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Disabled People and Working-Class Liberation

Hi Dan,1

Your question is “What would working-class liberation for all people look like if it were led by your people?” I like your (and Harvey’s2) challenge to explore working-class liberation by our constituencies. But I suggest that the frame of your question may be too limiting to get some of us started. I need to just begin to explore the issues.

I have been discharging on class, motivated by my interest in the overlaps and similarities between disability oppression and class oppression. There are some interesting things to explore that I think can help us grasp both class and disability oppression. So far, my thoughts are a list of points:

1. My constituency is working toward working-class liberation in that working is a central focus of our liberation movement. We are actively working toward liberation from class-mobility-limiting oppression by challenging our marginalized status as workers and focusing on gaining employment.

2. For people in all categories, except for extremely financially privileged individuals, becoming disabled is overwhelmingly likely to result in a significant lowering of class status.

3. Being poor contributes to increased rates of illness and disability, so class and disability are linked in terms of downward mobility.

4. Disabled people (including older people with disabilities and illnesses) have the highest rates of unemployment, which does, of course, affect income. Disabled people seeking work have double or more the unemployment rate of non-disabled people.

The pervasive assumption is that disabled people cannot work because of their disabilities. This is absolutely not the case.3 Disabled people who cannot work are not looking for work. Those who are looking generally need no or minimal accommodation—only ramps; simple furniture accommodations; software, already available, enabling visually impaired people to work with computers; flexible scheduling; and so on. Oppression—including employers’ stereotyped assumptions of disabled people being unable to do the job, being “unpresentable,” or “increasing insurance rates”—is the reason for disabled people’s unemployment. And the “cost” of their exclusion is huge, in both economic and human terms. Many studies show that disabled people are excellent workers.

5. Other oppressions intersect with disability oppression in employment. For example, disabled women have much higher rates of unemployment than disabled men, and disabled women of color have even higher rates.

6. The social-benefits system and social worker surveillance intrude into the lives of both poor and disabled people. For both constituencies, being “helped” by the system typically reinforces the oppression, and the internalized oppression, rather than providing real resource and enabling life improvement. For example, individuals must “prove” that they are permanently incapable of working in order to gain disability benefits, even for a short period of time.

7. Disabled and poor people are blamed for their circumstances. However, in the United States there is the concept of the “deserving poor.” Disabled people, along with pregnant women and mothers of young children, are thought to deserve charity and are eligible for free health care, while non-disabled poor and unemployed people are not. (This may change somewhat with the Affordable Care Act.4) Still, pity keeps people confused and disempowered.

8. There is little recognition, even among employment scholars, that capitalist economies depend on certain rates of unemployment for poor people, disabled people, women, and older and younger people. Capitalism needs enough people to be marginalized and poor for the rest of the population to be willing to work for low wages.

9. Constituencies vary with respect to their ability or option to “exit” their group. For example, for young people, exiting their constituency is inherent. Poor people and disabled people have the “possibility” of exiting (consider “upward mobility” and “getting cured”). People who are poor are eager and receive reinforcement from society to exit the identity and circumstances of poverty. People with disabilities have an analogous pressure to “get cured” or “get better” and never return to the disabled identity or experience. At first glance, this seems to make sense. Who would want to stay poor or disabled if they could possibly get out of these constituencies?

10. But wait a minute, poor people and disabled people will sometimes attest that there is something elusive yet supremely humanizing about the connectedness and interdependence inherent in their otherwise undesired statuses. Poor people must depend upon others and live creatively and resourcefully in ways that people of means can’t understand or appreciate. This is also true for people with disabilities. Many people with significant illness or injury have spoken and written about the life-changing, priority-clarifying perspectives they have gained from disability and illness. I love a comment someone made that she might consider taking a magic pill to cure her condition but only if she could retain all she had learned about humanness from being disabled.

I’m not yet ready to explore how the disability community might lead all humans in working-class liberation. I could optimistically speculate that disabled leaders would make sure that everyone is accommodated, and employed to the extent possible. But I don’t want to be naive and offer neo-platitudes. Our community is extremely diverse and has no unified voice or platform for any other liberation focus than “disability liberation.” (See our new draft policy in the January 2014 Present Time!)

I would like to take up your challenge as I gain more clarity and hear from others. I do think the worldwide disability civil and human rights movement is one of the most impressively successful liberation movements in the history of the world. We have accomplished so much in half a century, as we’ve figured out how to get access to media, travel, and each other, and build our movement in connection and pride.

Much love and gratitude,

Marsha Saxton
International Liberation Reference
Person for People with Disabilities
El Cerrito, California, USA
Reprinted from the RC e-mail discussion list for International
Liberation and Commonality Reference Persons


1 Dan Nickerson. See article: pt175_042_dn.
2 Harvey Jackins’
3 “Not the case” means not true.
4 The Affordable Care Act is a set of reforms to the U.S. health-care system, pushed    forward by U.S. President Barack Obama.


Last modified: 2021-06-01 12:29:59+00