Submitted by AWL on 3 July, 2019 - 12:38

Difference and impairment

I can still remember my PE teacher at school yelling at me: “What’s the matter with you? Are you disabled?”

He was angry because I was clumsy and awkward. The tiny experience perhaps helps me understand why autistic and other neurodivergent people resent being called “disabled” or even “impaired”.

These days I’m impaired by arthritis, and because ageing has slowed down my brain processes: I am much slower, and fumble much more, with mathematical working today, at 70, than I did when I was 17. Luckily for me, these are impairments which carry little stigma, and I live in a society with many workarounds for them.

But there is no point pretending that those are not impairments, or blaming capitalism for the significance that the impairments have, or denying that they will be bigger impairments when I slow down further.

I don’t know whether Janine Booth (Letters, Solidarity 511) took me to be saying that the “Student B” who sat in a maths class I taught but only knitted and occasionally shouted about unconnected issues was impaired in mathematics. I was saying that he was impaired (not just different) in participation in collective working and discussion. And more significantly impaired, for example, than the “Student C” (from another class), who for some mental-health reason I don’t know, never spoke (but listened, nodded or shook his head, wrote notes, etc.)

We can’t blame capitalism for the impairment being a significant factor. Quite likely it will be even more significant in a socialist society. We should and can think of adjustments and workarounds to help people with such impairments.

It will hinder, not help, to wave aside the problem as not an impairment at all, or to deny that there are degrees of impairment.

Martin Thomas, Islington

Encoding, decoding, and Israel

This is the third of a series of letters sparked by the “Willsman affair”.

Trough “Steganography”, secret codes or images can be hidden within other images, not revealing themselves immediately, or until certain conditions are met, or they are decoded. These can then be shared by unknowing individuals, unaware that this beautiful picture is harbouring a sinister side.

“Encoded” ideas can be similar. Concepts are promoted, with their full implications only widely revealed when faced with specific political situations, to people in the know, or to people trying and succeeding in decoding them.

Absolute anti-Zionists generally consciously seek the destruction of Israel, a Palestine stretching “from the river to the sea”. They advocate the “right of return”, perhaps gleefully congratulating themselves on packaging their full goals into a demand which gains a much wider hearing. They “encode” the destruction of Israel into the “right of return”. Similar, at points, with the demand for a “single secular democratic state”. At least in the medium term, neither will be achieved, and neither could without violently conquering Israel, and enforcing a political settlement on the majority of Israel’s population, Israeli-Jews. The chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” less subtly encodes the same message.

Those absolute anti-Zionists influence can sometimes remain blissfully ignorant of the conclusions or history of what they advocate. I’ve even heard of people, influenced by such politics, chanting “from the river to the sea, Syria will be free”.

That the latter chant makes no sense shows that the former, for many chanters, is very superficial. They are spreading “encoded” anti-semitic politics, but which they did not encode, and cannot immediately decode.

When the idea confronts the world as it is, the conclusion, “destroy Israel”, can reveal itself. It is our job to decode such ideas for these individuals, to show them for what they are, and to persuade them of better ideas.

But those that unknowingly transmit previously-encoded versions of “destroy Israel” should be treated qualitatively different from those who knowingly and consciously advocate it.

While the idea that we need not take responsibility for the fine details of how the Really Existing Labour Party manages individual cases, absent of any broader changes, seems like a fudge, seems like advocating political responsibility, it is more than just that, and it helps me to reconcile my contradictory feelings on the question. Advocating the way forward from the concrete here and now is an important part of taking political responsibility, aiming to transform the world, and prepare the working-class for democratic self-rule.

But recognising when wider circumstances are not of our choosing, when we can’t take responsibility for mending a puncture if we can’t change our tyres, is vital for being “third camp” socialists, and responding to the world in an honest, transformative way.

Mike Zubrowski, Bristol


Submitted by Janine Booth (not verified) on Sun, 07/07/2019 - 15:32

Martin Thomas is still insisting that the student he referred to in a previous letter is impaired, but has yet to offer convincing evidence of this. He appears to conclude that if we don't recognise this student's impairment, then we are denying the existence or significance of impairment.

I am comfortable with being labelled 'disabled' as an autistic person, because society disables me by being geared to neurotypical interactions and sensitivites. I don't think my autism is an impairment. I accept that for some people, their neurodivergence - or aspects of it - may be impairment.

I have no problem in accepting that impairment exists, and that it exists in varying degrees. I spend a fair amount of time arguing with approaches that appear to be, or which risk, denying this, which might potentially erase impairment by insisting that everything is merely difference.

Disability and impairment are not the same thing. Disability is the way in which society creates barriers and difficulties to people with impairments and differences. It is possible to be impaired but not disabled (for example, a short-sighted person whose vision is easily corrected with freely-available lenses), and also to be disabled but not impaired (as, for example, some autistic people are).

Martin argues that his student was impaired in 'participation in collective learning and discussion'. I am still not convinced that Martin can know that for sure.

His student was certainly disabled in an environment which did not suit his neurology and learning style. But he may have been able to participate in collective learning and discussion in a different format (for example in a different physical environment, through differently-structured activities, online, in written correspondence, in a smaller group, etc). Unless you know for sure that this is not the case, then the assertion that he is impaired remains open to doubt.

Moreover, 'collective learning' is only one form of learning. I'm not sure that there are sufficient grounds to assume that learning in largeish groups is such a superior form of learning that it warrants 'hard-wired' preference for learning alone or one-to-one as 'impairment'.

Of course we can not blame capitalism for impairment being a significant factor. But we can indict capitalism for the massive barriers it puts in the way of people with impairments - and of people with differences. Sometimes those barriers are such that they make difference look like impairment even when it is not.

We can also blame capitalism for its narrow definitions of what is the 'norm', including in learning and interaction styles, and its consequential assumption that those who differ from that norm are impaired. Capitalism operates what we might call a 'neurocracy': a rigid conformity, arising in large part from the conformity it demands of workers' roles in production.

But let's end by reasserting that whether a neurodivergent person (or any other disabled person) is impaired or not, our demands remain the same: equality, dignity, rights, the removal of barriers. For many of us, this will require not just adjustments or workarounds, but major societal changes.

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