Watch and listen below to our sessions at The World Transformed last week. Transcript of Ellen’s contribution on disabled people’s oppression also below. Many thanks to @ImaJSAclaimant for filming and to everyone who helped.
Piss on Pity: disability oppression
Frances Ryan’s talk on disability and oppression:
Transcript of contribution from Ellen:
Disability is an issue that powerfully exposes the true nature of capitalism as a cruel system based on exploitation and greed. It therefore isn’t surprising that the dominant ideas in society around disability are full of misperceptions and act to conceal an understanding of the true relationship between disability and capitalism.
Disability is a historical concept that did not exist in the way we understand it today before the industrial revolution and the social and economic changes that that brought. There were always people with impairments but the way labour was organised meant that people with impairments were not thought of as belonging to a separate identifiable category.
The category of disability came about as a socially created way of identifying and separating out those who are less productive within the conditions of the workplace – and it is to be noted that as those conditions change depending upon industrial changes and intensification of labour, which people are more or less productive also changes. For example research indicates that disabled people were more likely to be in employment in the 1970s than today and found it easier to fit into jobs in manual industry than the service sector.
So, disability is a historical, socially created category and yet the way it is commonly understood is as an individual problem. You still often hear people talk about disability in terms of what is “wrong” with a person.
The development of the social model of disability was ground-breaking because, without denying the pain or distress that are part of the lived experience of certain impairments, it provides a tool for explaining that far from being an individual problem, disability is a form of oppression. If we want to end the oppression and ill treatment of disabled people, we don’t need to “cure” people with impairments, we need to fundamentally change the way society is organised.
In the early twentieth century the socialist Helen Keller wrote:
“Many young women full of devotion and good-will have been engaged in superficial charities. They have tried to feed the hungry without knowing the causes of poverty. They have tried to minister to the sick without understanding the cause of disease. They have tried to raise up fallen sisters without understanding the brutal arm of necessity that struck them down…We attempt social reforms where we need social transformation.”
Disability politics are inherently radical in challenging the system we live under. It can therefore be frustrating for disabled campaigners when the issue of disabled people’s oppression remains poorly understood within the wide left among people who are supposed to be committed to social transformation.
During my research over the past couple of months I have come across complaint after complaint from disabled campaigners and academics about the lack of interest in disability theory beyond people with personal experience of it. The historian Douglas Baynton writes for example: “Disability is everywhere in history, once you begin looking for it, but conspicuously absent in the histories we write.”
While I share this frustration I also think we need to understand that this flows from a cunning concealment of the nature of disabled people’s oppression where what is really interesting about it from a political economic perspective is hidden from view. Instead of understanding disability as the deliberate exclusion of people who can’t serve the interests of profit, the dominant idea of disability in society is that it is somehow inevitable that people with impairments will experience disadvantage, that our marginalisation is somehow common sense.
Helen Keller is herself a strong example of how popular ideas concerning disability present it as an individual problem. Most people who have heard of her know that she was born deafblind. They may well have been taught as I was at school that she bravely overcame her impairment with the help of a wonderful teacher to be able to communicate with the outside world. What is less well know is that she was a fervent socialist who campaigned against the first world war and railed against US immigration laws that barred entry to disabled people thereby preventing disabled Germans and Austrians from fleeing there to escape mass murder by the Nazis. The reception her political activism got from the right wing media of her day was very similar to what Greta Thurnberg is now experiencing where her views were attributed to the “limitations of her mind” arising from her impairment.
These aren’t aspects of Helen Keller’s life that many people know because the version of her life that has been popularised is not one where she rebelled against the system but one where she overcame the “adversity” of her deafblindness in order to better conform. Her passion for collective resistance is taken out of the story and we are left with a familiar account of triumph over tragedy.
Whether it is presented as triumph or tragedy, the popular story of disability is always an individual rather than a collective one, one that is personal not political.
The oppression of disabled people is a strong and malignant force affecting millions of people – disabled people are the world’s largest minority group – and it is worth taking the time to understand it so that we can more effectively resist it and fight to build a radically different society where everyone is valued for who they are. One in the words of Karl Marx where each can contribute according to their abilities and receive according to their need.
In my experience of campaigning with DPAC one of the most effective ways of changing people’s views about disability has been when we are engaged in active struggle alongside non-disabled people who come to see disabled campaigners not as defined by our impairments but as fighters who resist the passive role society tries to thrust on us and who are less easily fooled by the system as a consequence of the brutality of our experiences of oppression.