How capitalism frames disability

Jenny Rellick contributes to the discussion on how disability is conceived of under capitalism--and how all that would be different in a socialist society.

I APPLAUD Lauren Nickell's explanation of the social model of disability and how it underlies the oppression of disabled schoolchildren ("Meeting the needs of students with disabilities").

The politics of education imposes disabilities on children who would otherwise simply have physical and cognitive impairments. As a disabled adult with a public school education, I would like to give examples for comrades who may not know how disablement can occur.

In many school systems, one elementary school, one middle school and one high school are designated for the children with certain impairments, causing hour-long bus rides each day for many children with impairments. Some states have separate schools for blind, deaf, intellectually impaired and other students with impairments.

This economizing policy enables school systems to have one teacher or assistant to accommodate several students, but it is segregation, and it is inherently alienating and disabling. The disabled students from other neighborhoods are often regarded as outsiders. In the cafeteria, a common scene is that disabled students sit at one table.

Some wealthy school systems provide accommodations at all schools so that students go to school with their neighbors. Students with different abilities have friendships in school that continue in the evenings and on weekends. The cafeteria is not as segregated in these schools, and students of all abilities learn how to learn, play and work together. That outcome is the exception, not the rule.

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ANOTHER EXAMPLE is that many children with a wide range of impairments need accommodations to do homework, but rarely are they provided.

A friend with cerebral palsy did not have the physical ability to write or type, and her mother had to be her scribe every night after a hard day's work. My friend knew she was a huge inconvenience to her mother and siblings. Technology today may have helped my friend partially, but a homework scribe is still the most time-efficient way to accommodate students with her type of impairment.

The school system not only disables students by failing to provide homework accommodations, but students begin to believe that their impairment is the cause of the disability, and there's nothing to change it. The students internalize the disability as burdensome to others, and they think it will, in adulthood, limit their value to employers.

To liberate students with disabilities, students need to become aware that they are not responsible for their social disability. Parents must not despair for their disabled child's future. Reframing the internalized model of disability with the social model is important in helping disabled people seek liberation. To create a society free of disablement, however, socialism is absolutely necessary.

The neoliberal answer to disablement is "reasonable accommodation" and nondiscrimination, two terms which sum up the Americans with Disabilities Act. Disabled people are responsible for reporting violations to the Department of Justice or taking violators to federal court themselves. This policy places the responsibility for ending society's disablement back on the disabled person!

Reasonable accommodation is always a matter of expense and the alleged offender's ability to pay, but nobody knows the actual threshold for reasonableness. The prohibitions of discrimination are similarly vague and difficult to enforce. If a competitive private school rejects a student who is disabled, parents don't know whether their child was objectively better qualified than at least one admitted student. The same problem renders it extremely difficult to enforce laws banning discrimination in hiring.

Under a socialist society, reasonable accommodation would be based on the needs of people with impairments and the ability of labor to provide it. Access to school would be a high-priority need, and labor would provide accommodations based on the availability of labor after higher priority needs like food, medicine and shelter, are satisfied.

Without capitalism, discrimination would serve no purpose. Workers would welcome people of differing abilities to join them as they work to address the needs of society.