July 22, 2021 | 5 minutes read | Tags: Capitalism 101, Oppression and Liberation

Capitalism 101: Disability

In the fifth instalment of our ‘Capitalism 101’ series, we will be discussing Disability. What is the relationship between disability and capitalism?

Capitalism 101: Disability

In the fifth instalment of our ‘Capitalism 101’ series, we will be discussing Disability. What is the relationship between disability and capitalism?

You can read the previous instalment of our Capitalist 101 series, ‘Gender’, here.

In this article, we will introduce a Marxist theory of disability, looking at how and why capitalism creates the concept of disability.

Approximately one in five people in Britain are disabled - this is disproportionately older people, as nearly half of adults that have reached state pension age in England are disabled in some way. Disabled people are much more likely to live in poverty, experience unfair treatment at work, be the victims of crime and lack adequate access to suitable housing or transport options. They are also much less likely to be employed, have completed school or degree-level education or be able to take part in social or cultural activities.

We understand that this oppression, exclusion and discrimination that people with impairments face is not an inevitable consequence, but rather, a reflection of the way that our society is structured. In addition, capitalism hastens the creation of disabled people through an ever-increasing drive to standardise work and increase productivity.

The Medical Model and the Social Model

There are several models of disability in our present society but we are going to talk about two of them to draw out some different ways of thinking about disability.

​​Disability is something to be treated, prevented and contained – or otherwise as a charitable issue that warrants pity and special care.  This model rests on the assumption that something inherent to an individual is the problem.  Whatever their impairment – whether “they can’t walk” or “can’t see” or “need help from a carer” – whatever the impairment, the result is the same. All of the focus goes on trying to “fix” or “cure” the disabled person, whether through special operations, equipment or teaching.  This often leads to the conclusion that disabled people universally need special schools, homes or day centres to cater to their needs, where they can be cared for away from the rest of “non-disabled society”. This has historically been referred to as a segregationist approach.  

We reject this model of disability, and find it extremely damaging.

The other model we would like to talk about is the ‘social model of disability’, which arose in response to the medical model based on criticisms from the disability rights movement. It is perhaps best summarised with a statement from UPIAS in 1975:  

In our view it is society which disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society.

Under the social model, a key distinction is made between “impairment” and “disability”. To take an example above, whilst everyone naturally has different capacities for how far they may walk, some individuals are particularly limited – constituting an impairment to their daily life. A person is thus only disabled if they are prevented from accessing given societal functions as a result of their impairments -  a person who uses a wheelchair is able to access a building with ramps and lifts, but is excluded from any building that has only stairs. It is thus necessary to fix the building, rather than society.

We consider this model important because it starts to identify how society itself disables people – it prompts us to ask what barriers are in place, and what do we have to do to remove them? There are a huge range of these in our daily life. Stairs / steps, narrow corridors and doorways; kerbs; inaccessible or inadequate public toilets; poor lighting; broken lifts; poorly managed streets; a lack of seating in public spaces. Look around you; what barriers are there?

These barriers are not just physical – information and communication barriers may also be disabling:  such as lack of BSL interpreters for Deaf & non-verbal people; lack of provision of hearing induction loops; lack of information in different accessible formats such as Easy Read, plain English and large font. Finally, societal attitudes towards work and impairment can be disabling – particularly by stigmatising requests for adjustments or supports. The most common manifestation is this is in England’s approach to disability benefits, but also through representation in media. For example, the idea that disabled people either can’t work, look after children or have sex; or that, if they can do any one of these things, they are “scroungers” who don’t really deserve support.

These barriers “disable” by creating exclusion, discrimination and disadvantage for people with impairments.

We absolutely support the immediate reduction in the barriers faced by disabled people but, as long as we live under capitalism, the oppression and discrimination that structures the lives of disabled people will never truly go away.

Capitalism and Disability

As we saw in our 101 on Class, Private Property and Wage Labour, under capitalism, workers are forced to sell their labour in exchange for a wage.

As a result of this, capitalists are always seeking to reduce the labour-power they need to purchase (in an ill-fated attempt to increase profit) through increased mechanisation. These machines are designed to be as generalised as possible so that the largest number of people from the working class could operate them, without the expense of specialist training. As imperialism shifts manufacturing to poorer nations we see a rise in service industries which require a large amount of emotional labour, the additional labour of performing a particular emotion while working.

Throughout history, the owners of the means of production have threatened workers with unemployment if they organise to improve their conditions. The owners are able to employ people from what is known as the ‘reserve pool’ of labour; unemployed workers waiting in the wings for a job. Under full employment this cannot happen. Therefore, it is in the capitalist’s interest to always have a reserve pool of labour available with which to threaten workers. Disabled people form part of this reserve pool of labour.

In Britain, we see disabled people vilified by the government’s campaign against benefit fraud. The overwhelming majority of people on disability benefits, such as Personal Independence Payment, are disabled people, rather than ineligible able-bodied people. Despite this, the government and the capitalist media have engaged in a campaign to smear disabled benefit recipients as ‘fraudsters’. This campaign against benefit recipients gives the impression that tax is directly used to pay for benefits and, because all recipients of benefits are supposedly fraudsters, the working taxpayer is being directly conned by disabled people. This serves to direct the anger and action of workers away from the misdeeds of the ruling class, and towards disabled people.

Thus there exists, in Britain, an ever expanding group of disabled people who are excluded from capitalist production and therefore are reliant on other means of survival. In a society where the worker is valued only through the wage, those who cannot earn are considered worthless to capitalist society. There is no easily accessible alternative means of subsidence: the system of disability benefits in Britain is dehumanising and humiliating and exists to reinforce this ideology.

As we explain in our Race 101, capitalism necessitates and is founded upon racial hierarchy. Disability therefore is also structured by this same hierarchy. Black and other colonised people are more likely to become disabled via means such as environmental racism, military occupation and police brutality.

Towards Liberation

Red Fightback is committed to a project of abolishing the conditions that mean that disabled people face oppression through movements led by disabled people, through universal food, shelter and healthcare and through transforming the built environment so that it is not hostile to people with impairments. Our societal norms and conventions define what disability is and so we must always consider what we value in humans. As long as we exist under capitalism our worth will be determined by how productive we can be for the capitalist class.

A socialist society will not liberate people from impairments but, through the possibility for true transformation of the built environment alongside an end to the need to work to live, people will be less and less disabled by society. Only socialism can reduce both the causes (war, climate catastrophe) and the effects of impairments so, while we must continue to fight with our disabled comrades towards immediate reforms, only revolution can truly provide an end to disability.

The next article in our Capitalism 101 series, ‘The State’, will explore communist definitions of the state, what it is, and what we should do with it.

Find the introduction to the series here and all the posts in the series here.