marxism 2012 program notes: from each according to their ability: the role of socialists in disability movement

This is the final post of my notes from the 2012 Marxism Conference. This was the first Marxism conference to include a talk on disability, an exciting development full of potential. I wanted to blog about it in great detail. A friend was recording the talk, so I stopped taking detailed notes... and then the audio didn't come out.

Melissa Graham was kind enough to give me her notes, but the others didn't have anything written to share. What follows, then, is the general idea. What does disability have to do with capitalism and socialism? Where do disability and socialism intersect, how do they relate to each other?

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From Each According to Their Ability: the Role of Socialists in Disability Movement
May 25, 2012
Melissa Graham, Michele Macaulay, Patricia Reilly

Melissa Graham
Member of IS Canada, Social Worker, Disability Rights Activist, Wheelchair User

Melissa began by praising Marxism 2012 for being the first of the annual conferences to include a talk on disability, but emphasized that radical activism within the disability community is nothing new.

In the UK, the British Deaf Association and the National League of the Blind and Disabled were both radical groups. The NLBD was founded as a trade union in 1899. Members included blind war veterans, mainly working in sheltered workshops, who campaigned for better working conditions and state pensions. The league organized a national march of blind people on Trafalgar Square in 1920, carrying banners with a new slogan: "Rights Not Charity". Despite the small numbers, its aims were widely supported. The first legislation specifically for blind people was passed in the same year, followed by more in 1938.

Much later, in the 1960s, many people with disabilities started to reject being labelling as deviants or patients, and to speak out against discrimination. Inspired by many social movements, especially by the US black civil rights struggle, the disability movement really began in the US.

One example of this shift was the "Rolling Quads", a group of student wheelchair-users at the University of California Berkeley, who established the first Independent Living Centre in 1971. Within a few years, hundreds more ILCs were created across the US and other countries, including Canada. The Independent Living Movement opposes institutionalization and stresses self-reliance; through this, it has had a lasting influence.

These days the movement has shifted again. With the development of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (patterned after the US's Americans with Disabilities Act), many organizations that were once active advocates now take their direction from government legislation, while they fight each other for funding. While there are individual activists rising to the challenge, the movement is still divided by disabilities and class.

Image from PeaceNews
The disability movement, said Melissa, needs to rebuild its history, to get in touch with its radical roots. The first-ever Disability Pride march in Toronto took place last year, calling attention to how austerity budget cuts disproportionately affect people with disabilities. The government thinks people with disabilities are compliant and quiet, and will swallow the cuts quietly.

Accessible transportation is a huge issue for people with disabilities, and an enormous obstacle to organizing. During the recent struggles in Quebec, many students with disabilities were afraid to strike, afraid of losing their grants. Many people with disabilities work for agencies funded by the government, and are afraid they'll be targeted and fired if they agitate.

The recession in the UK has hit disabled people hard. Massive cuts to public spending further reduce already inadequate - but vital - disability benefits. The cuts hit all working-class people; understanding disability discrimination can play a part in uniting resistance to the attacks.

All struggles for freedom from oppression share common ground with Marxism. Ironically, a primary source of oppression of people with disabilities is their exclusion from capitalist exploitation. Many disabled persons are unemployed or underemployed against their will. Their non-conforming bodies are deemed less (or un-) exploitable by the owners of the means of production. The ideal worker is one whose body can work like a machine for the ruling class.

On the other hand, people who receive disability benefits are routinely portrayed as cheats and freeloaders. Even though it's been shown that fraud accounts for less than one percent of benefits - and even though the benefits themselves take up a minute portion of the overall budget - the media and conservative governments create a perception of rampant fraud and waste. Melissa quoted a study in Glasgow showing that people in focus groups believed 70% of disability claims were fraudulent.

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (of which Canada was one of the last countries to sign) creates a paradigm shift: from charity to rights and inclusion. There is a very real fear that current and future austerity measures will drastically infringe on the rights contained in the CRPD - including social protection (Article 28), the right to live independently in the community (Article 19) the right to mobility (Article 20).

The European Disability Forum has been compiling data from across Europe on the impact of austerity budgets on people with disabilities. Cuts are affecting people's lives in very real, very scary, and very permanent ways, affecting people's ability to live independently. The cuts also contribute to negative stereotyping of people with disabilities. The language and messaging - describing disabled citizens as "expenditure items" and "drains on economic efforts" - further contributes to stigma and exclusion.

And yet in the UK and Canada, people with disabilities are better off than in many other places in the world, a very sad commentary. In many countries, people with disabilities live in a de facto state of apartheid. They are forced to the fringes of society, ostracized from things that many of us take for granted, such as getting a job or taking public transit.

So what can we do as a movement? Build connections. Reach out to people we see doing activist work, and connect with them through related struggles. One of the biggest barriers people with disabilities faced is isolation. Even when groups of people with disabilities do become active, it is rare for allies to reach out.

Melissa is a great comrade with a lot of energy and a wry sense of humour. You can read her blog here: B-tch on Wheels.

Michele Macaulay
Psychiatric Consumer Survivor

Michele described how the neoliberal governments of the past ended or defunded the office of psychiatric advocates in hospitals. Now there is no one in hospitals to ensure that people with mental illness are not mistreated, or retraumatized, or denied access to services they need.

The health care system is completely inadequate when it comes to mental illness. She described the attitude as "be quiet and take your meds". Michele spoke briefly about the anti-psychiatry movement, which I also heard about in this talk.

Lack of mental health services disproportionately impact low-income communities, racialized communities, aboriginal people - people dependent on the public system with no resources to opt for private care - and people who the dominant culture would rather not deal with. She described the anti-psychiatric movement as an "equity-seeking movement," with much in common with other people's movements.

Psychiatric survivors often can't find work, can't even get interviews, and are often put in "sheltered workshops" where they are paid below minimum wage.

I wish I could tell you more about Michele's moving and important talk. But sadly...

Patricia Reilly
Ontario Network of Injured Workers Groups

ONIWG is a nonfunded, grassroots group advocating for injured workers. Patricia described the history of workers compensation funds, and it was an eye-opening view.

The concept of workers' compensation - of a system whereby employees who were injured on the job could be compensated - arose in response to corporate complaints about workers' lawsuits. To get the compensation system, workers gave up the right to sue.

In the early years of the 20th Century, there was a great deal of social unrest, all over North America. In Canada, a royal commission created a system meant to quell that unrest, to alleviate the burden on families of caring for family members whose work left them disabled, and to protect companies from the growing unrest. The idea was to take care of people for as long as they were injured, including for the rest of their lives, if necessary.

The Harris Government destroyed all that. (For non-Canadian readers, Mike Harris governed Ontario from 1995-2002. In brief, he destroyed as much of the social safety net as he could. Most of the difficult and unjust conditions Ontarians struggle with today can be laid at the feet of Mike Harris.)

The Harris Government changed the Workers Compensation Board to the Workplace Safety Insurance Board. Think of the difference in emphasis; the agency's name change reflects a change in orientation. Where once workers were compensated, now workplaces are insured. Now, injured workers are left to battle it out with their employers through a system whose goal is to pay out as little as possible.

Under the Harris Government, the province's vocational rehabilitation program was first privatized, then discontinued altogether. The person who oversaw that change is now the chair of the WSIB.

With the change, the WSIB has overseen a 50% increase in claims denials, with $630 million in benefits cut, vocational retraining slashed from 19 months to nine months, a 30% reduction in permanent impairment awards, and similar reductions on every level.

Image from Diary of a WorkCover Victim (AU)

Patricia described the massive disconnect between disability brought on from workplace injury and the compensation system - how she lost her home, and cashed in all her retirement savings, in order to survive. This may sound familiar to US readers, who know these stories affect millions of Americans who lack basic health insurance. In Canada the bar is a little higher, but it doesn't cover nearly enough. A huge number of injured workers live in poverty. ONIWG's studies show that after injury, 80% of injured workers lost full-time employment, fully half lost their homes, and half were forced to rely on food banks for survival.

The Ontario Network of Injured Workers Groups are workers organizing to creat change. They run a speaker school to train people for public speaking, they hold letter writing campaigns, and they teach about the history and social basis of their work. Among their greatest allies are the United Steelworkers, Ontario Federation of Labour, and OFL President Sid Ryan.

From the ONIWG website:
What we are fighting for!

Reform of the Workers' Compensation Act and Policy and return to the founding principles.

Dignity, Respect and Justice must be the foundation for a renewed Workers' Compensation System. We want a new Workers' Compensation Act, with stated purposes to truly assist and compensate workers injured, made sick and disabled at work.
You can read injured workers' stories here.

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The discussion after this talk was particularly powerful. UK organizer Judith Orr spoke about how the cuts to social benefits have brought an increase physical attacks against people with disabilities, with government rhetoric legitimizing the idea, framing people with disabilities as "draines" on the system and freeloaders. People with disabilities are not considered valuable under a capitalist system, because they don't create profit.

Dr J said that the struggles of people with disabilities is the most damning indictment of capitalism - capitalism at its most raw. People need time off work. They need accessible transit. They need safer workplaces. They need shorter working hours that can still meet their material needs. But capitalism cannot accommodate conditions that do not augment the labour market, that do not create profit. If there's anything most damning about capitalism, it's this inability to deal with any deviation from the profit-making norm.

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