RAVI MALHOTRA is a Canadian disability rights activist and a member of the New Democratic Party. He will be commencing graduate legal studies at Harvard Law School.
OVER THE COURSE OF THE LAST FEW DECADES, the socialist left throughout the industrialized West has been challenged to become more inclusive by an array of activist social movements including the women's movement, the Civil Rights and anti-racist movement, and the gay and lesbian liberation movement. In each case, fundamental questions have been posited as to how the left conceives itself and its commitment to fighting for the equality and liberation of oppressed groups. While the formulations of the left may be seen by some to be seriously wanting, it can be said that at the very least the issues were openly debated and all sides were richer for having had the discussion. In the case of the disability rights movements, however, one is faced with the sad reality that few on the left have even seriously begun to consider the issues at stake, let alone develop a preliminary praxis for disability liberation politics from a socialist perspective. Yet when neo-liberal attacks to roll back the welfare state throughout the West have reached fever pitch, a counter-hegemonic politics of disability liberation is more essential than ever for the more than fifty million disabled Americans. What follows below is a modest first step towards that goal.
With industrialization came the rise of the factory system and waged labor. This required workers to complete tasks in accordance with specified time standards. Those who were unable to do so as a result of an impairment were labelled deviant even though they might have in fact contributed to production under previous regimes of capital accumulation. They were therefore marginalized and excluded from the labor force. Disability accordingly developed into a crucial boundary between the deserving poor entitled to relief and the undeserving poor. Yet what is remarkable is how even in this time period, the concept of disablement was not a static category enshrined in medical science but a variable boundary category in flux that might change depending on the state of the economy, the needs of the labor market, and the state of the labor movement and level of class struggle.3
It was during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that one saw the large-scale segregation of disabled people away from society into a number of institutional settings including asylums, hospitals, workhouses and prisons, frequently under conditions of intense abuse. However, again, incarceration in an institutional setting was hardly a direct function of a physical impairment but reflected trends in the political economy. Hence, the huge growth of heavy capital industries such as iron, steel and the railways in the late nineteenth century resulted in a much higher level of physical fitness and dexterity as a prerequisite for employment and a concomitant increase in the institutionalization of those deemed unable to work. Large numbers of disabled veterans of course were created as a result of the Civil War. In response to a long recession in the 1870s and 1880s, the rate of institutionalization also increased, revealing its relationship with the state of the economy.4 Such practices continued well into the twentieth century.
The rise of the Eugenics movement and social Darwinism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also played an important role in the oppression of disabled people. The seminal text in this regard is Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species, published in 1859. In his 1871 text, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, Darwin commented:
We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost to save the life of everyone to the last moment . . . Thus the weak members of society propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.5
Social Darwinist rhetoric combined ableist and ignorant assumptions about the capabilities of disabled people with racist concerns about protecting the white race from the corrupting influences of immigrants. The birth of disabled children was accordingly seen as a dire threat to preserving racial purity. Tragically, this disturbing ideological framework had very real consequences. The United States Supreme Court ruled in its infamous 1927 decision of Buck v. Bell that a Virginia statute permitting the forced sterilization of disabled people was not unconstitutional. Some 33 states had sterilization laws in place by 1938. Between 1921 and 1964, more than 63,000 disabled people had been sterilized.6
The post-war settlement is very revealing in how it demonstrates clearly the marginalization of the sterilization and extermination of disabled people. Sterilization of disabled people in fact could not be prosecuted in the Nuremberg trials because similar legislation existed in the United States and other countries. The extermination of disabled people was largely ignored. No compensation to families of disabled people was paid and the cases were not prosecuted as a distinct group that was targeted by the state. In the United States and other countries, policies of sterilization and institutionalization would continue, albeit on a reduced scale in the wake of increased concern for individual rights, even into the postwar Keynesian conjuncture.8
The disability rights movements, however, are predicated on the notion that it is the structural and attitudinal barriers in capitalist society that are the fundamental cause for the discrimination and oppression faced by disabled people. In this framework, disabled people are handicapped by the systemic lack of wheelchair access to public services, the failure of educational institutions and employers to make materials available in alternative formats for blind and visually impaired people, and the intricate bureaucracy that disabled people must navigate in order to get essential services such as income support and medical services. Hence, attention needs to be redirected from the medical impairment or medical model of disablement to the social-political issues that underpin disability oppression. In other words, the first step in the liberation of disabled people is a fundamental paradigm shift.
However, just as feminist theory has splintered into myriad camps with vastly different perspectives,9 the disability rights movements contain organizations with significantly different politics, strategies and tactics. A large number of charitable organizations have been created for disabled people, sometimes by parents of disabled children, but are not actually controlled by them and do not consistently endorse the social-political model of disablement. Instead of seeking solidarity with large numbers of disabled people based on common interest, they usually define their mandate on the basis of narrow diagnostic categories derived from a medical model of disablement. Furthermore, they often receive considerable funding from the state, unlike grassroots disability organizations, and are therefore inherently compromised when their constituents want to challenge fiscal austerity measures or other government policies they find objectionable. More fundamentally, they simply do not reflect the views of disabled people but instead subscribe to the belief that technocratic experts such as physicians, social workers and occupational therapists from above are best suited to solve the problems faced by disabled people.10
In response, disabled people have begun to establish their own organizations in the quest for empowerment and self-determination. A very early example was the League for the Physically Handicapped, established by a few hundred disabled pensioners in New York who engaged in civil disobedience to protest their discriminatory exclusion from employment made available under the Works Progress Administration (WPA).11 However, disability politics only developed significant roots after the flourishing of the New Left in the 1960s. With the revitalization of the women's movement, the emergence of the Civil Rights movement, the movement against the war in Vietnam and the gay and lesbian movement, this new conjuncture provided the space for disabled people to self- organize.
In fact, it was in Berkeley, a central site of left organizing and home of the famous Free Speech Movement, where the Independent Living (IL) movement emerged. Spearheaded by the Rolling Quads, a group of disabled university students, a new political movement directly controlled by disabled people gained strength. The first Independent Living center was founded in Berkeley and sought to address the structural and attitudinal barriers in society. A vehicle was now in place to raise as political struggles issues ranging from accessing transportation to obtaining personal attendant care services that assist disabled people with activities of daily living to the high levels of physical and sexual abuse faced by disabled people that had been perceived as merely private troubles. Issues of physical access and attitudinal barriers could now be problematized in the way that the women's movement had challenged their oppression, be it violence or wages for housework, as a political issue. Within a few years, hundreds of IL centers were in operation across the United States, as well as a number of other countries including Canada, Britain and Brazil.12
THE LIMITATIONS OF THE INDEPENDENT LIVING MOVEMENT, however, quickly became apparent. It saw its role as promoting disabled people's equal rights as consumers within the framework of a free market society. Furthermore, it was not fully representative of the disabled community, often marginalizing the perspectives of disabled women, people of color and gays and lesbians. By limiting itself to accept the restrictions imposed by market forces, it therefore undermined its own radical potential to empower disabled people.
Among organizations of disabled people, however, there have emerged more radical activist organizations that have sought to mobilize from below to transform society. Disabled in Action was founded in 1970 and adopted the tactic of direct political protest to raise both the consciousness of disabled people and awareness of the discriminatory barriers endemic in American society. During the 1972 presidential election, militants in Disabled in Action joined with disabled and often highly politicized Vietnam veterans, clearly an influential base of support for the American disability rights movements, in the Paralyzed Veterans of America to demand an on-camera debate with President Nixon. They also organized a demonstration at the Lincoln Memorial after President Nixon vetoed a spending bill to fund disability programs.13
The high point of the 1970s resurgence of disability liberation politics was the remarkable San Francisco occupation that occurred in conjunction with protests aimed at forcing the release of regulations pursuant to s. 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The regulations were to outline how it was illegal for federal agencies, contractors, or public universities to discriminate on the basis of handicap. They had been delayed by previous Administrations but there was an expectation that the incoming Carter Administration would fulfill its promise to issue the regulations. When it became obvious that the Democrats' policy makers were stalling and wanted to substantially modify the regulations to permit continued segregation in education and other areas of public life, disability rights activists mobilized in nine cities across the United States. In Washington, three hundred demonstrators occupied the offices of the Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) Secretary for some twenty-eight hours despite the termination of the office's telephone lines by authorities and the refusal to permit food through to the protestors. While most demonstrations ended fairly quickly, in San Francisco, however, the movement took on a truly extraordinary trajectory. There, disability rights activists occupied the HEW federal building for twenty-five days culminating in total victory: the issuing of the regulations without any amendments.14
Many of the participants of the occupation, at times as many as 120, literally risked their lives, as they were without their personal care attendants or assistive devices, in order to pursue their fight for social justice and integration into mainstream society. Yet the impact in building cross-disability solidarity was remarkable in what can be seen, in retrospect, as the disability liberation movements' Stonewall. Instead of arbitrary divisions based on diagnostic categories, disabled people united around common political goals. The HEW Occupation was one of those rare events where the consciousness of the participants was dramatically transformed and their largely neglected creativity unleashed.15 Solidarity with other social movements was also built as the local branch of the Black Panthers Party prepared food supplied by civil rights organizations and unions.16 Whereas many of the participants had previously seen their oppression as personal medical problems, a real sense of disability pride was inculcated that would have lasting positive effects in building grassroots disability rights movements.
Despite the consolidation of a neo-conservative current that swept America and the world in the early 1980s, rank and file disability rights activists continued small but important struggles in unfavorable circumstances. The general weakness of the left in this period, however, may partly explain the relatively minimal attention given to disability oppression by other social movements and the broader socialist left. In 1983, the organization, American Disabled for Accessible Public Transit (ADAPT) was formed by disability rights activists in several cities across America to highlight the inaccessibility of public transit to mobility impaired people. It quickly became known for its colorful and confrontational tactics. For instance, it repeatedly disrupted the conventions of the American Public Transit Association, to the point of requiring mass arrests, in order to raise awareness of the industry's hostility to implementing accessibility features that would enable disabled people to participate fully as citizens. They also demonstrated a dramatic flair for symbolism and a sense of strategic genius. Hence, they crawled up the stairs of important but inaccessible public buildings, including the eighty-three marble steps of the Capitol building, to demonstrate their exclusion from American society. Having secured a measure of victory in this field, they renamed themselves American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today and have continued their direct action tactics to raise awareness of the need for attendant care programs, that provide assistance with activities of daily living, to permit disabled people to live independently rather than face warehousing.17
For those seeking to formulate a disability liberation praxis from below, ADAPT is an interesting example of both the possibilities and limitations of the strategy. On the one hand, mobilizations by ADAPT have drawn sharp criticism from more moderate disability organizations. IL centers in Michigan, for example, went so far as to condemn ADAPT's activities in a letter to the state's governor.18 On the other hand, ADAPT itself never adopted a coherent ideological perspective that might guide its actions and enable it to form long- lasting coalitions with others seeking social change, including anti-poverty activists, single mothers and homeless people. Even worse, at times it relied on informal personal connections with politicians, including Republicans, for favorable treatment. While this occasionally meant less harsh treatment by police when engaging in civil disobedience, ADAPT and the disability rights movements paid a high price for this connection. It felt compelled to downplay demonstrations against the first Bush Administration while the ADA was under consideration, rejecting the option of chaining themselves to the gates of the White House, so as not to embarrass President Bush Sr.19 Having chosen to undermine their own power to "stay relevant," ADAPT activists, lacking theoretical clarity and leadership, at times limited their own potential as a social movement.
At the same time, the structural framework of the ADA, what Marta Russell has astutely called "free market civil rights," 21 places the onus on individuals to make complaints and allows employers and businesses lengthy "phase-in" periods during which they are exempt from compliance. An original version of the legislation would have had much stricter access requirements but the legislation as passed only requires existing buildings to be made accessible upon renovation.22 Moreover, the enforcement mechanisms of even the more modest requirements that were enacted are very weak due to lack of funding and a lack of political will. For instance, as recently as 1995, several years after the passage of the ADA, it was estimated that only twenty percent of federal buildings in Los Angeles complied with federal access requirements. One study found that two out of three cases of ADA civil rights cases filed with the Department of Justice are not investigated due to inadequate resources. Between 1990 and 1994, more than 3,600 complaints had been filed with the EEOC alleging disability discrimination in employment during the hiring process. However, the EEOC only approved three of these complaints for further investigation. Yet even as civil rights enforcement has been drastically underfunded, Congress has been willing to allocate ten times as many funds to Social Security to conduct reviews to determine whether individuals no longer qualified for the meager social assistance programs provided.23
Nevertheless, it is work that is the defining feature of capitalist society. On this central criterion, it is evident that the ADA has done particularly poorly. Disabled people continue to remain largely outside the workforce. Whereas approximately eighty percent of adults, aged eighteen to sixty-four, work full or part-time, only 29 percent of working age disabled adults work full or part time. Despite ADA, the unemployment rate remains between 65 and 70 percent and for those with severe disabilities, it is approximately 75 percent. The economic implications of this are clear: the poverty rate for disabled Americans is more than twenty percent according to Census Bureau data, compared to 13.5 percent for those without disabilities.24 This is hardly surprising given that the benefit rate for SSI, the primary income support program used by disabled people with little or no work history, is set at 71 percent of the poverty level.25 Moreover, the current political climate has been one of severe cutbacks for social assistance programs in general, with pernicious effects on many disabled people, especially those trapped in the bureaucratic quagmire of facing employment-related disability discrimination but nevertheless being ineligible for SSI under that program's stringent criteria.26
It is evident that a rights-based approach may be able to secure gains in physical access to services. The emergence of a vibrant disability pride or what some are increasingly referring to as disability culture, speaking of the experiences and barriers faced by disabled people and usually coated with a heavy dose of postmodern philosophy, may enrich the American social fabric. However, for leftists, it is clear that a disability rights praxis that takes a class analysis seriously must grapple with the intense unemployment and poverty experienced by a majority of disabled people.27 A strong case can be made that this challenge ultimately strengthens the socialist case for a radical democratization of the economy. The full inclusion of disabled people into society would shatter the link between self-worth and full-time employment that has been predominant in capitalist societies since the Industrial Revolution. It would also open the door to the possibility of coalition-building with others such as single mothers and welfare recipients who also are punished by the arbitrary value placed on working a standard job and might ultimately permit a greater appreciation of the commodification of labor under capitalism so as to strengthen working class consciousness and mobilization as a whole.
Such coalition-building would certainly not preclude autonomous and varied disability politics movements that continued the important work on fighting physical access struggles, pressuring government and the private sector to make materials available in alternative format on a timely basis and the obtaining badly needed attendant care services to allow disabled people to live independently. The pursuit of a transformed economy would also not preclude grassroots campaigning, by both disability organizations and the broader left, in pursuit of specific reforms. A variety of incremental measures would make a real difference in the lives of disabled Americans including increases to SSI benefits, eliminating the ridiculous delays in obtaining benefits, affirmative action programs with teeth to get disabled people into the workplace, increasing subsidies to employers for funding accommodations and of course universal single payer health care.28 It is incumbent upon anti-poverty activists, feminists, trade unionists, anti-racist militants, gay and lesbian community activists and above all the organized socialist left to work constructively with disability rights activists to make medium term solutions a reality while working toward long term transformation.
Nevertheless, the tactics of organizations like ADAPT undeniably indicate the potential for a praxis of disability politics from below. Unflinchingly critical of the state, independent from other social movements so as to articulate a social-political analysis of disablement and committed to strategic alliances with other social movements as well as expanding its base among disabled women, people of color and gays and lesbians, such a disability liberation movement would be truly breathtaking and capture the imagination of thousands of young radicalizing disabled people. It would embrace the empowering resistance of the 1977 HEW occupation and transform it into a vibrant movement capable of leading mass struggles. Its fundamental critique of employment under capitalism goes to the heart of the socialist project's desire to challenge the commodification of labor for the working class and opens the door for solidarity with part-time workers, single mothers, and welfare recipients. As the neo-liberal juggernaut continues unabated at the dawn of the twenty-first century, disabled activists seeking to address the challenges of globalization would do well to heed Draper's legacy and work towards the formulation of an activist praxis of disability politics from below in a creative dialogue with grassroots left activists. And the socialist left would be gravely mistaken if it chose to continue to ignore this vibrant and important social movement.
Contents of No. 31
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