Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Why Are Disabled People Oppressed?

Capitalist ideology views disabled people as “surplus to requirements”. We need to fight for a society that meets people’s needs rather than excluding them, writes Pat Stack from RESPECT

It’s important for socialists 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 we 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.

I work for a disability charity. We have people who ask us for more care and more support.

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.”

The response to these requests is increasingly becoming either (a) “Don’t drink water before you go to sleep,” or (b) “We’ll provide you with incontinence pants.”
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.

I met the Tory councillor who introduced this change and he 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.


Assistive technology said...

Thank you for this article. The disabled have the largest percentage of people who starve to death every year because they aren't able to find employment. This is just wrong.

Respectable Citizen said...

On a related subject, New Labour are shockingly talking about abolishing incapacity benefit, a change that will have a detrimental effect on 3 million people!

This is part of a piecemeal dismantling of the benefit system that represents a major assault on the Welfare state.

The government also hopes to make a profit through the sell-off of agencies that deal with unemployment and people who are off work due to illness being sold off to private companies

As an article I was recently reading puts it:

"In May the Welfare Reform Bill was passed, giving the Secretary of State new powers to sell off key services to the private and voluntary sector. So the Jobcentreplus, Labour's one-stop-shop, will handle those 'closest to work' whilst the most vulnerable and 'complicated' will soon be in the hands of profit-driven organisations.

Payments to these organisations will be target-based. The government aims to force 300,000 lone parents back into work along with a million over-50s and a million currently claiming Incapacity Benefit.

So these agencies will have major fiscal incentives to force some of society's most vulnerable people into unstable, low-paid work or simply cancel their benefits.

Last December's Welfare Reform Executive Summary does not try to hide the motive for these attacks. On incentives for private business, it reads: "The scale of the potential market is large," and "this will be an annual multi-billion market. Such scale would attract commitment from a wide range of private service providers".

Whoever bids for the service, responsibilities will include cancelling people's benefits if they fail to follow the very strict guidelines which the government has outlined. Claimants will be required to attend regular interviews to discuss their progress.

They will be appointed a private sector 'adviser', who will assist claimants to draw up an action plan to help them back into work. If a claimant fails to attend an interview, their 'adviser' decides whether they had good cause for their failure. Their benefit could be cut as a result.

These advisers' decisions to cut claimants' benefits will, just like current DWP policy, be subject to revision and appeal. However, the same company that decided to cut the benefits will apparently carry out all appeals and revisions!

These measures will fundamentally alter the way the welfare system serves the unemployed. Big business will have free rein to turn poverty and alienation into profitable business and the unemployed will be forced into casual work on low pay.

The Green Paper is sketchy on how and when these new measures will become reality and the government will try to play down this attack's repercussions.

But, for millions of unemployed and disabled workers of all ages, it spells the beginning of a process which will end with the disintegration of the benefits system and the removal of the safety nets that have long protected those most at risk from exploitation. Private hands will slowly throttle claimants. But at least the figures will look better!"

ajit8 said...

Free our unions!

The Communist Party has called for full support for the national rally for a Trade Union Freedom Bill

The United Campaign to Repeal the Anti-Trade Union Laws is organising the Rally on 18 October at 7pm at the House of Commons room 14 to promote the second reading of the "Trade Union Rights and Freedoms Bill".

Contact for further details

A new Communist Party poster showing the five London dockers imprisoned undert the Tory anti-union laws and freed my massive unofficial strike, which today would be illegal.

The Communist party calls on the Labour government to honour the pledges made in opposition and repeal the laws.

Poster A3 colour £3 post free. Ten for £20 post free

Anonymous said...

The Communist Party (in the 70s a very significant force in the trade union movement - the CP then had thousands of members) actually helped facilitate the smashing of the unions.

The CP had a strategy of looking to the leaders of the union, rather than building a movement among rank and file trade unionists that could act independently (and against) even left wing Union leaders if they were selling out the workers.

I remember in the 70s when hundreds of workers went onsstike at British Leyland. The Labour government threatened to sack them all. The left wing, leader of the union, Hugh Scanlon supported the government. The CP didn't want to jepordise it's relation with the trade union bureaucracy, so leading CP member, Derek Robinson, convenor of Longbridge stood at the gate of Longbridge and instructed the rest of the workers to cross the picket line!!

This was repeated again and again in the late 70s. Groups of workers would go out on strike and the CP members with union positions would organise other workers to cross picket lines.

When you tell someone to cross a picket line - you've crossed a line in my book! The CP organised scabbing!

No wonder that Thatcher could smash the unions, when the CP had helped derail and demoralise any fight back.

Having said that, I support the Trade Union Freedom Bill absolutely. Just hope that the CP have changed their ways - or if they haven't then hope that they are marginal to the movement

Respectable Citizen said...

The strategy of RESPECT is to try and build a movement among rank and file trade unionist to make the unions capable of acting economically AND politically - to rebuild confidence but not to duck taking up political issues such as war, racism against immigrants and Muslims, tackling sexism etc, and climate change.

In Cardiff, many of our members have tried to organise support for the postal workers on strike in their workplace and taken collections for the CWU strike fund. We have also tried to argue for united action across the unions to smash the wage freeze being imposed across the public sector.

The anonymous writer is right that building a movement among trade unionists at the grassroots is the key.

RESPECT fully supports the Trade Union Freedom Bill and our members have also been involved in lobbying MPs to support it.