With phrases like “protect the vulnerable” & “underlying conditions” currently all around us, disability activist Ruth Flood looks at the horrendous treatment of disabled people under capitalism.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been an absolute disaster for disabled people. From the cutting of services and the lack of particular supports and accommodations that would benefit people with disabilities, to the cynical use of “ill mental health” to argue to re-open the economy, the disabled community has been disproportionally impacted by both the virus itself and the government’s response to it.
Throughout the pandemic there has been a contradiction in how disabled people have been discussed and treated. People with “underlying conditions” and “the vulnerable” have been invoked both as an argument to enforce restrictions and as an argument against them.
Politicians preached to the public to protect the very same vulnerable groups they have for years neglected. Their words saying one thing, their actions another, as the virus ripped through private care homes, and disability and carers groups pleaded to be remembered, as health services, screenings and day services were put on hold even as businesses began to reopen.
The far-right have played on this mixed messaging and neglect of mental illness in order to reject government restrictions, whilst promoting ablest rhetoric and co-opting accommodations made for people with disabilities, adding to the stigma particularly for those with “invisible “ conditions.
The most overt rhetoric of ableism from the far right is becoming ever more indistinguishable from the language coming from neoliberal governments and establishment media. Mental health is being used to keep the economy open at a great cost to those with physical health conditions. Thereby pitting disabled people with different or conflicting needs against each other, using them a prop when it serves the interests of the ruling class, whilst neglecting all their needs.
For a community, whose slogan is “nothing about us without us”, the disabled community is stuck in the middle of conflicting and opposing interests. We are much spoken of, little listened to, never prioritised.
Yet this not particular to the current Covid crisis. The conflict between public health needs and political interests reflects the ongoing class struggle between the interests of the few and needs of the many. What we are seeing now is a heightened expression of how people with disabilities and health issues are generally treated within capitalist society.
Within this framework, people with disabilities and chronic illnesses are not merely devalued as individuals and exploited as workers, they are also used cynically to promote capitalist interests at expense of the vulnerable. In this sense the “underlying condition” which is the real threat to people’s health, is not one particular health issue or another, but rather capitalism itself.
Disability Issues are Class Issues
“Disability issues” are generally class issues: lack of access to essential services, health care, housing, transport, medication, research, waiting times, education, etc.
Class status determines your likeliness to have health issues or disabilities, it impacts your ability to access services and education, and it even impacts how long you will live. Disabled people are on average more likely to have lower incomes and higher expenses “due their disability”, but it is truer to say it is due to society putting profit before people.
The commodification and privatization of the necessities of life, such as housing, food, transport, and care, disproportionately impacts people with disabilities.
Additionally, it is particularly dangerous to have the means of production of the medical and pharmaceutical industry in the hands of profiteers. Pharmaceutical companies have a long history of price gouging medicines for lifesaving and long-term medication. Whilst especially true in poorer countries in the global south, even in the richest countries people with manageable conditions such as diabetes die due to the profit motives of the healthcare industry.
Healthcare and pharmaceutical developments are decided on profit margins, so there is often little investment in conditions that impact poorer people, or those that are quite rare. The cost of private health care, mobility aids, medical devices, adaptations to cars and housing are often so high that they are exclusionary. Disabled people are only allowed choice in how much they can improve their health and quality of life as far as their bank balance allows.
On top of the individual cost, disability and illness communities are continually forced to crowdsource amongst themselves to fund the research and services that are neglected. This puts people with disabilities continually at an economic disadvantage and impedes their ability to fully engage with society and maintain their health.
Lip service may be paid to the disabled by the government, but as soon as solutions cost them money, the sentiment quickly disappears. A stark example of this currently is the ASTI teachers, and other education workers, considering industrial action for better workplace safety protections from Covid. The government spent months saying that as a society we need to protect the “vulnerable and those with underlying conditions”, yet school based employees and their family members with underlying conditions are suddenly no longer vulnerable, but overpaid and lazy.
Capitalist interest does not just harm and exclude people with disabilities, they can also be the source of the disability. Dangerous working conditions, poor living conditions, a physically, mentally, and emotionally stressful environment, lack of access to preventative or early intervention healthcare, or being forced to work during a pandemic all can create or worsen conditions.
Moreover, people with disabilities are often not thought of as workers themselves, so unions and working-class organisations often neglect to equate workers’ rights generally with the interests of those with disabilities.
Flexibility and Accessibility to Suit the Boss
The response by business to the pandemic showed that resources that the disabled community had sought for years can be implemented overnight. Businesses facilitated remote work, online/phone meetings, provision of laptops, home schooling, and more. Clearly accessibility is matter of choice, not practicality.
This caused resentment amongst those in the disabled community for whom the lack of such accommodations has long excluded them from society and waged employment.
The capitalist class does not care if any individual member of the workforce is able bodied or disabled. As we can see in the meat packing plants, call centres and schools, they are quite happy to see their workface exposed to the virus, unsafe work conditions, and thus potential illness and disability, for short-term gain of profits.
The decisions to implement workplace accommodations were not made to protect workers or prioritise the able bodied, but rather to allow business to continue to profit in a time of societal restrictions.
Real accessibility requires people to be actively inclusive with disabled people in mind. So whilst some people with disabilities benefited from these accommodations, many of the other ways society has responded to Covid has neglected to factor in people with other disabilities, such as those with mobility issues, those who require lip reading, who experience the world through touch, and people who require ongoing services for their physical and mental health.
The capitalist class will never make accommodations of their own volition unless it is profitable. This is a major reason why disabled people themselves have always had to advocate for accessibility and inclusion in society.
Capitalism is Inherently Ableist
Under capitalism ableism cannot be undone; the system is inherently ableist and continually reinforces ableist attitudes.
The concept of “just the disabled and elderly dying” of Covid, tells it all. The word “just” belies the more sinister idea behind it – that disabled people and the elderly are disposable. Just as Boris Johnson proposed “herd immunity” at the beginning of the pandemic, and critics, quite rightly, lambasted this amounting to culling the elderly and those with underlying conditions, it has become increasingly acceptable to propose they be sacrificed for the economy, or they can lock themselves away whilst everyone else got on with their lives.
This rhetoric is only logical if you already feel on some level that disabled people’s lives are worth less, or that they are not people who work, socialise, and engage in normal day-to-day activities.
The ideology underpinning this rhetoric suggests that people with disabilities, and frankly the elderly, are leeches on society, increasing the burden of social welfare and pensions and care.
Critically, a key aspect of this narrative is that only workers in paid employment contribute to society. This reduces a human being’s value to their ability to sell their labour as workers. It is so pervasive that we even use the word “work” interchangeably with waged labour.
Despite the fact it takes a lot of “work” to do many things, battle mental or physical illness, raise and care for a family, or even enjoy a hobby, it is of no value within the capitalist system unless it is making a profit for someone. Volunteering and charity work are often lauded particularly because it often functions to let the neoliberal state off the hook for gaps in services it should be providing.
The centrality of waged labour as both an economic necessity and an indicator of self-worth is harmful to all sectors in society, but it is particularly damaging when it comes to the disabled. By its nature, capitalism is a hierarchal and competitive system; and those in power blame individuals if they are not “successful” – if you are poor, you are not saving properly; if you are chronically ill, you are not doing enough yoga or eating right.
We cannot live in a system with this worldview and expect it not to impact on how we view people who cannot engage in employment or require accommodations to do so. Nor can we expect disabled people not to internalize the message that their lives are “unproductive”, that they are burden, or their struggles are a result of lack of work or willpower.
Social Welfare Divides Us All
To distract and redirect public ire from itself, the government frequently attacks social welfare programmes and the public sector. The government constantly frames welfare and benefits as shameful and undercuts its legitimacy by claiming that it is ridden with fraud. Workers’ dissatisfaction with their own poor pay and conditions can lead them to be easily manipulated into resenting those they perceive as getting something for nothing.
On the surface, these attacks are mainly aimed at those receiving unemployment benefit, since capitalist ideology has made unemployment inherently suspect, as poverty is framed as a matter of personal responsibility. Although the majority of social welfare goes to groups like the disabled, the elderly, and carers, governments north and south use the unemployed to dismantle the whole social welfare system.
Destroying social welfare has become an acceptable form of social cleansing. A report in 2019 showed that over 17,000 disabled and sick people died in the UK waiting for their Personal Independence Payment as part of the horrendous Tory Welfare Reform system, which was agreed to by the DUP, SF and Alliance in the North. This triggered a UN investigation into human rights abuses.
North and south, the government uses privatised for-profit companies like Maximus, Atos, and Capita to determine welfare payments. The cruel treatment and patronising assessments force people into work even when it puts their health at risk.
The debacle on the Covid payments reveals just how little the government thinks of those with disabilities. The Irish government had to increase the Pandemic Unemployment Payment to €350 a week because workers were rightfully up in arms that they could not live on less, yet long-term disability payments are significantly lower than that.
People with disabilities are treated as if they should be grateful for receiving any benefit at all. And the low rate of benefit forces disabled people off welfare and into work, even if it is not good for their health. Often those with intellectual disabilities are pushed into “busy work” for low pay through business and jobs schemes that are lauded for “inclusivity”, whilst in reality they are exploiting workers because of society’s devaluing of those with disability.
Fighting for an expansion of social welfare is not taken up enough by unions and the working class in general, with groups like the disabled and ill paying a heavy price. The biggest welfare recipients are corporations and the rich, as large multinationals receive massive tax breaks and incentives by neoliberals like Leo Varadkar, and the Northern Executive. Meanwhile, these same politicians vilify people for needing social welfare, whilst crying poverty for vital public services. It is clear whose class interest the system serves and how it effectively divides people with common interests.
How the Systemic Becomes the Personal
Disabled people frequently say it is not their physical condition, but the societal barriers that creates disability. Neoliberal ideology on the other hand, presents systemic problems as individual ones. The issue is not that that someone needs a mobility device; it is that the infrastructure is built without them in mind.
Often in mainstream media, disabled people are patronized and fetishized for doing ordinary activities, reducing disabled people to feel good stories, to inspire and shame the able bodied – a practice coined “Inspiration porn” by disability activist Stella Young. To those able-bodied workers suffering from the alienation and poverty caused by structural inequality, the disabled function as motivators to encourage further productivity and delegitimise their own displeasure with the way society is organised. Additionally, within this narrative people are reduced to their disability and not recognised as having abilities and innate value.
The function of this individualism is that it detaches disabled people from the societal and institutional barriers that exist, thus removing any responsibility or accountability on the state and instead focused on “inspiring individuals” or present sad stories of individuals falling through the cracks.
Therefore, capitalism can incorporate identity politics that tend to focus on representation, which is easily performed, and commodified, but not material conditions or systemic change. Disability must be understood in the context of the society we live in. Individual disabled people may have different needs, but they are all quite material needs, that are not met because of a system that is built to keep them out. Representational politics by itself is limited and easily appropriated. Whereas the more society accommodates and includes people with disabilities, the less you feel “disabled”.
Socialism seeks to expand the democratic voice of the disabled. It epitomises the concept of “nothing about us without us” to dismantle a system that puts the profit of a minority over the wellbeing and inclusion of millions. If capitalism is society’s underlying condition, then the cure is in identifying and rejecting its divisive ableist narratives for one of solidarity and common interest. As Marx once famously declared “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”