Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Disabled or not enabled? (2010)

From the November 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard
Capitalism sees the unproductive disabled as a drain on profits. Socialism will promote the good life and society for all, regardless of health condition.
In feudal society, disabled people faced widespread superstition and persecution. However, the rural production process and the extended nature of the feudal family allowed many of the disabled to contribute to economic life. Extended families were able to provide networks of care for their mentally or physically disabled members. But this way of life, which had lasted many thousands of years, was about to change.

The Industrial Revolution
The rise of capitalism forced people off the land. Production for the market began on a scale small enough to be carried out in the home, and therefore disabled people could still play a role. But this gradually became harder. Larger scale machinery concentrated in factories increasingly destroyed the old cottage industries and family structures. People had to find work away from the home or patch of land.

The new factory workers could not have any impairment which would present them from operating the machinery. The profit-seeking need to have efficient machines established being able-bodied as the norm for workers. This undermined the position of physically impaired people within the family and community.

Poor Law officials and an expanding medical profession invented names for the poor who were unfit for employment: the sick, the insane, defectives, the aged and infirm. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries most of the disabled were segregated into workhouses, asylums, prisons and special schools. According to Colin Barnes, this had several advantages over outdoor relief: “it was efficient, it acted as a major deterrent to the able-bodied malingerers, and it could instil good work habits into the inmates” (Disabled People in Britain and Discrimination, 1994).

The recent past
Two world wars saw disabled people, who were previously considered incapable of factory work, play a substantial part in wartime production. Large numbers of wounded servicemen prompted legislation to encourage training and employment for disabled people. In practice this largely meant the expansion of sheltered workshops paying below minimum wages.

Medical advances led to disabled people living longer and some to carry out activities of which they were previously incapable. The disabled began to reject their labelling as deviants or patients and to speak out against discrimination. The Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) argued that disability was a social relationship of oppression, rather than a biologically determined condition:
“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” (Fundamental Principles of Disability, 1976).
Contemporary capitalism, with its ageing population and technological advances is very different from its Victorian counterpart. Today the workforce is as likely to suffer from mental stress or depression as from other workplace injuries. People with mental health problems have the lowest employment rates of all impairment categories, at only 21 percent. Over one third of the total disabled population of working age is unemployed and on state benefits.

The public spending cuts include further attacks on the living standards of pensioners, who comprise the biggest proportion of the disabled, population.

The replacement of a society based on production for profit by one based on production for needs will not of course mean the disappearance of disabled people, but it will certainly change for the better the way they are treated.

Whether someone enjoys perfect health or suffers slightly or severely from an ailment of some kind will make no difference to the free and equal access they will have to the goods and services society is able to produce.

Men and women in difference states of health will be able to contribute to the work of society in different ways. They will be in a position to balance the needs of themselves, others, the community and world society with their own physical and mental abilities and tastes.

It may be that a few diehard supporters of capitalism will suffer withdrawal symptoms and even go a bit loony in the new circumstances. Their plight will be treated with care and compassion.

Stan Parker

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