Capitalism and Disability

Marta Russell, Ravi Malhotra


The social model of disability necessitates a rethinking of prevalent definitions. Leaving aside biological or physical-anthropological definitions of disability which make it appear that impaired persons are 'naturally' and, therefore, justifiably, excluded from the 'labour force', even mainstream definitions have serious shortcomings. The World Health Organization, for instance, defines impairment (the condition of being deaf or blind, or having impaired mobility or being otherwise impaired) as the physiological 'problem'; disability as restricted functions or activities resulting from an impairment; and handicap as the 'disadvantage resulting from the impairment or disability, that limits or prevents the fulfillment of a role'. This terminology has been criticized by social model theorists of disability because it relies primarily on medical definitions and uses a bio-physiological definition of normality. Further, 'the environment' within which this 'disadvantage' is located, 'is represented as 'neutral', and any negative consequences of this approach for the person with an impairment are regarded as inevitable or acceptable rather than as disabling barriers'. Reconceptualizing disability as an outcome of the political economy, however, also requires acknowledging the limitations of the 'minority' model of disability, which views it as the product of a disabling social and architectural environment. In this view the fundamental source of the problems encountered by disabled persons is prejudicial or discriminatory attitudes, implying that by erasing mistaken attitudes society will accept 'difference' and equality will flourish. This approach diverts attention from the mode of production and the concrete social relations that produce the disabling barriers, exclusion and inequalities facing disabled persons. In contrast, we take the view that disability is a socially-created category derived from labour relations, a product of the exploitative economic structure of capitalist society: one which creates (and then oppresses) the so-called 'disabled' body as one of the conditions that allow the capitalist class to accumulate wealth. Seen in this light, disability is an aspect of the central contradiction of capitalism, and disability politics that do not accept this are, at best, fundamentally flawed strategies of reform or, worse, forms of bourgeois ideology that prevent this from being seen.

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