Draft Policy on Disability Liberation

A note on Language
Describing this constituency is complicated and can be confusing. We are very diverse, with different histories and there is not universal agreement on the language and words used to describe us, our oppression and our liberation. In the US and some other countries the preferred term is “people with disabilities” whereas in the UK and some other countries the preferred term is “disabled people”, although both terms are used everywhere. Some dislike even these terms and may use other phrases such as “special needs” or “differently abled.” In this draft, we will use disabled people and people with disabilities interchangeably. 
However, it is important to understand a key distinction between what we call “impairment”, which is the actual physical or medical condition that a person may have, and “disability" which is the experience arising from the interaction between a person with an impairment and inaccessible environments and oppressive attitudes. In this way, “disabled” is generally used to focus on oppression, not a medical condition. This is called the Social Model of Disability and is considered further below.
There are several ways of describing allies. Some use the term “able-bodied” but this focuses on impairments. Here, we use the term “non-disabled” or allies.
As discussed below, in many countries laws require that “reasonable accommodations” or “adjustments” are made to facilitate inclusion. These may be about physical access like ramps and wide doors, provision of equipment like listening devices, provision of personal assistants or changing processes. Here, we use adjustments and accommodations interchangeably.
Finally, there is no one way of describing disability oppression but increasingly, some disabled people are choosing the word: ableism. Here, we will use disability oppression and ableism interchangeably.
Who are people with disabilities?
Disabled people may have obvious or non-obvious impairments that may affect their ability to live their life in the same way as people without impairments. An obvious impairment may be a spinal-cord injury, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, blindness, deafness, and so on. A non-obvious impairment could be a learning difficulty, neurodiversity, chronic illness, cancer, asthma, etc. Some impairments fluctuate in their effect on a person, some progress (get worse) whilst other can lessen or disappear. Other impairments are fixed or permanent. Some people are born with an impairment and others acquire them later in life. In all cases, our bodies are inherently good and impairment is the excuse for disability oppression, not the reason for it.
We people with disabilities are of every other constituency - every ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual identity, culture, and class background, although some external events - such as war, famine, climate change, etc - may result in a concentration of disabled people. 
Disability oppression often considers us as “wrong” or less than fully human and we are mistreated and excluded in many ways. In part because of this, we are problem-solvers, can model human connectedness and use all of our experience, thoughtfulness, creativity, and resilience to build good lives and diverse ways of living. We may use technology, equipment, and personal care assistants to help us so that we can participate in education, at work, in our communities and social settings, or we may require changes in the way that things are done in order that we can fully participate – adjustments or accommodations. Sometimes we can live mostly outside of the oppression and fully value ourselves and each other. The experience of ableism and advocating for our human rights unite us as a worldwide constituency. 
As a result of the diversity of experience, the nature of the oppression and the hurts and distresses that get laid in can be different. For example, for those who become disabled we may need to face the loss of what we had considered a “normal” life (in any event, we get to change the definition of a “normal” life). If we look at our impairment-related challenges from outside of ableism, they simply require us to develop the tools and relationships we need to live as big and wonderful a life as we can.
Disability Oppression
Capitalism is threatened and undermined by unity. Accordingly, it promotes the idea of independence as essential, that we must rely only on ourselves and only be concerned that we and our own families are cared for and protected, with less or no regard for others. It teaches us to feel incompetent if we ask others for help and discourages building teams of comrades or allies around ourselves and each other. For a long time disability has been considered to be a tragic and unfortunate condition and that a “normal” or “correct” (ie non-disabled) person should function independently and not need help. Actually, all humans are interdependent on each other for our existence and flourishing. Our need for each other is very human. Ableism damages everyone.
Disabled people have been told to be embarrassed and to hide their impairments. Some have been rejected. Stereotypes about people with disabilities include that we are a burden, lazy, lying, ugly, dependent, asexual, evil, saintly, inspirational, courageous and/or lacking in intelligence. Meanwhile, capitalist-driven youth and beauty cultures convey misinformation and confusion about people with disabilities and our attractiveness and acceptability.
Some of us were denied education or were bullied because no one thought we were smart enough or deserving to learn or understand anything. Sometimes we were left isolated and lonely while our non-disabled peers did interesting things. Some of us, particularly those with the most severe impairments, were often not considered for job opportunities. Being unable to prove ourselves profitable (as defined by the dominant, capitalistic society), we were consigned to poorly run institutions and nursing homes, out of sight. In some cases, disabled people were killed. Disability oppression includes low expectations that we people with disabilities will function competently and contribute to and participate in society. For some, it assumes that we are just making it all up! It creates self-doubt and lessens the value that we have in ourselves. Non-disabled people may avoid us, patronize us for any small accomplishment, or want to take care of us. Equally they may refuse to make adjustments. Regardless of our age, we are sometimes treated as if we are children.
Ableism intersects in many ways with other identities. Through the rise of the pseudo-science of eugenics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, several groups were considered less than fully human and sometimes targeted for destruction, including racialised and disabled people. Disability oppression intersects with men’s oppression, sexism and LGBTQ+ oppression - especially in ways that societies consider what it is to be “correct” men and women. It intersects with young people’s and adults oppression and with ageism (with which it shares some particularities).
Wide-world disability liberation activists have developed an understanding of this oppression called the Social Model. This identifies the “problem” not so much in an individual’s body and its impairments but rather in the environment, barriers and attitudes that exclude and prevent inclusion and in failing to make accommodations.  
The Coming of Our Rights
In the recent past, particularly in capitalist societies, there were two predominant “models” of disability: the charity model which views disabled people as deserving of pity and donated resources, and the medical model which sees disabled people as patients to be cured or fixed. Often, these were combined. 
After the second world war, partly driven by returning disabled veterans, people with disabilities began to demand rights and equal access. This included demands for equal education, housing, transportation, work and participation and inclusion across society. Learning from other movements, a civil rights campaign was born that advocated for people with disabilities as the drivers of, instead of the passengers in, their own lives. Critically, disabled people highlighted oppression, rather than their medical conditions, and hence gave birth to the Social Model.
The movement attracted widespread support and eventually new legislation in several countries guaranteeing rights - not charity – which broke down barriers that had kept us apart from other people. Eventually, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD) was agreed in 2005, embedding a rights-based approach to disability. These rights give disabled people entitlements to inclusion, to adjustments and to not be discriminated against in education, employment, access to goods, services and facilities and in public life. Many countries now incorporate the principles of the convention into their own laws. As a result, there have been many improvements and disabled people increasingly have bigger lives and play bigger roles in society. However, oppression remains vicious and damaging.
Can an impairment be discharged?
As with any oppression and identity, counselling can be used to discharge both oppressor material and internalised oppression. However, expecting a disabled person to be able to discharge an impairment is a core part of ableism. Nevertheless, we have seen that with discharge the symptoms and adverse effects of some impairments, particularly health conditions, can decrease or even disappear. For example, a person with cerebral palsy who exhibits unsteadiness in speech and coordination may be able to reduce these symptoms, which in part (although certainly not exclusively) may be a result of fears and invalidation. In this case, the actual impairment will not disappear but discharging the oppressive messages may assist the persons functioning. Other impairments remain unaffected by a person’s re-emergence from distress (although the person’s life will of course still benefit). Which conditions can be discharged is speculative, we know about some conditions but not others and we may not yet have enough information to make comprehensive assumptions. But any discharge will be helpful.
Accessibility in RC
In RC, accessibility means enabling persons with disabilities to participate in sessions, classes, and workshops. This can be through accommodations such as ensuring physical access, provision of assistive devices such as Assisted Listening Devices (which are available for rent from RCCR) and flexibility with timing. Since the pandemic, when in-person events ceased, it has been easier to ensure that everyone can be included, although there may still need to be adjustments and accommodations, for example regarding the amount of screen-time and frequency of breaks. 
Disabled people should always be consulted on any specific access needs. We are the experts on our own individual needs and deciding on what we need without us is part of disability oppression. Some areas and regions have produced useful resources to help organisers think in advance about inclusive arrangements. In places where access is poor but not impossible, the person with a disability can be asked if they are willing to accept less than ideal makeshift arrangements with allies around. As considered below, as with any oppression, disabled people may internalize it and may be unclear or have confusing feelings about the extent of its impact and on their needs.
The Role of an Ally in Disability Liberation
As for everyone, allies are very important in both ending oppression and in counselling people with disabilities to discharge internalised oppression that we can carry. And as with all constituencies, the most important thing is to first build close, equal relationships with disabled people and so see them first and foremost as fully human, certainly before offering directions. Because ableism can directly affect all of us, part of the work of allies is to discharge any fears of becoming disabled and to discharge and reflect on their own experiences with and assumptions about disability. In addition, knowledge of the detail of disability oppression is necessary for effective counselling of disabled people. 
Through oppression, disabled people have been infantilised and patronised. Accordingly, validations and appreciations, whilst of course important, should be thought about carefully. Phrases like “I don’t think of you as disabled,” “You have overcome your disability so well,” or “You are so inspirational” send the message that the person with a disability is not okay unless or until they appear different or better.
Sometimes, allies can offer too much assistance and make assumptions about the needs of a person, especially one with a noticeable impairment. It can be useful to gently hold out expectations that a disabled person may be able to exceed the limits that they have grown accustomed to accepting, but without requiring them to “be normal”. In other cases allies can offer too little assistance and assume the person does not need help, especially if they don't have a noticeable impairment. Discharge is a critical component and can lead to fresh thinking about abilities and expectations. RC allies can counsel and support people with disabilities to discharge whatever is in their way of being able to handle to the best of their abilities every aspect of their life - from health care, to choosing appropriate accommodations, to securing satisfying employment, to having a big social network and deep relationships and of course becoming a strong and visible presence in the RC Community.
Finally, because there are such a variety of impairments and life experiences for disabled people, we disabled people can be allies for each other. We need to know and love each other beyond the stereotypes that keep people with different impairments apart and that create hierarchies in which one impairment is considered less “bad” than another.

A Draft Liberation Program for People with Disabilities

  • Tell the story of your disability.
  • Work on internalized oppression.
  • Work on your need for assistance and take pride in being exactly right.
  • Consider moving beyond the limits that you and others have assumed.
  • Reach for close relationships with other disabled people, across all impairments.
  • Build close relationships with allies and hold out high expectations for them. Teach them how to counsel us.
  • Discharge on fully facing your own impairment, those of others and, if appropriate, on recovery.

A Draft Program for Allies

  • Disability liberation is key for your reemergence!
  • Discharge feelings about your body and health issues.
  • Discharge on feelings and fears of becoming disabled. 
  • Work on early memories of need and help.
  • Discharge on ableism, what you were told about disabled people and the assumptions you may have about people with disabilities, including any fear, disgust or feelings that disabled people are less than fully human.
  • Challenge any caretaking patterns and any pull to help without asking what is needed.
  • Take risks and try things as you get to know and support a person with a disability.
  • Do not assume that you understand the lives and needs of people with disabilities - ask!
  • Discharge on how society’s model of perfection and how close or far you feel you are to it.
  • Discharge on anything which may get in the way of having close relationships with disabled people.

David Ruebain
London, England

International Liberation Reference
for People with Disabilities


This draft policy build on an earlier version written by Laurie Summers with Marsha Saxton. Several RCers contributed to the thinking. People with comments or suggestions are welcome to e-mail me at davidruebain@hotmail.com

Last modified: 2023-12-29 19:06:29+00