classroom and give my students activities that don’t require the same kind of “on my toes” input from me; I can postpone grading for days when I don’t have a migraine; and I have someone else to double-check my writing to make sure it makes sense. In writing fiction, I find that my migraines are actually the opposite of “disabling”: I write *better* fiction when I have one than when I don’t. The migraines are still painful and nauseating, but now I’m “abled” to do my job because it is structured in a way that lets me access it even with the pain and nausea.

…This doesn’t, of course, address any of my reservations about the disability/impairment binary, regarding autism or otherwise.   But I hope it’s useful.