It’s important for us to understand the nature of the oppression that disabled people face. There is no question that disabled people are oppressed – but our oppression has somewhat different roots to that of women or ethnic minorities. Disabled people face discrimination every day in terms of negative attitudes and exclusion from wider society. But in the past they have faced much more extreme forms of repression. In Germany during the 1930s, the first victims of the Nazis were 100,000 disabled people – or “inferiors”, as they were called. People with physical and learning disabilities were butchered as a consequence of Hitler’s ideology of “racial purity”. Their bodies didn’t fit, so he got rid of them – before moving on to the Jews, Gypsies, trade unionists and so on. So the oppression of disabled people, either historically or today, is no less than that of other oppressed groups in society such as women or black people. But it doesn’t quite serve the same purpose – discrimination against disabled people arises from a slightly different economic motive. Under capitalism, women are seen as a source of cheap labour (especially with regards to childcare) and a source for the reproduction of labour. That is why capitalism has an interest in the continued oppression of women. It also has an interest in promoting racism as a means of weakening and dividing the working class, thereby driving down the costs of labour.
For disabled people, the root of our oppression is the fact that capitalism sees everything in terms of profit and profitability – and this colours how capitalists view disabled workers. Most employers see disabled employees as a “problem” – something difficult, something different, something that will cost them more to employ. That isn’t to say that capitalists are incapable of realising that disabled people can be a source of cheap labour. But the oppression starts from a different trajectory – the initial assumption is that disabled people are worthless under capitalism, rather than of great use within capitalism. So the oppression of disabled people is a reflection of the way in which capitalism reduces everything to profit – effectively, capitalism says disabled people are surplus to requirements. This is especially true in periods of economic crisis – provision for disabled people is always one of the first things to be hit. It’s important that we understand the roots of disabled people’s oppression, since that understanding also gives us clarity with regards to what we’re fighting against – and why we’re fighting against it.
The starting point for the disability movement is that you don’t deny that impairments exist, that people have impairments. But the impairment, in and of itself, does not deny people access to employment, social integration, general wellbeing and so on. Those things are denied because society denies them. They are denied when society fails to provide the means to overcome that exclusion, when it fails to provide access and employment to disabled people, when it chooses to segregate disabled people unnecessarily. That is the starting point – what we call the social model of disability. And despite the huge steps forward in terms of awareness of these issues, much exclusion still exists. Moreover, much disability exists because of the kind of society we live in. Large numbers of people across the world are disabled because of the poverty they live in – because of undernourishment, environmental pollution, a lack health and safety provision at their place of work, or because of the carelessness of capitalism. Discrimination in the job market is a fact of life for people with disabilities. If you’re disabled, you’re three times more likely to be unemployed and six times more likely to be turned down after submitting a job application than if you’re not disabled.
If you say you are disabled on your job application form, you are six times more likely not to be interviewed. If you get an interview, you are six times more likely to be rejected for the job. And if we look at the question of wages, most disabled people are forced into poorly paid, low skilled jobs. That’s the reality of life for disabled people in the job market. One approach to dealing with this discrimination is that of organisations such as Remploy – government aided factories that employ people with disabilities. These government workshops are by and large something that’s been fading out in recent years. Remploy in particular has been in the news because its factories are facing closure. Traditionally what Remploy represented was the segregation of disabled workers – which is why large numbers of disability activists have long objected to the way Remploy is run. Now Remploy workers are fighting to defend their jobs – but many disability charities have lined up with the government to say the factories should be closed.
While Remploy is something that socialists would want to see consigned to the past, the way to go about that is not by picking people off and forcibly throwing them into a job market that is hostile to them. We should fight for a job market where there is no longer any need for specialised workplaces to employ disabled workers. The majority of disabled people earn lower wages, while living costs are frequently higher for disabled people. So it’s not surprising that something like two thirds of disabled people live below the poverty line. Historically the notion was that if a person was disabled, and if nobody could look after them, then they should be put into an institution of some sort. Nowadays the emphasis is on making sure that appropriate care can be provided at home – which is a real advance in terms of society’s attitudes to disabled people. More recently there have been further advances that question who controls that home care – the disabled person or the care agency. If you’re a disabled person there is no reason why you shouldn’t prefer going to bed at 11pm rather than at 8pm because that suits somebody else. Your life shouldn’t be lived as if you are in a hospital the whole time.
These changes are real, but there are problems. There is much fine talk from the government about liberating the care environment, giving disabled people real freedom and choice and so on. But in reality you often find the exact opposite is happening. The problem is that the funding is not there, especially at local authority level. They’ll say, “I’m on my own – I need somebody to come in at night because I need to go to the toilet at night. So I need somebody to come in for a couple of hours.” So either you’re totally humiliated or you’re lying there thirsty. The government talks about providing “liberation” but won’t provide the funds so that disabled people can make real choices. In Camden, north London, where I live, there had been no charge for disabled home care – but this has changed recently. Anyone who has more than £30,000 in savings gets charged, as does anybody who receives disability living allowance. So take a person whose sole income is income support and disability living allowance. Now local authorities are saying we want a big chunk of that disability living allowance back off you in order for us to provide you with care. You are effectively paying a disability tax. The Tory councillor who introduced this change said, “This is New Labour policy – we’re just doing what the government says we should do.” Not many people realise you now basically have to pay for the “privilege” of being disabled. We have to understand what is happening – and we have to understand that fighting for the rights of disabled people means fighting for a different kind of society, one where people’s needs are the priority rather than profits.