Socialist Worker

What makes disability?

Roddy Slorach examines the history of the relationship between capitalism, work and disability

Issue No. 2347

Tory minister Iain Duncan Smith takes pride in claiming his reforms to disabled people’s benefits will improve their lives, rather than wreck them.

He says supporting people into work, not “parking” them for life on state support, is the real way for the government to help people.

Smith even uses the language of liberation to suggest that categorising people as “disabled” is disempowering, and that instead society should concentrate on what people are able to do, not what they cannot.

But behind such talk is the Tories’ constant narrative of “strivers versus skivers”—once known as the deserving and undeserving poor. The implication is that most of those who receive benefits are defrauding the hard-working taxpayer.

Smith dreams of disabled people forced to compete for low paid work with ranks of other unemployed people.

Social security bills will tumble as employers take advantage of the cheap labour offered by sick and disabled workers.

The attacks on disability benefits are part of the Tory attempt to dismantle parts of the welfare state and force individuals and families to absorb the costs that were once shared by the state.

The resulting climate of suspicion and hatred for those on benefits means many disabled people report facing more abuse, harassment and violence.

A recent report found that disability hate crimes are both overlooked by police and under-reported by victims. 

Almost 2,000 such crimes were recorded in England and Wales in 2011, an increase of 25 percent on the previous year.

So much for Iain Duncan Smith’s talk of “liberation”.

Putting people in a “disabled” category has its origins in the rise of a society based on wage labour and production for profit. 

During the industrial revolution people were forced off the land and into new factory towns. 

Small scale farming and cottage industries, as well as extended family networks, were largely destroyed.

Where people’s work on the land had for thousands of years been determined by daylight and the seasons, it was now dictated by production schedules.

Large family groups had once worked collectively, now individuals were separately valued according to their ability to fit the needs of machines.

The old method of production could find a role for the old, the sick and those with physical impairments—at least when the harvest was good. But those days were gone.

Now, only those who could operate machines for 18 hours a day were able to support themselves. 

Few of those who were unable to work in this way had enough family with enough means to help them.

Life in the factories damaged workers physically and mentally, while slum towns concentrated people into overcrowded and squalid living conditions—in turn creating new diseases and forms of pollution.  

Work became increasingly more regimented and repetitive, with each activity measured in cumulatively finer detail.

Capitalism reduced workers to hands and brains, priced according to their ability to make profits for the bosses. 

Those who didn’t fit in were marginalised and seen as disposable—hidden away in asylums or institutions for a lifetime of neglect. 

As impairment became increasingly stigmatised, so disabled people were increasingly seen as a separate “other”, a problem treated as alien and threatening. 

These dramatic changes encouraged the notion that disabled people are less productive and able.

The same notions hold true in today’s capitalist society. Without some help to compensate for particular impairments or lack of function, many disabled people are likely to be less economically productive as individuals. 

Modern capitalism is very different from that of the industrial revolution. 

Today’s workforce is as likely to be affected by repetitive strain injury or mental health problems as by other workplace injuries. 

But the system’s central dynamic, the relentless drive to profit, still leads to injury and impairment, pollution and war across the globe.

Cutting labour costs is one of the favourite ways for capitalists to maximise profits. Employing disabled workers might mean cheaper wages, but it may also mean the need for work station or building adaptations, extra training or liability insurance. 

In recessions, disabled people are especially likely to be unemployed because the bosses are less like to invest in labour that costs more to harness. 

At the same time the state wants to shed as much responsibility as possible for maintaining those who are unable to work.

That is why the issue of cost is at the heart of almost every debate about disability.

The welfare state was the result of the combination of two pressures.

On the one hand there was a drive for reform by the working class and its political representatives. But at the same time some spending on health, education, benefits and social services was welcomed by the ruling class.

At various points capital is prepared to see resources diverted into these areas because it will benefit employers in the long term. 

They may resent paying for it, but in times of prosperity they crave the stability that a welfare state offers. 

The crowning glory of this welfare state was a National Health Service, promising free and universal health care. 

Medical and scientific advances led to more severely disabled people living longer and doing things for themselves they previously couldn’t. 

This, combined with the provision of social housing and new appliances, made it possible for large numbers of disabled people to live more independently. Some were able to find work that fitted their abilities and play a full part in society.

The radical political movements of the late 1960s created a climate in which people expected to fight for their rights.

New disability activists began to criticise the labels imposed on them, such as “spastics” or “the handicapped”, and to raise the question of what disability really means.

They made a vital distinction. Impairment refers to an absence or limitation in function of a person’s limbs, senses or mind. 

But, they argued, it isn’t having legs or eyes which don’t work which makes people disabled. Disability is about discrimination—the marginalisation or exclusion of people with impairments from mainstream society. 

This social model of disability sees disability as a social phenomenon, rather than something arising directly from each individual’s impairment. 

Thanks to decades of campaigning, the social model won widespread acceptance across society. But by then, the long boom had turned to bust.

The recession that began in the mid-1970s led to the first major attacks on the welfare state. The attacks, from both Labour and Tory governments, have come thick and fast since then.

The Tories clamour for ever-deeper cuts has sharply politicised the question of disability in recent months.

The government’s offensive against the welfare state is so general that campaigners to defend disability benefits, find themselves working within a wider movement against cuts.

These campaigns include Disabled People Against Cuts and Black Triangle.

And firms such as Atos, which conduct the government’s Work Capability Assessments, have become hate figures for the wider anti-cuts movements.

Fighting against the current attacks is crucial but to truly transform the lives of disabled people we will need to go much further than that.

A genuinely socialist society would massively expand the welfare state, fully realising the NHS slogan of universal and free healthcare from cradle to grave.

Users and providers alike will plan the nature and delivery of services. 

The worlds of work and education will be transformed and integrated in a way that nourishes creativity and individuality, instead of crushing it or forcing it into boxes.

There will be investment in assistive technologies. 

Science, medicine and social care will be socialised and restructured and based on the principle of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”.

Only such a society can significantly reduce both the causes and effects of impairment as well as ensuring that human beings—with all their physical and mental diversity—are no longer disabled.

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Fri 5 Apr 2013, 16:02 BST
Issue No. 2347
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