In this commentary, disabled writer Ella Shorthouse reflects on her conflicting emotions surrounding the hiring of housekeeping services to ensure her home is clean.
This commentary is part of the Voices of Disability Economic Justice Project, a partnership with TCF’s Disability Economic Justice Collaborative. Voices of Disability Economic Justice showcases disabled writers’ first-person perspectives on the economic issues that matter most to them.
At age 26, I developed a chronic vestibular condition that causes me pain, confusion, and dizziness when I attempt a wide variety of household chores. While I am still able to work, activities that were once accessible—like bending down to empty the dishwasher or standing at the stove stirring the contents of a hot frying pan—are no longer safe and comfortable everyday tasks for me.
After months of being unable to keep my home clean due to disability, I began purposefully setting aside money to have a professional housekeeper assist me. This expense is over 10 percent of my weekly paycheck, but without it, dishes piled high across my counters and I had no clean surface to eat from, the trash I couldn’t take out spilled into the walkway and I tripped on it, and I struggled to keep my cats’ litter boxes clean enough for them. By the time I finally accepted that I needed help, I needed it badly.
I am extremely grateful to everyone who has helped me to live in a clean enough home, and I know that being able to afford cleaning services is a privilege many people with disabilities long for. In addition to the practical aspects of being able to eat off clean dishes and not trip on the household items my cats drag into the middle of the room, it’s a great advantage to my mental health to have a clean space in which to live.
Despite my gratitude for the assistance I have received from housekeepers, this work is still something I would rather do myself, if only I were able. I never loved washing the dishes, but becoming disabled made me realize I loved putting them away.
My housekeeper, gentle and thorough though she is, does not have the connection I do to my possessions. I know the history of each treasure in my home. The blue mugs with the sunflowers once belonged to my late grandmother, and I used to drink chocolate tea from them at her tiny kitchen table after school. The glasses with the rainbow pattern came from the first pride festival I attended after coming out as bisexual. The serving tray, though it matches the plates, is not dishwasher safe like the plates. The deeper little black cap goes with the pressure cooker; the shallower one belongs with the soda-making machine. None of this information springs into my housekeeper’s mind as she washes my dishes, because she is not me. I cannot follow her around the kitchen rattling off the rich history of each item, both because that would be rude and because I am stuck in bed for the very same reason that she has to come at all. So the serving tray goes in the dishwasher and its design starts to peel off, my grandmother’s mugs and the pride glasses are not put away where I would like them, and all the little black caps now live in the pressure cooker.
Being unable to complete household tasks on my own has shown me how much I valued being able to arrange my home according to my own instincts and preferences. The facts of my disability are such that not only do I have to pay for work I used to do on my own, but it’s also not performed in the way I would have done it.
This disconnect is not my housekeeper’s fault; she does an excellent job cleaning my home. I continue to request her services because of the quality of her work. The services I pay for grant me less than what I could do for free when I was more able. But—just like many disabled people—choosing to use these services means I am choosing to care for myself.