The following was taken from a July 29 webinar held by the Disability Justice and Rights Caucus of Workers World Party that highlighted the links between the struggles of disabled people and those in prison. The attending caucus members were Comrades Betsey Piette, Brian Shea and mYia X. The entire webinar can be viewed on YouTube at the Workers World Party (youtube.com/user/wwpvideo).
Betsey: Capitalism creates a hostile environment for people with disabilities. The everyday language reinforces the notion that disabilities are negative, emphasizes the lack of health care and at the same time describes the costs of making daily life accessible to all as “forbidden”. People with disabilities are stereotypically viewed as a burden on the economy, on other people and on life in general.
But when multibillionaires like Jeff Bezos spend countless sums of money to fly into space for 10 minutes, nobody sees it as a “drain”. We just know that it means less food and health care, fewer homes and jobs for the rest of us, especially the Amazon workers whose jobs they benefit from.
People with disabilities know that every day they survive under capitalism is an amazing day, a day full of challenges of all kinds, but another day of being with friends, families, comrades and co-workers.
In the face of this hostility, the efforts of disabled people to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act 31 years ago have been an incredible victory. From a 54-day sit-in in San Francisco to the famous Capitol Crawl in Washington, DC, numerous people with disabilities came to physically demonstrate how difficult daily life is for disabled people.
Despite the historic concession made by the ruling class when the ADA was passed, enforcement remains elusive. The implementation of the accessibility requirements is not exactly convincing in so many areas.
Brian: The world can be accommodated. That is, every part of built society – that is every part of everything that humans have created – can be made to absorb every part of society. This is what Marx meant when he wrote about the communist stage of society, which is still emerging at the time, but that is what we are striving for in the Workers World Party as a Marxist organization.
And how we reach for it is organizing – organizing among the most oppressed, marginalized workers, poor people, imprisoned people. In this capitalist society everything – including health care and housing, everything you and your family need – is commodity and limited. Even if, like many disabled people, they have not yet figured out how to exploit our labor, they make us commodities in other ways.
But as people with disabilities we would be in the full range of people, the body of people, the mind and consciousness of people. We workers and oppressed people must own society; we must have the wealth that our work creates. We have to have the resources; We have to be able to share the resources.
The fight won the Americans with Disabilities Act; and part of the ADA is all well and good, but it is ineffective in many ways precisely because it is implemented in a capitalist economy and society.
More important was the struggle for the ADA, which was relentlessly waged by people with disabilities.
Legislation: a snapshot of the class struggle
Brian: You can view legislation as a snapshot of the class struggle. If the legislation is reactionary, it means we are at a time when the struggle is being pushed back. If the legislation is progressive, it was won by our class, by women, people of color. Even recognition that people with disabilities had civil rights was won through a gigantic struggle that is still ongoing.
The heat of that fight was in 1988 and 1990 when there was the greyhound bus driver strike when the greyhound company tried to break up its union Merged transit union. The situation drove the grassroots to put pressure on the union to take action and they held a strike vote. Greyhound management blew up the union, and at the same time they signed up to the reactionary effort to stop the ADA so they wouldn’t have to make their buses wheelchair accessible.
So some of us in the movement, in the party, have been invited to speak to local unions on the ground to support the proposals of the Americans with Disabilities Act. And telling greyhound management to back off. It was like that just before they went on strike and the bus drivers went out.
Then we blocked many buses [driven by strikebreakers]. There were many people in wheelchairs blocking many of the company’s ground forces.
mYia: When we talk about the elite and their access to health care, one of the best examples is the members of US Congress and how they get their health care for the rest of their lives. And we, the people, fund it. But every day in this Capitol they debate and curtail services that people need to have better lives.
There are estimated to be approximately 2.4 million incarcerated people in the United States, and of those 2.4 million there are approximately 750,000 incarcerated workers. We see the connections when we see who the prisoners are – and often it is the oppressed: people of color, people with disabilities – behind the wall.
Disabled and locked up
mYia: This is a system that spends nearly $ 80 billion a year to support mass incarceration and all of its contrivances. What happens when we are disabled and stand behind the wall is a great deal of neglect; there is a misdiagnosis; there is a penalty if you need treatment.
What is going on behind the wall and what is going on out here? US capitalism doesn’t care about the incarcerated and the disabled. According to statistics from the Justice Department, people with cognitive, intellectual and developmental disabilities are widespread behind the wall.
And as soon as you are arrested, you know what the system is doing – it is literally robbing people of their rights.
Through the ADA and a struggle that continues to this day, we got a glimpse of progress and access. But there is nothing good to say about the way the United States imperial system treats disabled or incarcerated people. We see how that applies right now with what we endured in the COVID-19 pandemic that exposed everything health inequalities.
We have to keep the struggle alive so as not to forget that we are a class and that is the working class and the class of our family members who are behind the wall who are literally getting no level of care.