Aug 24 2004

The Politics of Disability

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 08RCN @ 2:38 pm

Why is disability a question for socialists and what issues does it raise for us as socialists? Well, you only need to look at the Disability Rights Section of the
SSP manifesto to answer these questions:

There are about 800,000 disabled people in Scotland. 68 % of households with a disabled person have an Income of less than £10,000 per year. Disabled people are almost twice as likely as non-disabled people to be out of work, and 110,000 Scottish households including a disabled person said they required adaptations.

(DRC, Disability in Scotland 2001 Key Facts and Figures).

To understand the exclusion of disabled people we need to understand the history of the movement and of disability itself. A good starting point is to look at two models of disability, which those in the disability movement will be familiar with – the medical model and the social model.

Medical model

The medical model reflects what most people understand about disability. This understanding is based on the idea that my disability is that I am blind; therefore I am disabled by being unable to see. The response of society is to try to help me. So I was sent away from home at the age of five to a special school. At this school I was taught skills, in addition to the standard curriculum, such as how to use a white cane to get around and how to touch type so I can send letters to sighted folk. The Benefits Agency gives me benefits to compensate for the fact that I will probably earn less, or have to pay more for travel, clothes etc. Anything over and above this the state expects me to request from a charity. So if I want a holiday I should ask my friends to run the London Marathon for me or to collect milk bottle tops.

This is the common conception of disability which pervades society. It is based on a medical understanding of disability. To get the benefits you must be prodded and poked by doctors to make sure you are not cheating and to make sure you are not just lazy and want to stay at home rather than work. It is an individualistic view of disability – it’s my disability and therefore its my problem that I can’t fully participate in society. Our institutions enforce this concept of disability upon us. Our children are fed it at school when they are encouraged to dress up for sponsorship to raise money for disabled children.

Social model – disabled by society

In contrast to this is the social model. This outstanding achievement of the disability movement has been to conceive of disability in a radical new way, a potentially revolutionary new way. Developed by Vic Finkelstein, Mike Oliver, Paul Hunt and Colin Barnes (amongst others), the social model of disability turned the traditional conception on its head. No longer was a disability the disadvantage caused by a medical impairment, such as blindness or deafness. Now disability was the disadvantage caused by the way society is organised, the way the environment is built and the attitudes of others. The blame was shifted away from disabled people and their impairments and onto society. My impairment is my lack of sight. I am disabled by a society which is structured in such a way that I cannot read most written materials, know what bus is coming, or read the contents of a food tin. I am disabled by a society which patronises me, pats me on the head and goes “oh dear how brave” when I walk past. Disabled by a society which believes that I should go to a special school, not have sex and certainly not help create another baby which may be blind.

This social model in itself has been a very liberating understanding for thousands of disabled people. No longer do we have to feel guilty, grateful or thankful. We could now feel angry and realise that if we wanted to improve our conditions it wasn’t by popping more pills or undergoing more therapy. It was by changing the way the world was structured. And that is what disabled people started to do. They started to form their own organisations. At first these focused on being released from institutions – care homes and long stay hospitals. They demanded services in the community to enable them to live independent lives or to start families of their own. They demanded decent benefits. They demanded the right not to be discriminated against when shopping, using services or, god forbid, trying to get a job. They demanded accessible public transport and accessible buildings.

Many victories have been won – some better than others, some leaving a very bitter taste in the mouth. But we have had successes and the lives of many disabled people have consequently been improved . If it were not for the likes of Finkelstein and Hunt I would have been condemned to a life of basket weaving or piano tuning – I could effectively have kissed goodbye to going to university. Wheelchair users would still have to sit in the guard’s van on trains and public buildings would not have wheel chair access.

But the social model, as it is commonly understood, only takes us so far. So society disables us because of the way it is organised. That insight is fine. But why is society organised in this way? Why do people have the attitudes they do towards disabled people? And most crucially, how then can we change society into one where disabled people are equal and included in the mainstream of life and not left on the margins?

Radical conscience of the movement

This is an issue which has been addressed by Vic Finkelstein. For two and a half decades now he has been the radical conscience of the movement. As a disabled communist in South Africa he found out that in some ways he was equal to non-disabled people when he was arrested and imprisoned – no patronising attitude then. But in other ways he was treated differently. When he received details of his banning order which restricted what buildings he could go into, what groups he could join, colleges he could attend or workplaces he could visit, he remarked that this was nothing new as he couldn’t enter most of them anyway as they were inaccessible to him as a wheelchair user. He was effectively exiled to Britain in the 1960s only to discover that his freedom to enter buildings, travel or find work, was similarly restricted.

For Finkelstein the root cause of society being organised in such a way as to exclude disabled people, economically, socially and ideologically is industrial capitalism. The growth of mechanised industry in the nineteenth century meant that people had to fit in with machines and tools and not the other way round. They had to work at the pace of the machines. People with impairments were those who could not fit in with these factory production methods. Hence they were excluded from the factory. The industrial capitalist had no work for them and hence they were left to fend for themselves and to rely on their families and charity. Massive charities grew up to feed and house disabled people – they portrayed disabled people as poor and unfortunate in order to extract money from the middle classes. The state had to step in and provide a modicum of support in the form of workhouses. But their fear was that if they made the lives of disabled people too comfortable then the non-disabled workers would not have any incentive to work. People would pretend to be disabled.

Therefore disability was handed over to the new medical profession to measure and weigh us, to test and probe us, to define us and rank us. We can see this treatment of disabled people continues today. Disabled people are stigmatised for being a burden, they have to jump through unbelievable hoops to get even the most modest benefits and are categorised and classified at every turn. Tony Blair’s attack on the benefits of disabled people over the last few years stands proudly in the same tradition as those who forced disabled people into the Victorian workhouses.

The historical origins

Other activists, including Barnes, sought to redefine the origins of disability. For them the origins of disability could be traced back much further than industrial capitalism. Contemporary attitudes to cultural representations of people with impairments have their roots in ancient Greece and this has been a thread running consistently (if different in detail) from early Christian and feudal societies in Britain to the modern day. Barnes, for example, cites the practice of infanticide where impaired babies would be left to die. The Greeks, particularly the Spartans, idealised the perfect body. He constructs a direct lineage of negative attitudes to disability from the ancient world to the modern day – from the link between impairment and punishment for sin, through developing themes such as people with impairments being objects of pity and charity and the individualisation and medicalisation of disability.

This ideological approach adds a degree of subtlety to the understanding of how disability impacts upon people’s lives and the mechanisms by which it is transmitted and renewed. However, it opens the door to a post-modernist interpretation because it is not rooted in a materialist understanding of exclusion from work but is heavily reliant on social attitudes being the cause. The post-modernist theorists such as Tom Shakespeare, Jenny Morris and Sally French have borrowed heavily from feminist concepts of the ‘other’ and applied them to disability. This school of thought argues disabled people were now oppressed – not due to material circumstances or their relation to the means of production – but because disabled people represented the fragile body, reminding non-disabled people of what they too would become one day. We were then cast out as the other, to be shunned, isolated and disempowered.

The problem with this understanding of disability (and I will be brief because I don’t like to give post-modernism too much space) is that the solution it points to is to reclaim a positive identity, to develop our own culture, engage in peer support etc. Not that these are not worthy activities but if you think liberation comes that way you are fooling yourself. It also leads to separatism because as all non-disabled people are oppressors there is no point in making alliances with them. The proof of the folly of this has been the moribund nature of the disability movement ever since it adopted such ideas. It has followed feminism up the same cul-de-sac, both use post-modernism as their a-z!

Radical & liberating

The social model of disability includes several differing perspectives meaning different things to different people. Its core message is radical and liberating. It says that the fault does not lie with the disabled individual it lies with society. But when married with a proper understanding of the causes of disability it can provide a direction for a movement. It points the way to a revolutionary response.

The first question we must ask is the one that has led to contention between Finkelstein, Oliver and Barnes. Is disability, the systematic oppression and exclusion of disabled people from mainstream life, rooted in the industrial revolution or has it always existed? Barnes rightly describes exclusion of the most violent form, taking place in Ancient Greece – infanticide, the murder of babies with impairments. He explains how in feudal times people with emotional distress were burned as witches, because it was believed they were possessed by the devil. There is no doubt that people with impairments were frequently castigated, excluded or even killed under pre-capitalist societies.

But there is also lots of evidence that disabled people were not always excluded or marginalised. For example, Marta Russell writes that, in feudal times the vast majority of people with impairments remained within the family home or within the local community. They would be expected to contribute towards production, undertaking whatever tasks they could. If they couldn’t work in the fields then they would be expected to undertake domestic tasks, care for children, mend tools, repair clothes etc. There was no systematic exclusion from mainstream life.

The impact of capitalism

The big change, I would argue, came however not with the industrial revolution and mechanisation as Finkelstein argues. Instead it came a couple of hundred years earlier with the growth of wage labour and the beginnings of capitalism.

Increasingly work was organised around profit. Production had previously been controlled by the peasant farmer, who decided how and when to work, given the demands set by the feudal lord. Now production was controlled by the boss. Those who could not produce as much as quickly as others were either paid less or were sacked. So people with impairments became disabled as they were thrown out of work and became unproductive and dependent.

But this is not the end of the story. Just as slavery is not the be all and end all of racism, neither is disabled people’s exclusion from the wage labour system. If disabled people were to be excluded from work how was this to be justified. They were labeled as abnormal, afflicted, pitiful and, in many cases, considered subhuman. They were a drain on society that the capitalists were not willing to pay for. The market was king and the Enlightenment ideas of rights, free labour, and individualism laid the blame for their poverty and marginalisation firmly at their own door. It was not up to the capitalist boss to subsidise the disabled worker. For that the capitalist turned to welfare: the family (i.e. women), charity and, if that failed, the state.

Disabled people were condemned to a life of dependency. This created resentment and economic strains within families. When families could no longer cope it forced separation and reliance on either charity or the workhouse. The system had to be severe. A constant theme for the last 300 years for disabled people has been the chancer, the fraud, the shirker and the faker. The bosses knew that working conditions were so poor that people would consider faking impairment if it meant they could survive without having to work. They therefore had to medicalise disability – to hand disabled people over to the new medical profession for categorisation and verification. They also ensured that the life of disabled people was harsh – to ensure the grass was never greener for the worker on the other side of the factory wall.

Contradictions of capitalism

An interesting contradiction also arose with capitalism however. It turned people with impairments into disabled people by excluding them from work. It marginalised, excluded and degraded them. It created the work ethic and then excluded large numbers from being able to contribute. But the contradiction was multiplied. Not only did capitalism create disabled people it did so in previously unimaginable numbers. The technological, scientific and social developments brought forth by capitalism meant that more people were able to survive impairment than ever before. People lived longer with impairments, people survived injuries and others survived disease but with impairments. Babies born impaired now lived instead of dying.

We are also familiar with how capitalism helps create disabled people in less constructive ways. Work place injuries and diseases, pollution, poverty and wars all swell the ranks of disabled people by the tens of thousands.

The bosses are not oblivious to this contradiction and they relentlessly try to prevent it. So they sterilise disabled people to prevent them from breeding. Or they screen embryos for signs of impairment and deny mothers any prospect of constructive support should they give birth to a disabled child. They force disabled people to seek cures, even if the treatment is worse than the impairment. So mental health service users are sedated and numbed. Deaf children are forced to speak and forbidden from using sign language. Children with speech impairments are dragged into the speech therapist and told to sing not talk – all without any real success. There is no evidence to suggest that fewer disabled people are being born or more being ‘cured’ – in fact quite the reverse.

But the oppression and exclusion of disabled people is not a static unchanging process either. The changing nature of work will create as many new disabled people as it will ever take back into the fold. The move from factory work to office work was heralded by some as meaning that disabled people would be able to compete equally for jobs. However, disregarding the economics that refutes this, office work has simply created new types of disabled people. People with dyslexia or people with learning difficulties could previously work in factories or in fields etc without anyone ever thinking they were disabled. Put them in a modern office environment and they are disabled by the way such offices are set up and run. They need adaptations in the workplace and that costs money and that affects the bottom line.

This is then the essential dynamic of disability. The capitalists find they cannot extract as much surplus value from disabled people as they can non-disabled people, therefore they are excluded, considered a burden and therefore become subject to the ideological trappings of prejudice and fear.

A socialist solution

So is there a solution? Can we defeat disability and if so how? Reforms have been fought for over many years, even centuries. They have had a dramatic effect on the lives of many disabled people. Real progress has been made. But this is not victory. Too many disabled people remain incarcerated in institutions. Public transport is still highly inaccessible. Disabled people are still five times more likely to be out of work than non-disabled people. Public services are being cut and increasingly charges are being imposed. Services are increasingly run for profit and reasonable adjustments are again denied because they cut into profits. Buildings are still being built that do not meet the needs of disabled people because it is arguably too expensive for them to do so.

Mothers are still pressured to abort impaired foetuses which could have as fulfilled a life as any other child if society put need before profit. Mental health service users will now be forced to take medication against their will. Capitalism still fights wars which injure and maim thousands. Capitalism enforces the poverty which impairs millions every year. So whilst we must campaign for reforms for disabled people we cannot stop there. No reforms challenge the central dynamic of disability – the wage labour system. Whilst work is organised around the pursuit of profit and controlled by people other than those who do the work there will always be disabled people.

Socialists have a vision of society where this need not be the case. Where involvement in decision making, inclusion in community social life, access to resources and control over work does not depend on the amount of surplus value that can be extracted. Socialism provides us with a vision of a society where work is organised around people and not people around work; where every member contributes what they can, how they can; where what is produced is not defined by the need to make the maximum profit but by the benefit it brings to the community and where everyone in the community is involved in the democratic decision making because only that way will work and distribution meet the needs of the community. With socialism there will be no disability, only people.

But socialism offers us more than a vision of where we want to be. It also offers us, as disabled people, a means of getting there. If we understand that disability is a function of the wage labour system then we understand that we are oppressed by exactly the same mechanism as everyone else – the pursuit of profit before people. If we understand that our allies are non-disabled working class people, then by uniting with them we can have the power to liberate ourselves for good.

I hope this quick tour of the politics and history of disability makes clear to comrades that the struggle of disabled people to end their oppression and marginalisation is the same fight that all working-class people need to fight – that is the overthrow of the capitalist system and its replacement with a socialist one and that the struggles of disabled people for change is one that non-disabled people can identify as one which they should recognize and support.

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