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Why Every Socialist Needs to Understand Ableism

Every time I hear a socialist commentator talk about “Working people” or “the Working classes”, I get a jolt of exclusion. I wonder about all the disabled people who never get an opportunity to work, who never imagine that they can work, or who have to contort themselves in order to work. What, then, does it mean if a whole sector of society – disabled people – are excluded from class analysis?

I have long wondered (and worried!) about where in the class system I and my immediate family reside. I grew up in a middle class area, with middle class educational aspirations and middle class guilt. But I didn’t grow up with money. I internally attributed this to the “artsy” nature of my parents’ work, which in itself straddled traditional class identifiers. For example, my dad played French horn in an orchestra, but he was shop steward for his union. My mum taught music in an affluent private school, but her part-time contract left her with a very paltry pension.

So, culturally, I grew up broadly middle class. But my adult life has been spent living on social welfare and in social housing. My mum and brother also live in social housing, and my dad is living in a house he inherited (along with debts and mortgages) from his mother.

And my reliance on social welfare is down to disability. In Ireland, as in most post-industrial nations, legal definitions of disability are inextricably linked with ideas of productiveness. Most supports for disabled people are provided on the basis that being disabled is identical to being unable to work. Indeed, a recent case at the Workplace Relations Commission featured the arbitrator saying to the disabled plaintiff seeking workplace accomodations; “Either you are fit for work or you are unfit for work”.

These binaries reflect precisely nothing about the experiences of disabled people. Yet, time and again, supports and schemes aimed at getting disabled people into the workplace are based on Victorian capitalist ideas of citizens as productive cogs in the workforce production line. As an example, one scheme introduced by the Irish government a little over ten years ago (based on my memory, not on documents!), was structured around compensating employers for the burden of employing disabled people. One element of this compensation was based on the idea that a disabled employee would be between 50% and 80% as productive as a non-disabled colleague. In other words, the scheme could not imagine, and did not strive for, the existence of a disabled person being just as “productive”, or (dare we say it) more productive than a non-disabled colleague.

Here’s the thing about work that is recognised, measured and rewarded. It is entirely performative. Disabled people work bloody hard every day. That’s because it takes work to negotiate an environment that puts pointless barriers in your way. It takes work to withstand the barrage of ableist assumptions you meet in every interaction with non-disabled people (and a fair proportion of disabled people). It takes work not to burst into tears when you’ve had to adjust your route home for the fifth time because some idiot has parked on the pavement or blocked your bus stop.

It takes oodles of work to navigate a social welfare system that presumes you to be a liar and a fraud, just to get some primitive assistance to get over these pointless barriers. So by the time a disabled person show up for work, for a job interview or even to fill out a job application, they have already done several days’ work if we are measuring effort and time.

But this is work that does not feature in profit-making calculations. It may have immeasurable value to a community, to the individual, to the world of ideas and cultural production. But if it is not seen to contribute to profit-making, it is worthless, and counts as a net drain on the economy.

This is a model of work that goes back to industrial revolution capitlism, when citizens and communities became workers and consumers. A disabled person was wholesale rejected from the capitalist equation, forced into work-houses and beggary. The term “handicapped” has its root here – disabled people on the street, cap-in-hand, dependent on scraps and breadcrumbs labelled as “charity”.

For the overwhelming majority of disabled people in 2022, we are still in workhouses or begging on the street. The workhouse may be dressed up as a day centre, supported or sheltered “employment”, and the “street” on which we beg is now GoFundMe or JustGiving.  Given a genuine choice, the majority of the 79% of disabled Irish adults would gladly go to work or develop a career.

It is hard, then, when 4 in 5 disabled people are systematically excluded from the world of work, to get behind an activist or organiser who represents “working people”, the “working class” or simply “the workers”. It feels as though we don’t even qualify as an oppressed group in society. If contemporary socialists really want to dismantle the capitalist systems of exploitation and inequality, why continually use the class identifyers put in place by early capitalism? Why are we not reimagining class structure to reflect society as it now functions?

If you consider yourself any shade of socialist or communist, you need to understand how and why disabled people have been so utterly excluded as to be invisible in your own discourse. Then we can talk about what a just society might look like.

About Isolde

Writer, Performer and Theatre Practitioner living in Co. Leitrim, in the rural West of Ireland. My personal blog, AccessAdventures, features random rantings about the daily entertainment that is being a visually impaired (blind) wheelchair user (cripple).

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