Disability, oppression and resistance

This is based on the introduction to a discussion on the politics of disability given by Roderick C at a recent Waltham Forest Left Unity meeting.

Like blacks, women and LGBT people, disabled people are a group who routinely suffer discrimination and oppression in society. Although some argue that this is the inevitable result of the physical and mental impairments that we possess, or people’s basic prejudices about disabled people, this article argues that the systematic oppression of disabled people as we know it today has at its root how capitalism developed as a system.

In saying this, we should avoid idealising pre-capitalist society. Although there is undoubtedly some truth in the idea that in such societies, based on rural subsistence production and extended families, disabled members of the family would be cared for and even contribute to production, prejudice was rife in many societies. Martin Luther famously called disabled children “changelings” and argued they should be put to death, and in ancient Greece a child was not regarded as a child for seven days after birth, allowing disabled babies to be killed without moral stigma.

Nonetheless, the development of capitalism had profound effects. At its heart was the creation of modes of production based on mass production for profit – the factory system. Economic activity became dominated by capitalists who competed with each other for profit and who employed as wage labourers the bulk of the populations.

In this context, the additional needs and adaptations that disabled people need to perform in a workplace became an extra cost that undermined the competitiveness of capitalists. Increasingly, disabled people were squeezed out of the workplace.

Simultaneously, there was another development, which like the rise of the factory system emerged out of the technological and scientific progress of the time. This was the development of modern medicine and with it the scientific and systematic classification of disease and impairment. The ideologies that also developed alongside this portrayed the sick and disabled as people with no productive capacity who needed to be cared for, and disabled people, unable to enter the workforce and labelled ‘defective’ were warehoused in asylums and hospitals.

The incarceration of disabled people went hand in hand with the creation of disability as a specific category and the division of disabled people into specific sub-categories. These new attitudes were a clear departure from old ways of looking at disability. In earlier times, attitudes towards the disabled made little distinction between disability, illness and the effects of old age – people could be frail, lame, blind or ‘simple’ (what we would now call ‘learning impaired’).

With disabled people seen as a burden with no productive capacity, a medical model which saw the solution as the elimination of impairment became dominant. This could be through medical research into the causes and cures of various impairments, but more extreme and much less benign versions also existed. This included eugenics and, at the most extreme, the mass slaughter of disabled people in Nazi Germany. This was not an absolutely unique phenomenon, but one that has uncomfortable echoes elsewhere. In the US in the inter-war period a propaganda video compare learning disabled people to farm animals and suggests babies with these conditions be left to die.

Unfortunately, the onset of the NHS in the UK did not liberate disabled people from institutionalisation. However, there were some steps forward following the Second World War as a result of the vast numbers of wounded soldiers returning to society, who were generally regarded as heroes. It was because of this that laws were passed as part of the 1944 Disabled Persons Act that mandated a quota for all workplaces with over 20 employees of 3% of their workforce to be drawn from the disabled population. This was largely regarded as unworkable in practice.

It was the disabled rights movement that led to real change, and this emerged in the 1960s directly out of the wider radicalisation of the time. This was the era of the civil rights struggles in the US, of Martin Luther King and the Black Panther Party, and also of Second Wave Feminism and the Gay Liberation Front, as well as huge workers’ struggle including the 1968 general strike in France and the ‘Night of the Barricades’. Out of this febrile time emerged a movement designed to liberate disabled people from the oppressive and medicalised lives they led.

The key theoretical insight that came out of this movement was the ‘social model of disability’. This argued that, while disabled people have physical or mental impairments, the real source of their problem lies in the oppressive structures that society imposes on disabled people. To take a very obvious example, a person in a wheelchair will be prevented from entering a building because there are no ramps, not because of the wheelchair user’s inability to walks. In short, disability is a social relationship that includes some people with impairments. The ‘some’ is important – many with impairments, such as those with shortsightedness, are not disabled, as they merely have to wear glasses to counteract the impairment.

This pioneering idea emerged out of the theoretical work of a range of leading activists, of which Mike Oliver in the UK was one, and Vic Finkelstein, veteran South African Communist, was another. Its emergence coincided with the early days of the disabled rights movement.

In those early years, the approach taken by activists was frequently militant – the idea of people in wheelchairs chaining themselves to buses became something of a cliché. The main organisation leading the charge was the British Council of Disabled People’s Organisations, an umbrella group of over 90 groups up and down the country. Other smaller and more radical groups, such as Direct Action Network, also flourished.

Perhaps among the most famous disability protests, in this country at least, was the protest against the 1992 ITV Telethon, a highly patronising all-night charity broadcast, which sought to raise money for disability charities. On the night, activists invaded the studios, disrupting broadcast with a banner reading “Piss On Pity”. The Telethon was not repeated in subsequent year, and no doubt the protest had a role in doing so.

Over time, however, the disability movement moved away from militancy and towards joint work with existing charities, whose attitudes shifted somewhat from the older paternalistic attitudes. This focused on enshrining disabled people’s rights in law, and led to the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). This was received with cynicism in some quarters, with some activists suggesting that DDA really stood for ‘Doesn’t Do Anything’. And indeed, it is questionable to what extent the DDA was an improvement on the previous regime.

Despite the limitations of the act itself, there is no question that there were improvements for disabled people. Many people previously trapped in hospitals and institutions were able to join the community, with the support being available to live independently, and many even joined the workforce. However, this turn to rights-based lobbying largely neutered the movement, with previously activist organisations frequently becoming charities. This meant that when the cuts came after the crash in 2007-08, the movement was unable to respond effectively in a united way.

The way the movement has developed was in large part due to the wider objective changes in the world. From the late 1970s, neoliberal economics and ideology became dominant and previously strong social movement fell away or made peace with the establishment. Mass movements aimed at changing the world generally was replaced with identity politics.

However, it is also the case that the disabled people’s movements also had shortcomings in the way it developed and interpreted the idea of the social model. This article has argued that the sources of disability oppression lie in the way capitalism is structured. However, the social model is generally expressed in much more ambiguous terms that suggest that disability oppression lies in the fabric of society in general.

This fails to identify the mechanisms by which disabled people become oppressed and marginalised. It can very quickly lead to the problem being individualised – it no longer becomes a matter of economic, political and social structures and becomes instead about attitudes, whether of government, employers, or service providers, and how those attitudes need to be changed. This can then be married to the idea that the best starting point is to turn to the state and pressure the state into making legislative changes that legally enshrine disabled people’s rights and help combat the effects of negative attitudes.

This presupposes the relative neutrality of the state, but in reality the state exists to secure the interests of capital and it has been central to the oppression of disabled people. In England, the earliest “Poor Laws” defined responsibilities of parishes to look after the “deserving poor”, which included “the lame, impotent, old, blind”. Successive iterations of the Poor Laws, particularly after the Act of 1834, were much harsher, labelling all able-bodies poor as “undeserving” and consigning them to workhouses. The disabled were labelled as “deserving” and given Poor Law Relief. This was the early stages of the labelling and controlling of disabled people’s lives, and exposes the key role the state played in this.

Perhaps more importantly, the state was central to the institutionalising of disabled people. Through Royal Commissions, Acts of Parliament such as the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act, and other measures, the state in the UK created the legal framework within which disabled people were herded into hospitals. All of these policies were enacted in order to safeguard the interest of capitalist society from the economic burden and potential destabilising influence (as they saw it) of disabled people.

Today, disabled people are again under attack, and the arguments being pushed in some quarters echoes and abuses the concepts behind the social model. It repeats the argument that disabled people are not held back by their impairments, but now places the blame on disabled people’s own attitudes of supposed “learned helplessness”. This is then used to justify cutting benefits on the basis that this will force disabled people to stand on their own two feet. Yet this argument has previously been heard in some parts of the disabled movement in the past. In the 1980s some activists supported Reagan’s welfare cuts on the basis that this would reduce dependency. In the UK sometimes uncritical support of the idea of independent payments has glossed over the fact that, although a great idea in principle, in practice they have been used to privatise care.

The movement is now much weaker than it needs to be to counteract the new trends. It is vital that activists rediscover the militant tactics of the past. Some are doing so, as the sterling work of Disabled People Against Cuts shows, but there is a crying need for more activists to get on board and crucially to form links with wider social movements.

Organisations on the left, such as Left Unity, can play a major role in this. However, to be able to do this the left has to overcome its own limitations on these issues, which in the past have been severe. Often, supporting disabled people’s struggles have been conceptualised as nothing more than fighting benefit cuts targeting “vulnerable” people with no wider thinking about how disabled people are oppressed. Elsewhere, it’s argued that impairment is often a product of capitalism and suggests that under socialism impairments in general will be ended by the “unleashing of the productive forces”. Yet many disabled activists believe that impairment is part of human culture and in many cases have constructed their own communities – such as the deaf community, or autistic culture – that they wish to defend.

In conclusion, the left has to engage in the process of rebuilding a militant fighting disabled people’s movement. But to have credibility it must also seek to build on the social model by rooting disability oppression in the class system and accepting that disability oppression is more than about benefit cuts, or discrimination in work and service provision. It is rooted in the denial of the validity of the impaired life itself. There has to be a recognition that “curing” is another word for ‘getting rid of’ disabled people – until we unite to fight the idea that the solution is to make disabled people normal we can never have true equality.

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