17 January 2016
A Class Analysis of Disability By Kieran McNulty
A Class Analysis of Disability
By Kieran McNulty
In the nineteenth century, Karl Marx wrote:
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted by the past. The traditions of all the dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the brain of the living”. (Marx 1979, p.103).
This aptly describes the experience of exclusion and discrimination for people with disabilities. How society views disability today, is a direct result of how it has constructed a theory of disability over past generations as a consequence of social, political and economic circumstances. In many ways the social model of disability came into existence as a result of opposition to the medical model, which viewed individuals scientifically, in isolation from the rest of society. It can therefore be argued that the medical model led in essence to notions of charity as opposed to rights. However, I would also argue that the social model does not go far enough in challenging the oppression of disabled people. Only by establishing legal and economic rights as opposed to depending on charity can disabled people in our society experience real social change in the quality of their lives. To this end rights for people with disabilities in relation to employment, education and health need to also be addressed.
Finkelstein (2001, p.7) has argued that the ultimate effect of a persistence of the medical model has been to render people with disabilities "socially dead", unable to fully interact and develop relationships with the rest of their community. The individuals concerned became increasingly isolated and alienated from the rest of society. Historically, it was the industrial revolution and the development of a capitalist class based society in Britain, which marked the first attempts by government to pass legislation in regard to disability, beginning with the Poor Law Act 1838. Though people with disabilities were looked upon as the 'deserving poor', they were also viewed as being separate and not equal to the able-bodied society in general. Indeed Oliver (1990, p.xiv) has argued that, it is the underlying logic to the growth of capitalism, which establishes disability as an individual and medical issue. 'Social Darwinism', the application of Darwin's theory of 'the survival of the fittest' in the natural world, to human society, divided people between the fit and unfit and was Nazi Germany's justification for the mass extermination of the mentally and physically disabled.
It was only in the 1960s that a serious attempt was made to obtain rights and equal status for the disabled. The disability movement has its origins in the mass protest movements in the US in the 1960s. (Quinn and Redmond 2003, p.144). African Americans, women and later gay people began demanding equal rights, fusing with the growing antiwar movement which was organised, to a large extent, by returning Vietnam veterans, many of whom had been physically and mentally damaged while serving in the armed forces. It was as a direct consequence of the inspiration provided by this wave of protest that people with disabilities began to organise in the US and beyond. In Britain, although the Disability In common Group was the first attempt to organise disabled people there, it was only in 1976 with the founding of the Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) that the disability movement really began to take off. UPIAS argued for the empowerment of the disabled, the recognition of them as equal citizens with human rights and that fundamentally "Disability is a situation caused by social conditions". (UPIAS, 1976 cited in Finkelstein 2001, p.6).
This demand for rights stands in stark contrast to the charity model. The Concise Oxford Dictionary (1999, p.238) defines charity as "...giving to those in need". Increasingly, what people with disabilities demand, is the empowerment to determine their own needs, as opposed to being passive recipients of charity and to have these needs met by the state and not by charitable organisations, however well meaning. One activist, Jenny Morris, was already part of the British feminist movement when she became disabled due to an accident and as a result became involved in the disability movement. She applied the feminist principles she had learnt, especially the notion that the 'personal is political', to the campaign for disability rights. (Quinn and Redmond 2003, p.146). From her own personal experience as an activist in the disability movement, Morris clearly illustrates the argument for rights as opposed to charity. She was a member of the organisation, the Campaign to Stop Patronage and took part in its protest outside the BBC in London which was broadcasting its ‘Children in Need’ event:
“Two men came up to us thinking we were part of the 'Children in Need ' event. One of them offered me a £5 note, which I refused, giving him a leaflet and explaining that we wanted rights not charity. He stopped short, realised with a shock what I was saying and then said he agreed with me and he had never thought about it quite like that before”. (Morris, 1996 pp. 190-2).
Continuing pressure from the disability movement here in Ireland, for the establishment of legal rights as opposed to charity, has finally seen the passing into law of the Disability Act 2005. It defines disability, establishes rights, draws up sectorial plans for each government department and details how they are to be financed with a definite timetable. While welcoming the plans, the National Disability Authority stresses the need to broaden their scope and provide more detail. (NDA 2005, p.13). Another significant development was the passing of the Mental Health Act 2001, which finally came into operation, with the agreement of all concerned parties, in November 2006. This Act stresses that the best interests of the patient will be the principle concern while due consideration will be given to other people who may be in danger if decisions are not taken. Amongst other things, it establishes Mental Health Tribunals, appointed by a commission, to review decisions made by professionals. Those presenting their cases to the Tribunals are the psychiatrist and the patient, the latter being accompanied, if they wish, by an advocate who can represent them. Internationally, in response to growing pressure from the world disability movement, the UN has been forced to attempt to establish, for the first time, a treaty on human rights for the disabled. (www.un.org/soc, 2006). These laws and treaties are important because they establish legally binding rights for people with disabilities and are a further step towards their acceptance as equal citizens.
In Ireland governments are not instinctively altruistic. They are interested in self preservation and power and are close to those they think can keep them in power, which in the past was the Catholic Church but more recently, with Ireland becoming an increasingly secular state, has been the nation’s growing wealthy elite. (Allen 1997, p.46). History has shown that it is only when this relationship is challenged that reforms are introduced. If this challenge is strong enough it may result in a totally revolutionary transformation in society through the force of people power leading to direct democracy, in other words, socialism. In the words of James Connolly (1987, p.269), what should be argued for is no less than“…the enthronement of the Irish nation as the supreme owner and ruler of itself, and all things necessary to its people – supreme against the foreigner and the native usurping ownership, and the power dangerous to freedom that goes with ownership.”
The present government claims that it believes in the social model of disability but this is on a par with Margaret Thatcher claiming that the NHS was “safe in our hands” (Massan, 1983) while at the same time also declaring:
“…Who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations...” (Key, 1987).
This is the individualist position of neo-liberalism that Naomi Klien (2007 pp.49-56) so graphically describes in her book ‘The Shock Doctrine’ and led to the IMF and ECB determining the economic strategy of the Irish State. She shows how, following social disasters the “shock therapy” philosophy of Milton Friedman and the “Chicago School” has led to the neo-liberal economics of today. (Klein 2007, pp.49-56). A more violent version of this philosophy was carried out in Chile in 1973 by the military under General Pinochet when a democratically elected social democratic government was over thrown in a coup and a vicious right wing dictatorship took power unleashing wholesale privatisation. (Klien, pp.7 –10). Although the situation was somewhat different, the contradictions were just as stark when in an attempt to ensure the survival of state capitalism in Poland in 1981, General Jaruzelski, while still publicly proclaimed his belief in the self emancipation of the working class, was at the same time sending his tanks in to smash the free trade union, Solidarnosc. (Klien, pp171-82, Cliff 1988, pp. 167-77)
Debate over Campaigning Strategy for the Disability Movement
Although in the world today, there is a growing acceptance of establishing rights for people with disabilities in law, notions of charity in regard to the disabled still exist as is shown by the growth of organisations, including, the Irish Wheelchair Association. While no doubt these groups do good work they are, nevertheless, perpetuating the charity model of disability. Other organisations, for example, People with Disabilities Ireland receive statutory funding operating in the framework of the social model. The problem with most of these latter groups is that they only go so far with their campaigning for fear of jeopardising their funding and often end up being co-opted by the state.
This lack of radicalism was bucked in recent years by the campaign of community organisations, including the Kerry Network of People with Disabilities, who are attempting to protect their funding and autonomy against a background of recession and astronomical banking bailouts. Since August 2009, the Kerry Network, along with the support locally of others from the community sector, the Kerry Public Sector Workers Alliance, Free Education for Everyone and People before Profit organised two demonstrations and a public meeting in Tralee to fight the government’s proposed cuts to community development projects. There have also been several protests in opposition to the cuts in Special Needs Assistants and Home Helps. At the beginning of September 2012, the current government’s then Minister for Health, James Riley, announced that E130 would be cut from the current health budget including E10 from personal assistants (PA’s) and to transfer the additional E35ml promised to community mental health services to offset the deficit in the HSE. (Sheridan, 2012). This was met by two demonstrations in the same week outside government buildings, one by those opposed to cuts to PA’s, many in wheel chairs and the other by those demanding that the Government continue to stand by its commitment to mental health funding. Much like the previous government’s embarrassing u-turn when it threatened to withdraw Medical Cards from the elderly a few years ago, the present government was also shamed into reversing its proposed cuts. This spirit of resistance is mirrored throughout Ireland and internationally in growing numbers of people in the disability movement, who while recognising that gains have been made, feel the leadership of the movement has lost touch with the radical spirit of people power which first brought it into existence in the 1960s and 1970s. They argue for a return to the campaigning style street politics of Jenny Morris's organisation, the Campaign to Stop Patronage, complemented by lobbying and strong links with radical trade union members as the way forward for the disability movement.
In examining the relationship between the Irish and the English working classes in the nineteenth century Frederick Engels observed:
“There can no doubt that henceforth the mass of the Irish people will unite ever more closely with the English Chartists and will act with them according to a common plan”. (Marx Engels 1978, p.59)
This notion that the oppressed have more in common than divides them should also be applied to the disability movement and the labour movement in joining together in a united
struggle. Only out of this milieu will there arise a mass united front capable of bringing about a revolutionary transformation of society. This will be necessary if, as I have argued, we are not alone to realise a fully functioning social model of disability but in fact to go beyond the limitations of this model and guarantee not only equality in terms of civil and human rights but economic rights as well. This is already happening in Ireland with the growth of the radical left in Ireland and particularly the emergence of new political forces including People Before Profit/Anti Austerity Alliance the Right to Change Campaign.
Concise Oxford Dictionary (1999) OUP, England.
Dept. of Health (2006) A Vision for Change, Dublin.
Drive Time (20 Nov. 2006) RTE Radio 1, Dublin.
Finkelstein, V. (2001) Personal Journey into Disability Politics, Leeds University Centre for Disability Studies, England.
Irish Times (25 Nov. 2006), Dublin.
Marx, K. (1979) 'The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte' in Marx, K. and Engles, F. Collected Works, vol ii, International Publishers, New York.
National Disability Authority (2005) Response to Outline Sectorial Plans of Government Departments under the National Disability Act 2005 NDA, Dublin.
Meaney, M. (2006) Disability Act, 2005 Becomes Law in Comhacht, PwDI Autumn 2006, Dublin.
Morris, J. (1996) Fighting Against Prejudice: A Personal Politics of Disability 3rd. ed., McNamara, London.
National Disability Authority, www.nda.ie/cntmgmtnew.nsf visited on 22 Jan. 2007..
Oliver, M. (1990) The Politics of Disablement, Macmillen Press, London
Quinn, S. and Redmond, B. (2003) Disability and Social Policy in Ireland 2nd. ed., UCD Press, Ireland.
The Mental Health Act 2001 (Summary) in Disability Federation Ireland Oct./Nov. 2006, Dublin.