Confronting The Stigma Of Leisure

Confronting The Stigma Of Leisure

Kenneth E. Mobily, & Emily Rudzinski

Department of Health and Human Physiology, University of Iowa


The purpose of this paper is to explore the work/leisure binary as it relates to labeling, stereotyping and ultimately stigmatizing persons with disabilities. Although less deliberated in the literature, stigma depends on social context, a class or category of undesirable behaviors practiced by the actor, in the present case—leisure. The evolution of leisure as a stigmatized class of human activity is addressed, with special attention to the intersection of work and disability and how inability to work has come to stigmatize the leisure of persons with disabilities. Usual and customary stigma management strategies employed by abled citizens are reviewed. For the child, the currently employed and even the retired, seriousness or employment, or both justify and legitimize their use of leisure. No such alternatives are available to the unemployed majority of persons with disabilities. Finally, the implications of inclusive leisure are explored, how it confronts stigma and may be used as a basis for changing the general perception of leisure by a lay audience. Inclusive leisure is an expression of equal rights; it confronts the stigma of leisure in two ways. First, by comingling with the abled, the demarcation between normal and abnormal dissolves into diversity and appreciation of differences. Second, inclusive leisure challenges the validity of a work/leisure binary. Because it contains the cosmetic appearances of work-- earnestness, a career-like calling, and utility-- serious leisure is suggested as a method of transition from inclusion to the recognition that leisure is a valuable activity.

Key words

  • inclusion
  • stigma
  • leisure
  • work
  • disability
  • stigma management


Nielsen (2012) observes that disability is frequented by shame, ‘Such shame, silence, and isolation have been built into the institutions, the laws, the perceived and unperceived elements of US history. It permeates our lives’ (p. 183). Relative to disability, shame and the isolation that results are most commonly associated with an embodied type of undesirable difference—a stigma (Brown, 2013). Although less deliberated in the disability studies literature, stigma also depends on social context, a class or category of undesirable behaviors practiced by the actor (Devine & Wilhite, 1999). The formula for stigma formation is the same, however; relative to behavior, the primary activity of the dominant culture will become the expectation defining an undesirable class of human activity, creating the necessary binary for stigma.

The work/leisure binary is one such behavioral institution. Leisure in modern society is enigmatic. It is a temporal and spatial terrain serving as a reward for a job well done; in this sense one ‘earns’ leisure through work; work justifies leisure (Ellis, 1973; Kraus, 1984; Miller, 1965). Simultaneously, it is reviled as a time and place for loafing, a haven for malingering and a general waste of time. If time is organized in straightforward terms as per Staffan Linder’s (1970) typology in ‘The Harried Leisure Class,’ two categories are relevant here: behaviors that are apparently useful and productive (remunerated work and the work involved in personal care, such as eating, sleeping and bathing) and behaviors that are not apparently useful and productive (leisure, free and idle time). Scholars in leisure studies do rightfully maintain that leisure is much more complex than the division of time and human activity; however, the popular lay definition of leisure is oriented around time (Arnold, 1980). Hence, among the general public, leisure represents a class of behaviors with a high probability for stigma formation. The socially imposed stigma comes to rest squarely on those who occupy leisure without justification; this branded state of leisure amounts to a waste of time in a culture where work is the revered and the endorsed path to respectability (Oliver, 1990); work is the means to legitimate, moral citizenship (Berger, 2013). Furthermore, referencing Mike Oliver (1990), Berger argues that ‘…the status of people with disabilities is largely defined by their ability or inability to perform productive work, whereby being able-bodied means one is capable of the physical exertions [to which one might now add tasks relevant to an information economy] expected in a particular system of labor’ (p. 35). In short, unless the disabled person can contribute to communal productivity, he/she is useless (Hunt, 1966).

The intent of this paper is to explore the work/leisure binary as it relates to labeling, stereotyping and ultimately stigmatizing persons with disabilities. The next section further develops the evolution of leisure as a stigmatized class of human activity, with particular focus on the intersection of work and disability and how inability to work has come to stigmatize the leisure of persons with disabilities. The third section reviews usual and customary coping and management strategies employed by abled citizens, but largely unavailable to persons with disabilities. Lastly, the implications of inclusive leisure is explored with special attention to how it confronts stigma and how it may be used as a basis for changing the general perception of leisure by the lay audience. Note that we use the term “abled” throughout this essay to call attention to the socially constructed nature of the binary between ability and disability.

Development of leisure as stigma: The disability/leisure intersection

I am concerned that we should not elevate the idea of work in our minds to the point where is dominates values that ought to transcend it. It is important not to do this, if only because it causes the most acute suffering in those who cannot help being parasites on the economic body (Hunt, 1966, p. 4).

Why, then, is leisure designated as a class of behaviors that is stigmatized; and how do so many disabled persons find themselves situated there? What is the cause of this temporal and spatial exile?

Miller (1965) argues that in pre-industrial, agrarian economies work and leisure are comingled and not distinct temporally or spatially. That relationship changed with industrialization. Disability historians as well have identified industrialization as a key factor contributing not only to the separation of work and leisure, but also the practice of using the inability to work to define disability (Nielsen, 2012). Capacity to perform hard manual labor in factories, mills and textile plants operationalized what it meant to be able, employable and useful. Those who could not were consigned to a life of enforced leisure, unemployment, under-employment, begging, and panhandling (Schweik, 2009). Once ‘…leisure is imposed by a do-gooder mentality as an excuse for lack of employment, it is as devastating a proposed remedy and as ultimately wasteful as the old charitable institutions and asylums for disabled persons’ (Yale, 1982, p. 7).

Unwanted leisure has proved thematic throughout the history of disability (Nielsen, 2012). Prosecution of enforced leisure has been exercised by two gatekeepers, both using the ‘ability to work test’ ideology at points of access—one for employment, one for benefits. For example, Paul Longmore (2003) chronicled the use of the ability to work claim to deprive employment and enforce leisure in his seminal work on ‘The League of the Physically Handicapped.’ Longmore observes that during the Great Depression members of the League lobbied for equal access to ‘make work’ projects created by the Roosevelt administration to put America back to work, only to be classified as ‘unemployables.’ Conversely, eligibility for a disability pension following the US Civil War depended on proving the incapacity to work as a result of a war-related injury (Nielsen, 2012, p. 86).

‘Under capitalism … disability became an individual pathology; disabled people could not meet the demands of individual wage labour and so became controlled through exclusion’ (Oliver, 1990, p.47). Public policy further magnifies the leisure side of the work/leisure equation by encouraging non-work (enforced leisure) among disabled persons. Since many disabled people live in poverty to begin with, the ‘choice’ not to work is oddly enough an economically sound one. Qualifying for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) in the US requires ‘means testing’; if the individual has the financial resources (means), then benefits are denied. Notwithstanding, the benchmark for having financial means is set so low that the person still ends up living in poverty even with benefits. In addition, as Paul Longmore (2003) discovered, denial of SSI also means denial of access to necessary health care supports. Intentional or not, public policy keeps persons with disabilities pacified at a subsistence level and out of the labor force, isolating them into a marginalized time and place—leisure.

Berger’s observations, noted above, also point to how a life of leisure complicates matters, creating a dilemma for persons with disabilities not often experienced by the abled (see also ‘stigma management’ below). The combination of unemployment and abundant leisure effectively denies persons with disabilities access to economic independence and inclusion. Both affect the legitimacy of their leisure experience and limit what they may do with their abundant free time. Persons with disabilities – just like abled people – might resort to harmful alternatives in their free-time, such as smoking, excess alcohol consumption and substance abuse, further stigmatizing their leisure. Practice of harmful activities during leisure invites a self-fulfilling prophecy and makes matters worse: an excess of leisure is often associated with a character flaw, a moral failing.

Malingering, a rather archaic synonym for moral failing, is correlated with the work/leisure/disability intersection and produces a second dilemma for the disabled person. Once sequestered into enforced leisure the disabled person is frequently infected with terms such as ‘lazy,’ ‘loafer,’ ‘fraud,’ or ‘fake.’ US policy has long been suspicious of ‘convenient diseases’ (Schweik, 2009, p. 83) that become manifest after seemingly lying dormant and undetected. In the US, the Charity Organization Society of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was established to police the distribution of benefits to only worthy recipients and engineer ‘discriminate charity’ to only those living in ‘self-respecting poverty’ (Schweik, p. 41). In the era of the Ugly Law1 (circa 1880-1920), before government welfare and entitlements were available, embodied disability (unsightliness) was by default assumed a fraudulent claim for assistance (unless one was a war veteran). Consequently, there remains today a tendency to act conservatively with respect to public policy, a bias to protect against the moral hazard of providing benefit to the undeserving rather than err in favor of awarding some undeserved benefits as part of a process of providing deserved assistance.

Schweik (2009) implies that ‘Ugly Laws’ served to link leisure and moral character. Between the leisure of persons with disabilities and their moral bankruptcy: ‘…the discourse of the unsightly beggar worked hard to attach loafing [leisure] to the body of the person who was diseased, maimed, and deformed’ (p. 17). Even the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) today still rejects conditions of moral failure as legitimate disabilities (e.g., compulsive gambling, exhibitionism, active drug-users, etc.)

The emergence of the Playground Movement in the US occurred during the same time period as the passage of many Ugly Laws (circa 1880-1920). Early leaders of the Playground Movement seemed sensitive to the stigma linked to leisure because of the association with loafing and malingering. As a result, they found themselves trying to justify leisure using work-like motives and productive activity. Joseph Lee asserted that leisure and work were closely related. Although he used the term ‘play’ instead, he insisted it was not for pleasure but for training of the child for moral purposes—to combat preoccupation with sex. Likewise, John Dewey thought play and work were connected; he saw play as a tool for learning (Kraus, 1984). In other words, leisure had to be controlled and structured to avoid sinking into depravity and corrupting the moral fiber of the country. Idleness had to be scientifically engineered to produce favorable results instead of being left to chance.

Following the demise of Ugly Laws and other severe means of controlling and sequestering persons with disabilities (e.g., institutionalization), a new, ostensibly friendlier version of segregated leisure took hold. Still consistent with the spirit of Ugly Laws, it became tolerable for disabled persons to engage in leisure, but only if segregated, in private enclaves (e.g., Special Olympics, segregated recreation programs for persons with disabilities, adapted physical education). Others suggest that leisure is used to pacify. ‘Poverty and unemployment and the attitudes that perpetuate them create free bus passes or theater passes for disabled persons’ (Yale, 1982, p. 7). Some authors in disability studies have maintained that exclusion from work with the resulting exile to leisure is only another disguised mechanism to ostracize and isolate.

The inclination to keep those who are more than temporarily ill out of the stream of work and social activity is based as much on ignorance and prejudice as is the inclination to keep other people with disabilities hidden (emphasis added) in the private realm. (Wendell, 1996, p. 20)

Stigma has social utility, it is ‘…a means of controlling certain segments of the population and ensuring that power is not easily exchanged. Stigma helps maintain the existing social hierarchy’ (Brown, 2013, p. 157). By using ability-to-work tests (actual and implied), Ugly Laws, and segregated leisure, three objectives were accomplished. First, jobs were spared for the abled workforce. Second, the disabled, unsightly, and abnormal were segregated, out of the mainstream of society. Third, malingerers were punished by associating loafing (the deadly sin of sloth) with leisure, thus depriving them of moral citizenship and membership in society as a responsible adult.

Dis-incentivized from work by government policy and regulation and denied access to work by a socially constraining environment, disabled persons receive a first-hand education in enforced free time. Furthermore, they earn a ‘demerit’ for being caught without an excuse for their leisure. In a culture that finds primary identity in work, denying disabled person’s access to work through discriminatory practices serves to amplify the stigma associated with ‘differentness.’ Enforced leisure underscores their failures of competence and their inability to claim legitimacy.

Stigma management

The work/valued behavior versus leisure/non-valued behavior binary often arouses efforts to cope or minimize the associated stigma. Select groups have the means to evade the stigma of leisure by using several stigma management techniques. Those classes do not include persons with disabilities. Brown (2013) argues that ‘…some are more capable of concealing their stigma…Often attributes or behaviors that might otherwise be considered “abnormal” or stigmatized are labeled as “eccentric” among persons of power or influence’ (p. 149). Children, those who are employed and most retired persons have practiced several methods for evading the stigma of leisure.

Leisure is commonly excused or legitimized for children; leisure (play) is considered serious business (see Maria Montessori), a time when important skills and lessons are learned, and only a temporary condition during development toward adulthood. Problem-solving ability, social skill development, and emotional maturity number among the lessons learned by children during their leisure (play).

For employed adults, leisure (recreation) is refreshment, prerequisite to returning re-invigorated to work again, only a temporary condition justified when juxtaposed to work. Work legitimizes leisure while the individual is employed. More to the point of the present argument, Ellis (1973) articulates relaxation theory which maintains that leisure is a time to re-energize to work again. In this sense, being abled or disabled does not matter so long as one is employed. In all cases, however, leisure is subservient to work, leisure is for work not the other way around.

Although disabled persons may try to work, many do not or cannot.2 Nevertheless, Kavka (1992) makes a cogent argument for the right to work on behalf of disabled persons. He challenges the economic efficiency objection to employment of disabled persons by questioning the basis of efficiency, underscoring the importance of self-respect (on the part of the worker), and raises the issue of distributive justice. One obstacle is the ‘lingering prejudice’ (p. 269) against persons with disabilities; the consequence is that the free market system cannot be trusted to provide job opportunities to disabled persons. Kavka further maintains that once a moral case for distributive justice is made based on self-respect, the right to work claim is strengthened. Like others cited in this paper (e.g., Miller, 1965), he recognizes that employment is positively correlated with self-respect, identity, and self-worth in a modern society. However, he also balances affirmative action initiatives to guarantee the right to work with the reality—most disabled persons are not employed, and many of those are older adults with chronic conditions.

The fact that many older adults have chronic conditions exacerbates a daunting leisure challenge facing the once-employed but no longer so, the retired, the old. For the old, the stigma of leisure may be managed by a ‘staying busy’ ethic (Ekerdt, 1986). Miller (1965) further details the stigma management strategies used by retired individuals. One version is to infuse aspects of work into leisure, a so-called ‘gainful rationale’ (akin to Ekerdt’s economically instrumental activity); coin collecting is an example. Likewise, a useful rationale may be applied when the retiree contributes to the community welfare, through volunteering for example. Third, Miller suggests that continuing education is seen as a respectable use of free time by the retired since it is generally regarded as a method for self-improvement (similar to Ekerdt’s potentially productive category of behaviors).

Furthermore, according to Miller (1965), those unable to legitimize their leisure in retirement must resort to other more dramatic measures. The net result of desperate measures to manage leisure in retirement often leads to social isolation (similar to Brown’s, 2013, ‘social quarantine.’) The ‘portent of embarrassment’ (the fear of being ‘caught’ with leisure in the absence of justification) may cause retired seniors to opt out of interacting with other (younger) age cohorts. At that point only the most extreme solution, nonparticipation in most activities, (the disengagement explanation of retirement), can be implemented so as not to be discovered. Although the portent of embarrassment is only occasionally experienced by older adults, it is more common and longer-lasting among persons with disabilities because of chronic unemployment.

‘Obviously we who are disabled are deeply affected by assumptions of our uselessness that surround us’ (Hunt, 1966, p. 4). Left without the usual stigma management techniques it is easy to see how disabled persons might resort to internalizing society’s norms for work and leisure in exchange for a tolerated and segregated leisure of their own, a temporal and spatial place where they may at least be free from embarrassment and aggravation. Accordingly, a method of adjusting to the stigma of leisure by disabled individuals is acquiescence and resignation to the unproductive role. This brings to mind Brown’s (2013) ‘self-referencing’ and Goffman’s (1963) ‘internalization’; both terms refer to the phenomenon whereby persons with disabilities come to accept their marginalized status. Unfortunately, when resignation is the attitude it compounds the problem of breaking free of the stigma of leisure because disabled actors embrace the conviction that segregation fostered and preferred by the dominant culture is acceptable. Unemployment has deprived persons with disabilities, directly and indirectly, of the stigma management strategies described above when confronting an enforced leisure lifestyle.

‘Passing’ as able might come to mind as a solution to the dilemma insofar as the person outwardly appears ‘able.’ However, ‘If someone chooses to pass as “normal” then they will be expected by others to conform to conventional norms of behavior and stamina…’ (Reeve, 2012, p. 88). What cannot be hid is unemployment, often perceived by the general public as an unwillingness to work, a vice. As a result, hidden disabilities are particularly susceptible to leisure as stigma because the masked impairment regularly proves incompatible with legitimizing the useless (leisure) activity through work. Making matters worse, the individual outwardly appears capable (of working). To obtain at least tolerance and segregation, the individual with mental illness, for instance, must ‘fess up’ and reveal his flaw, with the same outcome mentioned above: internalization and acceptance of the hegemonic boundaries placed on the leisure of persons with disabilities--segregation.

In summary, children, workers, and the retired negotiate the respectability of non-utilitarian behaviors as an opportunity to learn, as a refreshment to work again, or as reward for a lifetime of labor. They are given a ‘hall-pass’ in conjunction with re-characterizing their unproductive activity as useful or at least justified, but certainly not loafing. Persons with disabilities have no such advantage and must contend with the stigma of leisure.

The way out

…part of the psychological origins of hostility to disabled people may lie in the tendency of non-disabled people to deny their vulnerability and frailty and mortality, and to project these uncomfortable issues onto disabled people. (Shakespeare & Watson, 2002, p. 28)

Inclusion of persons with disabilities in regular, mainstream leisure activities represents a significant part of the solution to leisure as stigma because it disrupts the dominant powers in at least two ways. First, it reminds those in power of their vulnerability; second, inclusive recreation threatens the idea of staking identity and social worth in work. Inclusion destabilizes the temporal and spatial ‘playground,’ which leads to resistance by mainstream society. ‘Disability is a threatening category because, unlike a subordinated race or sex, anyone can fall into the category of disabled at any time,’ resulting in fear not empathy, ‘…fear of the other in oneself…’ (Emens, 2013, p. 50). Here we adhere to Wendell’s (1996) view of inclusion: “…the ability to participate in all major aspects of life, in which I would include (for Canada and the United States) at least work, social life, political life, religious life, cultural life, personal relationships, and recreation” (p. 50).

Resistance from the abled is a result of apprehension provoked by the presence of disabled participants, an apprehension related to concession to one’s own vulnerability; that, in fact, the abled are not far from being disabled (Wendell, 1989). From a lifespan perspective, from birth to death, almost everyone is temporarily able-bodied.

…we [disabled persons] are representatives of many things they [the dominant culture] most fear—tragedy, loss, dark and the unknown…A deformed and paralyzed body attacks everyone’s sense of well-being and invincibility. People do not want to acknowledge what disability affirms—that life is tragic and we shall all soon be dead. (Hunt, 1966, p. 8)

‘Out of sight, out of mind’ has stood as the mantra for the dominant culture’s treatment of persons with disability throughout most of the 19th and 20th centuries. Separation, segregation, and sequestration have dotted the political landscape of disability in the US and perhaps all of Western culture. From Alms Houses and Poor Farms to Ugly Laws, the dominant, ‘normal’ population has sought to remove the unpleasant reminder of disability (and human frailty) from the ‘streets’ (Schweik, 2009). De-institutionalization, begun in the 1950’s and 60’s, promised a more progressive attitude and a community-based infra-structure of care, but has only resulted in trading one type of institution for another. Many persons with mental illness, for example, are housed in skilled nursing facilities (nursing homes) or in the prisons (Ben-Moshe, 2013), hardly convincing support that genuine change has occurred. We do not call the net result ‘ugly,’ but it is nonetheless an embarrassment, and disingenuous of politicians who seek only to decrease state spending at the expense of the disabled community.

Separation and segregation have been the norms for activity experiences of persons with disabilities. Unfortunately, segregation undermines tactics to legitimize the leisure of persons with disabilities. ‘Normates’3 are stunned to see persons with disabilities in usual places; their presence provokes stares. We do not expect to see them out of their secluded reserves: ‘These are bodies that we expect neither to see, to know, nor to have’ (Garland-Thomson, 2009, p. 39). Inclusive leisure experiences confront the stigma of leisure; affiliating with abled bodies in leisure legitimizes the leisure of the disabled by association (when equality prevails): ‘To be aligned with normative forms of embodiment automatically and naturally [original emphasis] entitles one to a range of goods, benefits and advantages…’ (Shildrick, 2012, p. 36).

But the inclusive leisure environment can be contradictory. Inclusive experiences may serve as a lightning rod for embarrassment of the abled for being caught leisure-ing with the marginalized. The result: a typically hostile reaction on the part of the abled when surprised with an inclusive leisure event. ‘Unorthodox faces also throw easy recognition rituals into chaos. A face that cannot conform to expectations is illegible…’ (Garland-Thomson, 2009, p. 105).

What embodiment in the playground threatens is the stark binary of normal/abnormal. Inclusive leisure ‘muddies the water,’ making the distinction between abled and disabled less clear. Inclusion runs contrary to the preference that hegemonic society has for an unequivocal and easily recognized distinction between the abled and disabled. Inclusion seeks to obscure that distinction. For example, Catherine Prendergast’s (2013) paper on the unexceptional schizophrenic exposes the preference of society to find ‘madness’ easy to recognize—either villain (e.g., The Unabomber) or inspiration (e.g., ‘A Beautiful Mind’), with nothing ‘in between.’ The reality, as Prendergast adroitly points out, is that most people with schizophrenia are unexceptional, ‘in between,’ everyday people trying to get about the business of living their lives as best they can, scarcely noticed by society at large.

Resonating with the ability/disability binary is Wendell’s (1996) discussion of the intersection between gender and disability; typically regarded as ‘private,’ to invade male-defined, public space with a feminine disposition, a disability, or a leisure activity leads to opposition by the current hegemony.

When public and private worlds are split, women (and children) have often been relegated to the private world, and so have the disabled, the sick, and the old. The public world is the world of strength, the positive (valued) body, performance and production [emphasis added], the non-disabled, and young adults. (p. 40)

Prodded by the presence of disabled persons in an inclusive leisure setting, the general populace is not only apprehensive about its vulnerability, it must also come to terms with the possibility that leisure does not only exist because work exists. As a necessary contrast: ‘…we [disabled persons] can act as a symbol for the pre-eminent claims of non-utilitarian values, a visible challenge to anyone who treats his job as a final end’ (Hunt, 1966, p. 4). Hence, not only does inclusive leisure make vulnerability more salient, it also defies ‘…performativity of embodied selfhood…’ as the path to identity formation (Shildrick, 2012, p. 31). The point of departure for the value of leisure is nested in the fact that most workers (at least in America) are not happy or satisfied at their jobs (Adams, 2014), contesting the legitimacy of the claim on a work-driven identity as the sole meaning of life.

The Declaration of Independence in the US maintains that all are created equal—while that is not true since we are a very diverse species (sometimes called ‘neuro-diversity’), equality remains an important principle and has morphed into more of an argument for civil rights—equality of opportunity, not genetic sameness. With an abundance of enforced leisure, the disabled population often has only one source for identity formation and self-esteem—leisure. Asserting the ‘right to leisure’ is as old as the beginnings of the Playground Movement itself (e.g., McDowell, 1910), dating back to the Progressive Era (1880-1920). Reconsidering the role of leisure in one’s life is a second confrontation occurring within an inclusive leisure experience, one that occurs between the endorsed culture of ‘work’ and the ‘other.’ It is part and parcel of the ‘pursuit of happiness.’ Inclusive leisure challenges work as the ‘end all and be all of life’; it reveals leisure as the consummate ‘guilty pleasure’ (Mobily, 2015); it operationalizes Hunt’s (1966) assertion that persons with disabilities can stand for and symbolize non-utilitarian values in life. The guilt arises from the notion that we have to find a reason to justify leisure, its instrumental value apart from the playing itself. Children learn from play; play is a way to cope with stress, to adjust, or a therapy and so on. Naked, unadorned play by itself is never sufficient, never enough.

From Taylor’s (2004) point of view, there exists an informal “means test” applied daily to access leisure; a sort of taking of one’s moral temperature to gauge fitness for “duty” as a citizen.4 There is enough “non-working” guilt to go around. Economic isolation leads to social isolation. With few career options, lack of inclusion in the work space becomes an issue of civil rights. Taylor exposes and contests American individualism and independence, an artifact that shares aspects of Garland-Thomson’s normate. The truth of the matter is that neither is one really self-made, nor is one completely independent. The troubling aspect of capitalistic society is that worth is linked to productivity in every tangible and measurable sense of the word. “The right not to work is the right not to have your value determined by your productivity as a worker…” (Taylor, 2004, p. 31). Taylor argues that, like the concept of “temporarily able-bodied” (TAB), almost everyone is likewise temporarily employed. Impairment is the uncomfortable reminder that “independence” (illusion or not) and employment are only temporary and vulnerable to all manner of unexpected events. Hence, in the best interest of everyone, other methods for determining one’s value, identity and meaning ought to be considered besides work. According to Hunt, disabled persons may serve as a vanguard confronting human employability and productivity; legitimizing instead alternative identities (to work) through avocational roles.

Leisure must therefore be claimed as an entitlement, a right; it is an ‘equality,’ not ‘means tested’ relative to the ability to perform work-relevant tasks, or even a matter of whether someone deserves it or not. Furthermore, inclusive leisure is revolutionary not only in the sense of an affirmation of civil rights, but also as a challenge to being work’s opposite, its ‘poor stepchild.’ Leisure stands by itself; it does need work to exist; or so asserts the inclusive recreation movement. Akin to Strachen (see Schweik, 2009) after World War II, who maintained that the right to work was a civil right, we maintain that leisure is a civil right. Inclusion challenges the ‘gaze,’--‘…a mechanism through which ableism invalidates the impaired body and at the same time sustains its own authenticity’ (Garland-Thomson, 2009, p. 194).

Is Western society ready for this, ready to admit that ‘Late capitalism produces bodies as languishing through excessive demands of labor productivity…’ (Mitchell & Snyder, 2012, p. 45)? An abrupt shift in the social conception of leisure to one of being ‘an end in itself,’ a solitary entity that does not need external forces or a binary to prop it up, might well be expected to throw the entire stigma management template of abled society into chaos and lead to even more resistance to inclusion.

Such a shift in thinking could even challenge laws. For instance, one criterion for claiming ‘undue burden’ within the American’s with Disabilities Act rests on altering the fundamental nature of an activity. In other words, if inclusion changes the fundamental nature of the (work or leisure) activity so much that it interferes with the experience of other participants, then the agency may claim undue burden. Accordingly, a bridge to attenuate the challenge of inclusive leisure may be needed because inclusion rests on the striking assertion that leisure needs no justification.

Consistent with Miller’s stigma management among older adults is the concept of serious leisure, although it is applied more broadly and not restricted to retired elderly individuals. Stebbins (1999) defines serious leisure as ‘…the systematic pursuit of an amateur, hobbyist, or volunteer activity that participants find so substantial and interesting that, in the typical case, they launch themselves on a career centered on acquiring and expressing its special skills, knowledge, and experience’ (p. 69). Stebbins goes on to describe three types of serious leisure, including amateurs who practice a pursuit associated with a professional role model, such as an art, science, or sport. Second are the hobbyists who pursue their leisure activity with similar passion but do not have a professional counterpart, such as collectors, non-competitive activity participants (e.g., bird watching), or sport enthusiasts without a professional role model (e.g., field hockey). The final type of serious leisure is volunteering, regarded as justifiable because it leads to a needed service that would not be provided otherwise. The fact that many volunteer efforts are directed toward needy individuals makes it all the more a legitimate form of leisure.

What the types of serious leisure tend to share in common is the sense of a work-like ‘career’ in their pursuit. Stebbins (1999) also suggests that serious leisure can become the central life interest of individuals who are marginalized or alienated by the modern work environment: A result of the Information Age may well be that a (serious) leisure career is ‘…the only substitute people have for the respectable identity (Stebbins, 2014) and central life interest they once knew in their work’ (p. 74). Stebbins (2008) later applies serious leisure to the plight of disabled persons’ leisure.

Leisure has been, for some time, among the tools used in rehabilitating people with mental and physical disabilities. Rehabilitation programs for such people include goals of helping them re-enter the larger community, develop their leisure interests, and even acquire a certain level of leisure education. (p. 436).

He (Stebbins, 2008) makes the common assumption that a medical/rehabilitation model designed to ‘fix’ the person is preferred to a social model, designed to change an environment that excludes: ‘One modern problem here is to know what kind of leisure to recommend or suggest to people with a particular disability’ (p. 436). This sort of prescriptive approach has been contested in the recent related literature (e.g., Mobily, Walter, & Finley, 2015; Sylvester, 2015).5 However, transition using serious leisure in combination with inclusive experiences remains a promising strategy, but would require implementation using a social model. Inclusion is not just a matter of ‘fitting’ the person with a disability into the leisure experience best suited to their skills and limitations, the environment has to be altered as well to be inclusive.

Furthermore, Stebbins (2008) does recognize the burdensome challenge that the work/leisure binary presents and the need to address ‘…the still dominant public view that real personal worth is measured according to the work people do rather than the leisure they pursue’ (p. 436). At least one research report has borne this out. Chun, Lee and Heo (2008) studied the benefits of serious leisure for persons recovering from spinal cord injuries. Among their findings was that many of their subjects ‘…experienced a disrupted life story and lost their personal identities due to unemployment and disrupted relationships’ (p. 70). Serious leisure (careers) were successfully used to establish new identities.


Children, workers, and, perhaps, the retired, negotiate the respectability of non-utilitarian behaviors as an opportunity to learn, as a refreshment to work again, or as earned through a life of hard labor. They are given a ‘hall-pass’ in conjunction with the re-characterizing of their unproductive activity. The opportunity to manage the stigma of leisure is not afforded persons with disabilities, leaving them with quarantined leisure, at best, or stigmatized by leisure without justification at worst, or both. The fallout is acceptance of unemployment and segregation by the disabled community, internalization as Yale (1982) maintains: ‘As long as disabled persons continue to accept the crumbs, it will remain virtually impossible to assemble the whole essential loaf of rights’ (p.7).

Inclusive leisure is an expression of equal rights; it confronts the stigma of leisure in two ways. First, by comingling with the abled, the demarcation between normal and abnormal dissolves into diversity and (in the best circumstance) appreciation of differences. ‘As soon as the other moves beyond the simple binary opposition and refuses to stay in place, the implications of change affect the whole relation’ (Shildrick, 2012, p. 36). Persons with disabilities refuse to be pacified by segregated leisure any more than they are fond of institutionalization as an appropriate substitute for a fully engaged life. As a result, ‘…the stories of disabled people are marked by strategies of resistance that embody individual and collective struggles for recognition’ (Loja, Costa, Hughes, & Menezes, 2013, p. 200). According to Devine and Wilhite (1999), this is especially the case if the experience is segregated or non-inclusive leisure. Second, inclusive leisure challenges the validity of a work/leisure binary.

At the ultimate point we may only be able to suffer, to be passive through complete physical inability. Just here we have special insight to offer, because our position gives us an extra experience of life in the passive aspect that is one half of the human reality. Those who lead active lives are perhaps especially inclined to ignore man’s need to accept passivity in relation to so many forces beyond his control. They may need reminding sometimes of our finiteness, our feminine side in the hands of fate or providence. We are well placed to do this job at least. (Hunt, 1966, p. 4)

The irony is not to be missed. The path to accepting leisure at its best, for its own sake, may course through the disabled community and inclusive experiences. We would do well to remember Paul Longmore’s (2003) observation that disability may be the only attribute shared by a diverse human population; it may be the most unifying of all human traits insofar as almost everyone will experience it at one time or another.


1. Ugly Laws were local regulations designed to remove the unsightly, usually disabled, from city streets. 2. Many persons with disabilities are unemployed or under-employed, finding themselves not only impoverished, but also with an abundance of enforced leisure. For 2014, Bureau of Labor Statistics figures indicated that 17.1 % of persons with a disability were employed, while the employment rate for those without disability was 64.6 % (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015).3. Normate is a socially constructed prototype, hybrid or ideal used to marginalize persons who deviate from it (Garland-Thomson, 2009).4. Work-related productivity is reminiscent of the work tests of the Progressive Era to authenticate disability (Schweik, 2009).5. A prescriptive approach is often associated with the medical model, which is considered flawed by writers because it only tries to fix the individual and not the environment. The social model emphasizes that most of disability is caused by the environment and negative attitudes rather than by the actual impairment.


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