Agents in our mutual liberation

November 20, 2009

Elizabeth Wrigley-Field looks at the history of the disability rights movement--and what it tells us about struggles for liberation.

I HAVE learned so much from's ongoing discussion of whether animal rights is a useful framework for challenging the gratuitous cruelty created when nothing--not nature, companionship, human lives nor human bodies--is socially valued except as a means of creating profit.

Charles Feldman asks an excellent question about how disabled people fit into the equation. I want to argue that the history of the disability rights movement underscores the central point of Paul D'Amato's original column: Self-determination, not charity, is the key to liberation.

The disability rights movement's demands have echoed those of every other civil rights struggle: an end to discrimination; economic services that move legal rights off paper and into reality (just as Martin Luther King, Jr., asked, "What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn't earn enough money to buy a hamburger and cup of coffee?" a disability activist might ask, "What good is the right to employment if I can't access the health care that would let me work?"); above all, an end to paternalistic policies and a basic level of respect.

The modern disability rights movement grew out of the tremendous social upheaval that began with the civil rights movement and the movement against the Vietnam War, and grew into struggles for the liberation of women, gays and lesbians, Chicanos, and American Indians, and for environmental protections.

The apex of the disability struggle was a set of nationally coordinated protests in 1973 demanding that the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) give teeth to newly passed civil rights protections for disabled people. In San Francisco, this took the form of a 25-day occupation of the HEW office, carried out by as many as 120 people.

Some of these protesters were literally risking their lives by foregoing medical services to continue the sit-in--especially when HEW tried to block personal care attendants from entering the building. The demonstrators were ultimately successful, thanks in part to their own creativity, and in part to material support they received from the Black Panthers, labor unions, gay rights activists and businesses pressured by activists to support the struggle.

The most inspiring part of this struggle to me, though, is the solidarity that developed among the protesters. "Disability" is an incredibly broad range of physical and social experiences, and before the sit-in, most activists identified themselves primarily with others sharing their particular disability.

During the sit-in, they discovered what was common in their experiences--most importantly, their shared desire for a life of their own choosing. This included physically disabled people overcoming their own prejudices against the mentally disabled who participated in the sit-in.

This solidarity reflected a process that I think has been central to every single liberation struggle: expanding demands for justice as the struggle itself teaches people that they, and others, deserve much more than they had ever realized--and are capable of more, too. This requires a fundamental self-awareness and sense of justice, for oneself and others.

Humans can revolutionize our economic and social system so that instead of corporate profit, a healthy respect for the natural world, including the wide variety of human bodies, is a core value of decision-making. But we can only succeed in this if we see one another as equal agents in our mutual liberation, not a group to be pitied and a group who should pity them. I think that is the essence of Paul's argument about liberation, and it is essential.

If readers want to know more about the politics of disability, an excellent article from a Marxist perspective by Ravi Malhotra was published in New Politics in 2001. A book-length history, from a more mainstream perspective but deeply inspiring, is Joseph Sharpiro's No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement.

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