By Melissa Graham
The past year has been eventful for many movements with protests taking place across the globe. The disability movement is no exception. On one hand, we’ve seen a strong increase in disability activism with protests against austerity and an active presence in the occupy movement. The trouble is, the same cuts that are encouraging increased solidarity among people with disabilities is also increasing their poverty and oppression.
The austerity measures in the UK have already hit people with disabilities hard. The government’s public spending cuts include further attacks on the inadequate but vital disability benefits in that country, similar to social assistance in Canada. Their aim is to roll back the hard-won gains affecting all sections of the working class.
A recent report by Glasgow University Media Group found an increase in media articles on disability benefit fraud, comparing benefit cheats to muggers robbing taxpayers. Terms such as “scrounger”, “cheat” and “skiver” were used in eighteen percent of articles in 2010/11 compared to twelve percent in 2004/5. Focus groups believed up to seventy per cent of claims were fraudulent, justifying this by saying they had read it in newspapers. A survey last week found two-thirds of people in the UK actively avoid people with disabilities because they have no idea how to act around them.
The program admits false claims for sickness benefits are less than one per cent of the total recipients. Years of rhetoric about benefit fraud and “dependency on the state” have helped legitimize and reinforce prejudice and ignorance against people with disabilities. It’s not just the media—politicians in the UK have freely expressed their ableism. Tory MP Philip Davies recently claimed that workers with disabilities are “by definition” less productive, so could work for less than the minimum wage. The language and subtle messaging of describing people with disabilities as “expenditure items” or as a “drain on economic efforts” further contributes to their oppression.
Understanding oppression against people with disabilities and the movement to fight it can help to unite resistance to the attacks that lie ahead.
Disability movement history
The disability movement has a long history that is largely unknown to most activists. A huge part of disability rights history has been made invisible by the more socially acceptable, liberal vein of human rights advocacy that is entrenched in modern disability politics. The connections between the disability movement and workers movement are known to even fewer people, but that is where the movement was born.
In the UK, the years of explosive strikes and growth in trade unions also saw the formation of the British Deaf Association and the National League of the Blind and Disabled (NLBD). Founded as a trade union in 1899, the NLBD affiliated to the Trades Union Congress three years later. Its members included blind war veterans, mainly working in sheltered workshops, who campaigned for better working conditions and state pensions. The league organized a national march of blind people on Trafalgar Square in 1920, carrying banners with the slogan ”Rights Not Charity”. Despite the small numbers, its demands were widely supported. The first legislation specifically for people who are visually impaired was passed in the same year, followed by more in 1938.
The long economic boom created space to challenge institutionalization and the patronage of charities, with significant numbers of people with disabilities joining the workforce. By the 1960s some had begun to reject their labeling by the professions as deviants or patients, and to speak out against discrimination. Inspired in particular by the black civil rights struggle, the disability movement began in the US.
An example of this shift was the “Rolling Quads”, a group of student wheelchair users at the University of California, who established the first Independent Living Centre in 1971. Within a few years hundreds of Independent Living Centres were created across the US and in other countries including Britain, Canada and Brazil. Its opposition to institutionalization and focus on the self-reliance of people with disabilities gave the independent living movement a lasting influence.
The movement today
These days the movement has shifted again, with the development of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. Many organizations that were once strong advocates, are now relying on government legislation to provide the next steps for the movement. These same organizations are forced to fight each other for scraps of funding, effectively silencing them from any meaningful criticism of policy. While there are individual activists rising to the challenge, the movement is still divided by disabilities and class. Those of us who are activists are marginalized by this neoliberal current of disability rights advocacy. Dissent has been criminalized and mass action positioned as a negative social disruption instead of the valid form of people-led democratic intervention that it is. Activism as a whole has been pacified to be more palatable to the people, especially in Western society.
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (that Canada was one of the last to sign) creates a paradigm shift from viewing people with disabilities from a charitable perspective to the one of rights and inclusion. There is a very real fear that the austerity measures have the potential to infringe on the specific, or practical rights contained in the CRPD. These rights include the right to social protection, the right to live independently in the community, and the right to mobility.
We’re beginning to witness a similar shift in the movement itself. In connections made between the disability movement and the occupy movement, and the marches of thousands in the UK, fighting back against austerity and cuts to benefits. As actions took place across the world last month for the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, social media gave a sense of the international solidarity in the events that occurred—from wheelchair square dancing in Vancouver to a flash mob in Vienna. Young people with disabilities are stepping up to the plate, creating exciting new progressive groups and actions that can potentially create new momentum within the movement.
So how can socialists build solidarity? Any struggle for freedom from oppression has something in common with Marxism. The capitalist class exploits wage earners for profit to the detriment of the working class. A primary source of oppression of people with disabilities (those who could work with a reasonable accommodation) is their exclusion from capitalist exploitation.
Many people with disabilities are unemployed or underemployed against their will. Industrial capitalism imposed the label of disablement upon those people whose bodies did not conform to the standard of the ideal worker. The ideal worker is one who’s body can work like a machine for the ruling class. Though people with disabilities are deemed less or not exploitable by the owners of the means of production, they are further oppressed by being left out of it. To put it in terms of the occupy movement, they are often the lowest 1% of the 99%.
The best thing we can do right now is build connections. Reach out to people with disabilities who we see doing activist work, and connect them with related struggles. One of the biggest barriers people with disabilities face is isolation. Even when groups of people with disabilities do become active, it is rare for allies to reach out. Last October, when the Toronto Disability Pride March took place, people from Occupy Toronto and the International Socialists were there in solidarity. There was strength added to that action because of their presence, and it stands out as an example of the kind of solidarity we need.
It seems fitting that the theme for the 2011 International Persons with Disabilities Day was “Together a better world for all”. This is a very exciting time for many movements, and a time of exciting growth for the disability movement.