Beyond Wage Labor: The Politics of Disablement

The recent case of a blind Jewish camper, Solomon Krishef of Grand Rapids, Michigan, who was told he could not be accommodated by Camp Ramah in Canada despite already being at the camp for some weeks, powerfully highlights how accommodation of disabled people continues to be regarded as a burdensome afterthought. In a similar vein, many workplaces and union offices frequently fail to have the ramps in place that would allow disabled people who require wheelchairs for mobility to flourish.

Disability rights activists from ADAPT talk with U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Seth Harris about federal rules governing personal attendants. Credit: Creative Commons/U.S. Department of Labor.

Even for religious progressives and advocates of social justice who incorporate anti-racist and anti-sexist practices into their daily work, disability politics too often is new and unfamiliar ground. For far too long, leftist organizations have been deficient in ensuring that meeting spaces are accessible to disabled people. Our disability issues are not identified as priorities, and the left press far too often ignores demonstrations by disabled people.

Once progressives make a more widespread commitment to incorporating disability politics into their social and political frameworks, they will find that disability politics will also expand and strengthen their efforts to envision a more inclusive economic system: a thorough understanding of disablement actually provides a starting point for the creation of a post-capitalist economy that values people for their humanity rather than for their wage labor.

By promoting the decommodification of labor (in other words, pushing for a new socioeconomic order in which social services and supports are treated as universal rights rather than conditioned upon an individual’s ability to earn wages), disabled people could be strongly allied with those who seek to end the plutocratic system that enriches a tiny minority while providing increasingly precarious—if any—work for growing numbers. This decommodification perspective is all the more relevant in the post-2008 economic crash environment, in which the stock market recovery has not translated into a significant number of new jobs for the working class.

Gains and Challenges in Disability Rights

The focus of the disability rights movement that emerged in Britain and the United States in the 1960s is clear: it is the structural barriers in society, such as the lack of physical access to wheelchair users, that prevent the participation of disabled people in daily life, rather than the medical impairment of a person. Disability is a social construct that can be challenged through political action.
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