This document on disability and struggles by disabled people was prepared for discussion at Workers’ Liberty’s annual conference on 21-22 November.
The Tory-led governments since 2010 have launched a sustained and vicious assault on the living standards and rights of disabled people.
Some of the ground for this — for example, the introduction of Work Capability Assessments — was laid by the previous “New Labour” government, but the Tories have cranked it up to an unprecedented degree of cruelty.
These attacks have been backed up by media hysteria and portrayal of disabled people as idlers and scroungers, leading to a significant increase in verbal and physical abuse of disabled people.
On a more positive note, there has also been sustained and militant resistance to these attacks, particularly from Disabled People Against Cuts. DPAC formed following an anti-austerity protest in 2010 and has kept up campaigning activity since, even while other anti-cuts groups have faded.
The new leadership of the Labour Party has a good record on disability rights. In contrast to their predecessors, Corbyn and McDonnell have clearly opposed the Tory attacks and have consistently participated in protests. This stance has played a part in the “Corbyn surge”, which has been supported by many disability campaigners.
Our understanding of disability in contemporary society is based in understanding the way that capitalism disables people. Capitalism causes physical and mental impairment through industrial injury, war and other factors; and organises production for profit rather than human need and consequently allocates insufficient resources to research, treatment, cure, access, care and support services. Capitalist society has treated impaired people as objects of pity, whose only hope lies in either a medical cure or dependence and charitable care. Thus, when capitalism failed to develop cures or treatments, people have been consigned to institutions or to poverty and social exclusion. Thus, capitalism disables impaired people. We note that while some disabled people would welcome a cure for their particular impairment, for many the priority is to be allowed to participate fully in society as they are. There is also some variation in the extent to which an individual’s particular condition constitutes an impairment or a difference.
For example, many autistic people understandably fear that attempts to cure or prevent autism aim to eliminate human neurological diversity. In the 1960s and 70s, the surge in liberation struggles also saw a disability rights movement grow. It organised against discrimination and in support of independent living, and it rejected the ‘medical model’ of how disability was generally viewed.
Socialists in this movement outlined a distinction between impairment and disability. Impairment is the shortfall in full bodily or mental functioning; disability is the obstruction that society places in the way of an impaired person’s equal participation, which can include physical barriers, prejudices, communication barriers and/or lack of adequate social and medical provision. This distinction became the foundation of the social model of disability.
The social model is not in itself a Marxist theory. Indeed, it is a model — an approach, a way of understanding, a guide to action — rather than strictly a ‘theory’ at all. It is, however, consistent with Marxism. It provided a significant boost to the confidence and assertiveness of the disability movement. It is a liberatory approach. We support the social model of disability, and seek to clarify, develop and apply it. The social model, and the movement behind it, has achieved significant progress. Pitiful images of crippled kids on charity collection boxes are being left in the past.
The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities takes a social model approach, having been drafted by representatives of disabled people’s organisations. Progress in legal rights for disabled people is limited by the persistence of the medical model. Legislation is based on requiring individuals to prove what they can not do rather than on identifying and removing discrimination and barriers.
The Tories’ 1995 Disability Discrimination Act was very weak, delivering as little as the government could get away with in the face of unstoppable pressure for legislation. Although it was strengthened to some extent by the 1997-2010 Labour governments, it has since been weakened again by the Tory/LibDem coalition.
There is a huge class divide among impaired people. Rich individuals with the resources to overcome barriers are far less disabled by society than are working-class people with impairments. The employers’ austerity-driven offensive has seen many disabled workers driven out of work or into the most low-paid, insecure employment. The role of trade unions is essential in defending disabled workers. While many rank-and-file reps carry out important work, and while three-quarters of union members are in unions which have structures for disabled members, there is much more that can be done to make unions accessible, militant and effective in this area. Disability is an issue for the whole of the labour movement and the left to take up, discuss and campaign about. Self-organisation of disabled people, and of disabled workers, is central to making this happen.
Workers’ Liberty supports self-organisation for specially-oppressed sections of the working class. Disabled people have long had well-meaning people, charities and others speak for them: in contrast to this, we support the right of disabled people to articulate their own demands and to call on the labour movement for its active support. We resolve to organise our work in this area, focusing on three key themes: 1. co-ordinating our participation in the disabled people’s movement, particularly its mobilisation against austerity 2. discussing and developing Marxist theory on disability 3. improving the accessibility to disabled people of our own events, publications, education, etc.