Disability Community and the Working Class

Arguing for a united front against exploitation

The disability communities’ position within the working class has always been complicated. For over 50 years, disability activism has placed a huge emphasis on securing the rights of disabled people to just get a job in the first place, whether it was Joan Hume being employed as the country’s first wheelchair user to be employed by a teacher in 1973, to the fights for accessible workplaces and communal spaces that go on to this day. In addition, there has been a well-documented, and long history of antagonism between our community and the union movement. Unions have long been some of the main opponents to continued deinstitutionalisation of disabled people, usually citing the importance of the sector for support workers.

And yet, I argue that a movement aiming to achieve justice for disabled people is not only compatible with a socialist workers’ movement, but necessitates one. Ableism as it exists under modern capitalism is a result of class conflict, of the capitalists’ assertion that the worth of all others is commensurate with their economic productivity. As disabled people, we are automatically considered less efficient than those that share our God given place within cycles of production. We are worth less, and as a result, worthless.

Take the supports that currently exist for disabled people in Australia. We have the disability support pension, which has long sat below a living wage. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the blatant disregard for disabled lives has been even clearer, demonstrated by a bipartisan project to block the Coronavirus Supplement being extended to DSP and Carer Payment recipients.

The NDIS, on the other hand, is sold to us as a program designed to assist disabled people to “get the support they need so their skills and independence improve over time”. What does this look like in reality? This heavily marketised system relies on the private sector to sell products and services, which disabled people can then use allotted funds to buy. In order to buy them, however, the NDIS recipient must first successfully argue why a product would better enable them to contribute to society.. Criteria that must be met include showing how a given support will contribute to an increased community engagement (or, preferably, an increased income), and demonstrating its “value for money”. The latter is particularly difficult for those seeking specialised physical supports, like recurring sessions with a trained exercise physiologist, and the proofs required can themselves cost thousands of dollars spent on acquiring reports from completely different specialists. 

Furthermore, the marketised structure of the NDIS has meant it is totally ill-equipped to respond to what community participation actually looks like in environments outside of a ‘typical’ suburban, nuclear family context. Research that came out in 2018 by Scott Avery showed how First Nations communities, particularly those in the Northern Territory had been completely underserved by the scheme. Not only did a lack of private corporations nearby mean there was little recourse for spending the funds allocated to people, the scheme didn’t cover the things that people needed to help them to continue living comfortably. One man interviewed said, “swags and blankets is something that our families ask for all the time, help with making sure that they’ve got somewhere warm and safe to sleep at night, and that’s a really practical thing and we’ve done that for years. Now the NDIS is coming and they’re saying, ‘no’, they’re saying, ‘we don’t buy swags and blankets for people’. That’s not ‘reasonable or necessary’. But if you’ve got nowhere to sleep, of course swags and blankets are reasonable and necessary.”

In the workplace, despite decades of deinstitutionalisation, the hyper-exploitation of disabled workers is rampant. Australian Disability Enterprises (ADEs) employ disabled people, usually intellectually disabled people, at vastly reduced rates. As a result, the current minimum wage for a disabled person in this country is $89 per week, though this can be less if the company has an award that covers SWS workers. The justification for this practice goes back to the history of ADEs. Originally called sheltered workshops, their new name was the result of rebranding in the 1980s during a wave of activism and legislation that threatened their raison d’être as places of normalisation. To adjust to the new neoliberal era, they framed themselves as service providers. The service? The opportunity to be employed. They claim that there is an intrinsic value in work, irrespective of what the work is and the workers’ role in it. Giving disabled people the opportunity to contribute to the nation’s economy brings meaning to their lives. If this framing seems unreal, note that this framing is uncritically replicated by the Department of Social Services on their website. Consequently, ADEs are able to wring value from disabled people, force them to work for miniscule wages, and then turn around and tell them to be grateful for bringing some meaning to their lives.

Of course, economic exploitation of disadvantaged groups has a long and varied history. The term “prison industrial complex” emerged in the 1990s, for instance, to describe the ways in which value was being violently extracted from prisoners by private companies. As Angela Davis revealed in her book Are Prisons Obsolete, the expansion and proliferation of private prisons occurred alongside the expansion of this capitalist value extraction. Violence, and punitive policing she argued, was the state reacting to the needs of neoliberal capitalist expansion.

Karl Marx observed that, in their pursuit of profit, capitalists rely on paying workers less than the value that they create. This difference between the value workers create, and what they are actually paid, he called surplus value. Marx argued that, in order to maintain economic growth, bosses needed to find ways to increase this surplus value. In disabled people, as in the prison system, capitalism has found a source of hyperexploitable labour. This is not about giving these people a sense of value and worth. This is fundamentally about profit.

Exploitation and abuse of disabled people is rampant, and the fight to end it is intrinsically intertwined with the fight against capitalism. It is true that some disabled people are members of the capitalist class. I don’t care about them. Their money is able to buy them far more freedom than my comrades and I will ever enjoy. For the rest of us, I invite you all to come and link arms with your comrades in a united working class fight for collective freedom. Our struggles, at their core, are the same struggle. Liberation for one group can only come with the liberation of all.

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