Disability rights

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jun 19 13:49:09 MDT 2001

The Politics of the Disability Rights Movements

Ravi Malhotra

[from New Politics, vol. 8, no. 3 (new series), whole no. 31, Summer 2001]

RAVI MALHOTRA is a Canadian disability rights activist and a member of the
New Democratic Party. He will be commencing graduate legal studies at
Harvard Law School.

OVER THE COURSE OF THE LAST FEW DECADES, the socialist left throughout the
industrialized West has been challenged to become more inclusive by an
array of activist social movements including the women's movement, the
Civil Rights and anti-racist movement, and the gay and lesbian liberation
movement. In each case, fundamental questions have been posited as to how
the left conceives itself and its commitment to fighting for the equality
and liberation of oppressed groups. While the formulations of the left may
be seen by some to be seriously wanting, it can be said that at the very
least the issues were openly debated and all sides were richer for having
had the discussion. In the case of the disability rights movements,
however, one is faced with the sad reality that few on the left have even
seriously begun to consider the issues at stake, let alone develop a
preliminary praxis for disability liberation politics from a socialist
perspective. Yet when neo-liberal attacks to roll back the welfare state
throughout the West have reached fever pitch, a counter-hegemonic politics
of disability liberation is more essential than ever for the more than
fifty million disabled Americans. What follows below is a modest first step
towards that goal.

A Brief History of Disabled People

Western society were undoubtedly poorly treated. Often the victims of
religious superstition and persecution, disabled people in medieval Europe
were associated with evil, witchcraft, and even the Devil. Children born
with disabilities were often perceived as the consequence of their mothers'
support for satanic beliefs, illustrating both the ableist and patriarchal
values of the era. However, it is also the case that under feudalism,
disabled people were generally able to make a contribution, in varying
degrees, to a largely rural production process. If disabled people were
hospitalized, it was in relatively small medieval hospitals where the focus
was on palliative care rather than a cure.

With industrialization came the rise of the factory system and waged labor.
This required workers to complete tasks in accordance with specified time
standards. Those who were unable to do so as a result of an impairment were
labelled deviant even though they might have in fact contributed to
production under previous regimes of capital accumulation. They were
therefore marginalized and excluded from the labor force. Disability
accordingly developed into a crucial boundary between the deserving poor
entitled to relief and the undeserving poor. Yet what is remarkable is how
even in this time period, the concept of disablement was not a static
category enshrined in medical science but a variable boundary category in
flux that might change depending on the state of the economy, the needs of
the labor market, and the state of the labor movement and level of class

It was during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that one saw the
large-scale segregation of disabled people away from society into a number
of institutional settings including asylums, hospitals, workhouses and
prisons, frequently under conditions of intense abuse. However, again,
incarceration in an institutional setting was hardly a direct function of a
physical impairment but reflected trends in the political economy. Hence,
the huge growth of heavy capital industries such as iron, steel and the
railways in the late nineteenth century resulted in a much higher level of
physical fitness and dexterity as a prerequisite for employment and a
concomitant increase in the institutionalization of those deemed unable to
work. Large numbers of disabled veterans of course were created as a result
of the Civil War. In response to a long recession in the 1870s and 1880s,
the rate of institutionalization also increased, revealing its relationship
with the state of the economy. Such practices continued well into the
twentieth century.

The rise of the Eugenics movement and social Darwinism in the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also played an important role in
the oppression of disabled people. The seminal text in this regard is
Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species, published in 1859. In his 1871
text, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, Darwin commented:

We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of
elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick;
we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost to save the
life of everyone to the last moment . . . Thus the weak members of society
propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic
animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.

Social Darwinist rhetoric combined ableist and ignorant assumptions about
the capabilities of disabled people with racist concerns about protecting
the white race from the corrupting influences of immigrants. The birth of
disabled children was accordingly seen as a dire threat to preserving
racial purity. Tragically, this disturbing ideological framework had very
real consequences. The United States Supreme Court ruled in its infamous
1927 decision of Buck v. Bell that a Virginia statute permitting the forced
sterilization of disabled people was not unconstitutional. Some 33 states
had sterilization laws in place by 1938. Between 1921 and 1964, more than
63,000 disabled people had been sterilized.

Full: http://www.wpunj.edu/icip/newpol/issue31/malhot31.htm

Louis Proyect
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