Disability and socialism

Posted March 9, 2010

I recently attended an event at Bluestockings organized by the Rock Dove Collective, which coordinates a network of radical health practitioners who offer services on the basis of mutual aid. They self-published a scrappy compilation of short pieces by radicals, mostly anarchists, struggling with issues of disability and radical change. For example, one young woman wrote about how her battle with ovarian cancer put her in the position of taking explicit advantage of her class privilege.

At that same event, I got another journal called “Sick: A compilation zine on physical illness”, which explores the experience of being radical and ill. It’s available online. I recommend it to anyone who’s interested in thinking more the connections between illness, disability, and radical politics.

Both of these events caused me to think about the disconnect between many socialist activists and these issues.

Socialists tend to talk and think a lot about work. That makes sense: after all, working for wages is a prime cause of class consciousness. Nothing makes the source of your oppression clearer than when the boss pops in to your cubicle to request that you come in on Saturday, or demands that you stay later washing dishes because you broke that coffee cup.

Feminists introduced the concept of social reproduction, allowing us to understand how the childrearing and the other unpaid labors of day-to-day life are also work and, like wage labor, are a source of exploitation. This was extremely important because it helped explain women’s oppression.

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?

The lack of good answers to this question – at least the lack of answers in the socialist world I circulate in – is a problem. The implication of our non-answer is that the sick and disabled are non-actors in the project of human liberation. Maybe those crippled bodies would benefit from socialism, but they’ve no role in making it happen.

We should change this. There are a couple of reasons why.

First, a world that’s organized according to the principle of “from each according to ability, to each according to need” necessarily appreciates that human abilities, including the ability to do mental and physical labor, vary. Some of us will only need our diapers changed for us once, as infants, and some of us will need our diapers changed forever.

Most socialists accept this statement in theory. But it has relevance for day to day life, too. In practice I think it should mean, among other things:

  • Joining in struggles for accessibility that allow disabled people to participate fully in society, and bringing these issues to the forefront in movements like those for health care, public transportation, and public education.
  • At the same time, we should incorporate access into the planning of every event from the beginning. The role of disabled activists shouldn’t be limited to events with wheelchair access or sign language interpretation, and their role in organizing shouldn’t be limited to reminding able-bodied activists of these issues.
  • On an individual level, making people who are very old or very young feel welcome. Similarly, not dismissing the contributions of older people because they are frail or can’t hear well
  • Understanding that sick or chronically ill comrades might not be able to attend every event or go to every meeting that you would expect them to (even if their sickness isn’t visible to you)
  • Recognizing that the experience of being sick and disabled — or caring for those who are — can be radicalizing (more on this later)

Another reason why socialists should pay attention to this is that various disabled communities have histories of struggle that able bodied revolutionaries could learn from.

For example, the more militant disability rights formations of the 1970s challenged the dominance of charitable organizations and embodied a true “from below” politics, according to the analysis of activist Ravi Malhotra.

(He calls the contrast between these disabled militants and disability advocates the “two souls of disability liberation politics,” paraphrasing the title of Hal Draper’s seminal essay, “The Two Souls of Socialism,” which drew a distinction between grassroots socialism and socialism that is imposed from above.)

Another good example is the Deaf community, whose members – in contrast to those who are hard-of-hearing and function in the world of hearing people– consider themselves linguistic minorities, not disabled. It would be fairly easy to argue that a Deaf nation exists: there’s certainly a distinct language and several geographical centers (mostly focused on Deaf schools), and a strong separatist current.

Deaf people also have a strong legacy of actively fighting for the preservation of American Sign Language education over mainstreamed (lip reading) education. The movement to install a Deaf president at the helm of Gallaudet University, which emerged victorious as a result of a well-coordinated campus occupation, is the most famous example.

Third, the experience of disability – of being unable to “work productively” – can bring about class consciousness, too. Helen Keller, whose life story has unfortunately been reduced to pabulum in mainstream histories, understood her life trajectory through a lens of class analysis. “I owed my success partly to the advantages of my birth and environment,” she said. Keller became a member of the radical Industrial Workers of the World, a suffragist and an anti-racist activist.


3 responses to “Disability and socialism”

  1. Isaac Avatar

    Thanks for the interesting history Erik. I’ve just moved to Chicago and the strength of the disability movement here including Access Living is impressive! I used to live in Atlanta where I’ve worked with ADAPT and student groups around transit issues and ramps. In Atlanta there was a blind comrade, for which we tried to make recordings or arrange to read aloud printed materials. Fortunately electronic communication has made this much easier.

    For a long time now we have been trying to update our website and one improvement should be better accessibility for readers who are blind or are translating the website into another language. We do our best to transcribe videos for the deaf or otherwise provide access (for example, on Monday I posted a free version of the movie “Salt of the Earth” – which does not have subtitles – but included a link to the screenplay for text access. So, of course we have members with various types of disability but this is something that always needs further thought and attention.

    On my reading list is James Charlton’s “Nothing About Us Without Us: Disability Oppression and Empowerment” – but alas I have not started it yet.

    Now for some of my thoughts on ability, capitalism, and socialism. These are, of course, in development and I would welcome any criticism or thoughts from people more experienced in this!

    To start with, our understanding of ability and disability can’t be separated from social and historical changes. Over the years various conditions have been stigmatized as “disability” – including entire genders, sexualities, and ethnicities! Stephen Jay Gould in particular wrote a lot about the history of scientific “proof” that Black people, or women of all backgrounds, had inherent mental limitations, which is recognized by most as bullshit today – following militant struggles by women and Black people.

    Broad political identification with “disability” (which covers a range of physical and mental conditions) is, similar to most (all?) oppressed identities, the result of dialectical, political struggle and theory by the people who came to adopt this identity against the dominant powers and ideas in society.

    The development of capitalism, an inherently inhumane and dehumanizing system, groups together and homogenizes workers, renters, students, etc. It requires a “normal” person – and to maintain profits, that “normal” must have a certain level of physical and mental ability. Of course, we all have varying abilities! So, the system excluded and institutionalized those who were outside the norm – which has always included a large number of people who have been injured at work, at war, or due to environmental conditions (asthma for example.)

    This shared treatment/oppression formed a common experience, which was then politicized through the battle of ideas, organizing, and social movements. So I think recognizing that our understanding of disability is connected to its existence within capitalism as well as the fight of disabled communities.

    I don’t consider myself disabled. Something that’s been helpful for me to think about – and could potentially be used for alliance building between activists working on disability issues and able-bodied activists – is how none of us are truly “independent.” In Chloe’s example of wiping your ass, I’d say: there’s more to it than just the action. Even something as “private” as using the bathroom is profoundly social – because we’re social beings. The toilet paper was made through the social labor process. So was the bathroom. We were all taught hygiene, etc. This may be going out on a limb, but thing pattern of thinking helped me realize how all of us require assistance to live, in different capacities – and this is one of the key arguments we make for the socialization of society. Every human being has a right to work, housing, and so on in an age when these things are available in surplus. The struggle to distribute that surplus equally – “to each according to her need” – is what socialism is all about.

    Many day-to-day fights that socialists are involved in involve redistribution of the surplus that exists through demands on the state: education for all, health care for all, transportation for all, housing for all. In all of these, the clear link to ability and access needs to be identified. And, there is often a level of daring militancy in disability circles lacking in other movements (of course, all movements include disabled people) – and like the saying says, direct action gets the goods. While access is not what it needs to be, the tangible successes of disabled activists are a shining example at a time when most movements are on the defensive and shrinking.

    Finally, I’d say that as with any kind of movement around oppression, it seems like a high level of consciousness raising and self-love is crucial. There’s so much ugly ostracizing, exclusion, and putting down of disabled people that causes real pain. Efforts of disabled people to express and take pride in who they are should be supported by everybody!

  2. Erik Graff Avatar
    Erik Graff

    For about ten years (1981-91) the Socialist Party of Illinois and its journal, Left Court, focused on the issue of disability rights, making it central to our agenda in the state, within the party and within the movement. This was not owing to some extraordinary virtue on our part but to the simple fact that one of our officers, Linda Harrington, was profoundly deaf and a personal friend of many of the activists in the Chicago local. Consequently, while she and I were both on the state committee, our first fundraising mail appeal, “Outreach for the Disabled”, was for help in providing access. The apeal went out to a much broader mailing list than most because of its nature and the response was gratifying. Unlike US Social Security funds, we kept these moneys separate, employing them for interpreters, accessible hall rentals and the like. Harrington was treasurer druing most of this period.
    Concurrently, we actually did endeavor to outreach to the disabled community. These efforts included our participating in meetings, demonstrations and actions (such as cuffing occupied wheelchairs to busses without lifts in downtown Chicago) run by organizations like Disabled Americans Rally for Equality and Access Living. They also included the conscious effort to set up exchanges between our journal and disability rights publications, most memorably the in-your-face Disability Rag. These exchanges also included our giving these movements free publicity in our publications.
    All of this sounds nice enough, but it did entail work and being obnoxious occasionally. All of our meetings were interpreted for the deaf–all of them. This would have been quite expensive but for the good will we acquired. Many interpreters worked for us off the books. Some of us learned American Sign Language through cheap classes offered at local colleges and the American Hearing Society. We demanded that all national meetings of the party also include interpretation and access, demands which were concretized by our sending Harrington as a delegate to some of them and by our hosting two national conventions locally where we could insure such services. The response in the party was positive. If any comrades had reservations, they kept their mouths shut just as Chicago’s bus drivers politely stopped their vehicles once a paraplegic or two became attached and just as the press uniformly reported positively about such “actions”. Naturally, we dealt with all invitations from all other progressive groups by asking at the outset about access and interpretation. Not expecting all to be compliant, we made a show of bringing our own interpreters to their events, carrying in our own wheelchairs when necessary. It was never questioned that access was a right–nor that sometimes such a right would have to be fought for.
    Our Outreach attitudes and practices made us distinctive on the Left and led to positive consequences. Harrington was appointed to the Board of Access Living, then becoming an independent agency under the initial aegis of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Finishing graduate school (another struggle as she required, demanded and received interpeters through both her college, Loyola, and professional school, Jane Addams) she also became a psychiatric social worker, establishing the first group home disabled populations under her employer, Thresholds. The Chair of Disabled Americans Rally for Equality, Dennis Schrieber, deaf, blind and dependent on a wheelchair, became an active member. The President of Access, a quadraplegic former member of the RCP, became, through the good offices of the late mayor Harold Washington (whom we had pursued incessantly through his campaign) a member of the board of the Chicago Transit Authority and soon all busses in Chicago became lift-equipped. These achievements, like the Rehabilitation Act and the American with Disabilities Act, went far beyond us, but we were part of it, especially locally.
    The key to all of this which went beyond pious posturing, however, was the fortune of having a deaf woman as an active member. Since disability is something we will all experience if fortunate enough to live long lives, it is probable that Solidarity has such comrades as well. Some may simply be old and frail. Some, like Harrington herself earlier in her life, may try to hide or excuse their disabilities, not wanting to burden others, wanting to “pass.” Have you ever polled your membership for special needs?

  3. Ken Avatar

    Not facetiously or sarcastically, the answer is ‘from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs.’

    You are right, socialists who have not thought through the implication of that goal. Care for the a maximum of of opportunities for the people with all ranges of abilities and complete care for the ill and the aged conflict directly with the profit motive.

    Restoring human motives to those relationships seems to me like the real argument universal health care. Saving money my ass.