This will hopefully be the first of a two-part discussion on disability, the next to follow in several months, and to focus on mental ill-health/”psychological disability”, race, and class.  This is meant to be a broad overview of themes, ideas, and movements, through comments on Ravi Malhotra’s article, “The Politics of the Disability Rights Movement.”

The Two Dominant of Models of Understanding Disability

The 2 dominant models for thinking about disability in the US and Western European contexts are the “medical model” promoted by a capitalist medical system that sees disability as physical limitations that need to be cured, either through eugenics (the idea of eradication of people with disabilities, also used to argue for the elimination of people of color), treatment, assistive devices (such as wheelchairs, brail, or sign language) without a broader analysis of the physical and social barriers that make these devices necessary.  The medical model has also had clear racist components, by pathologizing people of color as “crazy”, and therefore mentally ill and in need of hospitalization or aggressive and often violent medical treatment.  The medical model fundamentally treats people with disability as if they are a second-class, homogenous group of people, while individualizing disability and preventing collective struggle against both ablism and unequal health and safety.  The “social model” was developed primarily by disabled peoples movements and serves as a counter to the medical model, and makes a distinction between impairments, or physical or emotional situations, and disability, which are the social conditions created by an ablest society that manifest as barriers for people with impairments.  In what follows, I argue that what’s missing from both these models is a way of simultaneously valuing the capabilities of folks who are disabled by a capitalist, patriarchal, and ablest system and value the caring work necessary for people whose state of health, mobility, or emotional difference and distress mean that they are not going to participate in work in any sense; this necessitates the recognition and encouragement by revolutionary movements of the simultaneous autonomy and interdependence of folks engaged in caring work and folks being cared for.

The Politics of the Disability Rights Movement”

Using Ravi Malhotra’s 2001 article (link above) in New Politics I hope to make an intervention calling for a critical rethinking of disability, and struggles of disabled folks. This article makes a couple of key interventions

+A critique of the Americans with Disabilities Act and other “disability rights” legislation for being individualized legislation that was based on the idea of disabled people as consumers.  The ADA serves a similar role to that of labor contracts typically negotiated by trade unions: making the world a safe place for disabled people to consume and work.  The ADA relies on individual disabled folks or class action groups to sue companies or businesses that break the ADA, but does not call for a restructuring of society to make it lest ablest.

+A highlight of militant, from-below struggles engaged in by disabled people, through the example of the occupation of the Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) building in San Francisco in the early 1970’s, and ADAPT [American Disabled Association for Public Transit], an organization built on militant and direct action tactics by disabled folks.  During the HEW occupations, members of the Black Panther Party and other revolutionary organizations joined in solidarity with

As Malhotra’s title points to, there is still a lot of work to be done in realm of disabled rights, and disabled rights movements face the same challenges as other oppressed groups struggling for liberation, including liberal co-optation and identity politics. Evoking Hal Draper’s essay, “The Two Soles of Socialism”, Malhotra states that the left disability liberation movement is doubly constrained:

“…on the one hand, the well-funded bureaucratic impairment-specific organizations accomplish little and often undermine the possibility of broader solidarity, rank and file disability organizations seek to empower disabled people through militant struggle from below…[But]even ADAPT would seem to lack a coherent anti-capitalist agenda that would  enable it to form concrete alliances wit h other marginalized people.”

Disability and Revolutionary Movements

But what can this critique of the disability rights movement tell us about the necessary role of revolutionaries, and revolutionary organizations today?  While Malhotra makes important suggestions for how disabled people can further engage the struggles of other oppressed folks, he does not yet quite come out and make an intervention that I think is necessary, ie, that oppressed folks are (also) disabled folks. One important point Malhotra raises that I extend, is the development of a concept of disablement, that is, that disability is not just a product of societal restraints that limit the capabilities of disabled folks (as laid out by the social model of disability), but that a capitalist society also produces disability. Others have provided strong evidence that the working class struggle is the struggle of queer folks, people of color, and women.  The further development of this concept points to a need, not just for alliances between disabled folks against an ablest society, but also that the disabled persons struggle is the struggle of people of color, queer folks, and immigrants who come under disproportionate emotional and physical assault by the state and capitalism.  Too often on the left, the conversation about disability is either 1) obfuscated or 2) taken up as a secondary struggle, or one that can only take place within the realm of social service provision.  In this time of deepening economic crisis that goes hand-in-hand with worker exploitation, military and militarized violence abroad and in the US, the gutting of healthcare, the struggles of disabled folks are increasingly visible.

Calling for Care Beyond the State and NPIC

The disability struggle also frames these struggles differently because explicitly disabled liberation necessarily calls for a layer of society to be engaged with care.  Capitalist societies have enfranchised these people through welfare programs, social security disability, and the “businesses” of care (like home health care, nursing homes, institutions, etc).  However, because these settings are based primarily on generating revenue, care is often poor, and workers tend to be low-paid, work long hours, and immigrants who face oppression and abuse by management.  This relationship also reinforces a hierarchical relationship between “consumer” and “provider”, but with the “consumer” often at a physical and economic disadvantage as well. Why is it that revolutionaries have not been able to care for the elderly, ill, or emotionally distressed?  So far, some revolutionary organizations, both in the past and the present (such as the BPP) have tried to replicate social reproduction that the NPIC accomplishes but in a non-capitalist system.  These programs, such as the BPP’s survival programs, worked outside of the capitalist and state system to lead school lunch programs, elder care, and health care in the communities they were organizing.  What they were not able to do was fundamentally challenge systems that cause disablement, or to engage with those people working in health care.  I would argue these organizations failed to be sustainable in the long term because they did not or do not actively engage with anti-capitalist struggles, and did not engage with the point of production of production where oppression through education, medicine, etc takes place.

What if in the HEW occupation, disabled people of color revolutionary organizations were at the lead?  What if these folks were calling for control over their own healthcare as well?  This would make obvious the racial dimensions of care, health, and disability. What if working folks, including disabled veterans, were also a key part of the struggle?

And what if a radical group of nurses also took part in the struggle, calling for a people’s healthcare where they could have open access to training and not have to care for people under the restrictions of pharmaceutical companies, health insurance, and underfunded hospitals and community medical facilities?

On a more theoretical level, how can we simultaneously fight against ablism, but also value the health and well-being of all people?  Can a disabled people’s movement call for from below treatment methods and health care programs, that support working people, queer folks, and people of color instead of making them more ill?

7 thoughts on “Thoughts on “Politics of the Disability Rights Movement”

  1. Hey CG,

    Thanks for this post! I think your point that “disabled folks are (also) oppressed folks” is really key. Building on the earlier post showing that the queer struggle *is* a working class struggle, your analysis is really helping me think about what a revolutionary anticapitalist queer disabled folks struggle looks like.

    I also really appreciate the call for movements that link demands of care-givers with those of disabled folks. I worked at a staffed residential home for developmentally disabled teenagers for a couple years in my early 20’s. My coworkers and I struggled with major overwork, having to come to work sick because there was no one to cover our shift, and shitty wages that couldn’t cover the bills left over from our mediocre health insurance. At the same time, though, what I hated most about the job, and what I think sometimes made the workplace environment a poisonous one, was how much of my job was about controlling the youth that we worked with. I remember thinking that I would really enjoy the work if I could just go there, help the youth with stuff they need help with, drive them places, etc, but a large amount of my job involved policing their behavior, their eating habits, when they go to bed, and so on. It was exhausting and it made me feel like shit. I have seen a number of instances where the needs of care-givers are put at odds with the needs of disabled people, but I think my experience and things like your example of a radical nurses group point to the power of linking these struggles.

  2. Thanks for posting this. It speaks to some of the questions I’ve been thinking about lately. Specifically, the way that workplace class struggle is complicated in the care industry. Unlike in some other contexts, our workplace dynamic is not just one of workers versus bosses. While in the long run the interests of workers and residents both lie in the destruction of capitalism, it’s not as easy in the here and now. In a facility of folks struggling with mental health issues the major workplace grievances may be about health and safety resulting from abusive behavior from residents towards staff. How do we build a common struggle of workers and residents that fights for a safe and healthy workplace and the self-determination of folks with mental health issues. I think this can and must be done, but on the ground it feels hard.

  3. This is really interesting. As usual, I need to read it over closely later when I’m more awake. For now – I raelly like the point that capitalism produces disability. I’ve been doing some digging around about the creation of workers compensation laws in the US. It’s real early yet to say for sure but there seems to be a lot of evidence that those laws created employment discrimination, at least for a while. In an important sense, those laws rendered people disabled by rendering conditions disabling that weren’t previously. I like the metaphor of people who lived in northern mexico who became racialized minorities in the US when the US annexed those parts of mexico. They stayed put but the law changed around them, changing their situation a lot.
    One other thought, if you haven’t read it you might like the essays in the book The New Disability History. There’s one in there about the history of metaphors of disability as ways to justify hierarchy and authority – through the move of saying ‘this group of people are disabled therefore dependent therefore we can do whatever we see fit with them.’

  4. Thanks all for the comments–this deserves far more fleshing out and these comments help. One thing we have been struggling to understand is the role of folks who *cannot* take part in waged labor. Capitalism demands that we valorize waged labor to the point of the creation of the welfare state–I hope that this piece starts to get at the problems with the welfare state, and its role in maintaining a “disabled” non-working class group of oppressed people; the welfare state also *essentializes* disability; but we know that a non-working middle class white person is going to have drastically different material support, including health conditions, than a non-working low-income person of color. How do we account for this when we talk about disability and disability rights? Also, many disability theorists writing from a marxian perspective *romanticize* precapitalism as not making distinctions between disabled and non-disabled. This argument mirrors the view that queer folks faced no oppression pre-capitalism. How can we challenge this, but also challenge capitalist notions of disability? State-capitalist nations have often gone in the other direction; “valuing” people with disabilities by putting them in positions of de-skilled, and slave-like labor (I saw this a lot in Viet Nam, for example, where folks with severe developmental disabilities were put to work in factories and paid low wages–this program was celebrating because people could maintain “citizenship” based on work.)

    An article I know some folks are reading that also builds on the Malhotra piece is:
    “Socialists – even socialist feminists – understandably put a huge amount of emphasis on labor, especially physical labor. There is a lot less theorizing about how capitalism treats disabled bodies – and even less on what roles people in these bodies play in bringing in a socialist world.
    What does it mean to be a revolutionary socialist if you need help wiping yourself after you shit?”

    In Seattle, as Mamos laid out, we are at the crux of a struggle. How does the “third tendency” we are putting forward speak to questions of disability, race, gender, and sexuality? What does it mean to build anti-ablist movements for real? How do we fight for access to a university, without saying that a university education and job is the only way to maintain validity?

    PS Thanks a lot to Nate for the reading suggestions; I will check this volume out–and g, I would really like to continue this conversation and know more about your experiences; feel free to contact me.

  5. Thanks for the thoughtful engagement with my piece. I more recently organized and edited a symposium in New Politics featuring Jihan Abbas, Anne Finger, Rachel Garaghty and Chris J. Ford.

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