Disabled activists at NYC forum: ‘Support disabled liberation’

WW photo: John Catalinotto

Disabled activists at a July 28 forum in New York led a panel discussion to expose abuse of the disabled under capitalist society, including recent cutbacks of benefits. Videos of each panelist’s talk can be accessed on YouTube at wwpvideo.

Workers World Party member Joyce Chediac, a person with dyslexia and hearing disabilities, chaired the meeting. She reported that in May, the Disability Caucus of Occupy Wall Street and the Autism Self-Advocacy Network organized a candlelight vigil in Union Square as a memorial to people with disabilities who were killed by family members and caretakers.

WWP member Brian Shea has been an organizer in the Disability Rights movement for over 30 years, starting with the Disabled Peoples Liberation Front in Boston. Shea also travelled to Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade in 1990 and in 1995 to the Second International Conference on the Rights of People with Disabilities in Havana.

Shea quoted anti-imperialist socialist and disabled activist leader Helen Keller: “So long as I confine my activities to social service and the blind, they compliment me extravagantly, calling me ‘arch priestess of the sightless,’ ‘wonder woman,’ and a ‘modern miracle.’ But when it comes to a discussion of poverty, and I maintain that it is the result of wrong economics — that the industrial system under which we live is at the root of much of the physical deafness and blindness in the world — that is a different matter!”

Shea spoke about the Bonus Army of 1932, when 14,000 World War I veterans, many with disabilities, and their families marched on Washington demanding that the government immediately fulfill its promise for benefits. President Herbert Hoover sent 600 U.S. Army troops, led by Douglas MacArthur, to set fire to their encampment. The army killed two Bonus Army marchers.

Shea explained that in 1977, to protest the lack of enforcement of existing federal accessibility laws, disabled activists occupied the San Francisco Health, Education and Welfare office for 28 days. This action won the support and solidarity of unions, community organizations and the Oakland Black Panther Party in getting food in and keeping the supply lines open.

Ex-patient activist, anti-psychiatry, survivor groups, including the Network Against Psychiatric Assaults, the Mental Patients Liberation Front and others organized picket lines against the pharmaceutical companies and the American Psychiatric Association. ADAPT organized disabled activists in wheelchairs to surround inaccessible buses and picket inaccessible bus lines in the 1980s.

Making profits off peoples’ needs

There were organized efforts to provide services for the disabled to help keep them independent of nursing homes and other facilities and institutions that make profits off peoples’ needs. Shea related the struggles of people with AIDS to make medication and treatment affordable and available and to fight abuse and discrimination.

Shea told of a Chicago group called “Jerry’s orphans,” who picketed media outlets broadcasting Jerry Lewis’ muscular dystrophy telethon and its offensive label of “Jerry’s kids.” Shea exposed “the bourgeoisie’s view of charity instead of solidarity when somebody up here tosses a couple of crumbs and pennies to somebody down there whom they see as worthy, and if they don’t see them as worthy, they don’t toss them any crumbs.”

Scott Thomas of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and a recent WWP member spoke on Marxism and Disability Oppression. Thomas explained capitalist society’s “one size fits all” deficit model, class definition of disability: “If you have a disability, you are objectively less.”

Thomas translated this: “Capitalism has nothing for us [the disabled] because we’re not profitable!” He exposed the Judge Rotenberg Center in Boston, where electroconvulsive aversive therapy was used recently to shock an autistic boy 30 times, causing him to develop post-traumatic stress disorder and rendering him unable to speak.

ADA limited to visible disabilities

Thomas protested that protections from the Americans with Disabilities Act are mostly limited to those with visible disabilities. Thomas also objected to the improper prescribing of anti-psychotic drugs to autistic and attention-deficit disorder children. He warned that “90 percent of people with disabilities will be abused. Only 3 percent of the abuse will be reported.”

Next, this reporter explained my emotional disability and how I had been medicated more than 30 years ago with anti-psychotic medications Haloperidol (Haldol), Moban and Mellarill, causing serious side effects, including drowsiness, disorientation, uncontrollable shaking, inability to sleep and unusual sensitivity to heat. After six years, another psychiatrist advised me that like millions of others, I had been misdiagnosed. I was gradually weaned off the medications over 10 months because they were so addictive.

In 1993, my 83-year-old mother was being medicated against her will with some of these same anti-psychotic drugs. After she refused to take her meds, a relative and a psychiatrist signed her into Hillside Psychiatric Hospital Strauss Cottage, where she was held for three weeks until she would agree to take her meds and comply with an Elder Care plan of seven days a week home care, which my father would have to pay for. My mother was forced to wear an ankle bracelet so she wouldn’t run away. When I visited her, her friend, a Holocaust survivor, was being given electric shock treatment for her nightmares about the Holocaust.

In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prisoners, who are disproportionately people of color, do not have the same rights as non-prisoners to refuse anti-psychotic medications.

Some 10 to 20 percent of GIs who see heavy combat develop lasting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and about a fifth of those who get treatment receive anti-psychotic medication. Drugs, including Risperdal, Seroquel, Geodon and Abilify, often used to treat severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, are sometimes prescribed to troops for symptoms associated with PTSD and anxiety, including nightmares and irritability. But when mixed with other prescriptions, they can be dangerous and sometimes fatal.

Bullying in the workplace can also help cause this disability. The Communication Workers Local 1180 newspaper, Communique, reported that 37 percent of workers have been bullied, 45 percent of bullied workers suffer stress-related health problems, and targeted individuals have a 64 percent chance of losing their job.

PIST fights for adequate
school-bus services

Sara Catalinotto, a teacher of disabled students, parent of a child in a special autism program, and founder of Parents to Improve School Transportation, demanded that “resources — and respect — be applied to the routing of yellow buses for 150,000 school children who need it in this city, of whom about 60,000 are riding to special education placements. Too many families deal with long, hot, overcrowded bus rides, which force students to miss the start and end of the day — and school breakfast — among other preventable problems.”

Catalinotto reported on solidarity with disabled students and their parents shown by Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181, the union of school bus drivers, matrons and mechanics.

She also recounted how last spring, the Albany Legislature tried to end state funding for schools that serve only deaf students, only to be thwarted by the deaf community’s mobilization to stop this.

Catalinotto said her teacher colleagues in suspension centers have told her that a high percentage of children there have disabilities. This was documented in an Aug. 7 New York Times article reporting suspensions during the 2009-10 school year of 13 percent of disabled students, compared with 7 percent of students without disabilities. One out of every four African-American disabled students had been suspended.

Johnnie Stevens, Community Labor United for Postal Jobs & Services founder and a PIST and WWP member, related how he helped repair a school for disabled children in Puerta Esperanza, Cuba, while on a work brigade after hurricanes Gustavo and Ike. Stevens’ disability — dyslexia — made his videographic assignment requiring precise logging of seconds, minutes, hours, megabytes and terabytes much more difficult and time-consuming. But the Cubans were patient. He completed the video, and received an award.

Stevens also had filmed in Lousiana after Hurricane Katrina. Stevens contrasted it with his experience in Cuba: “While the U.S. might have fancier wheelchairs and other superior technology, disabled people were left behind to drown in New Orleans when the levees broke.”

Good record for socialist Cuba

Stevens explained how socialist Cuba organizes to evacuate everyone to higher ground before the storm hits. It’s not up to the individual to find a way out. Those with limited mobility are taken care of first and specialized hospital equipment often used to treat the disabled is secured.

The National Association of the Blind, the Association of the Physically and Motor Disabled, and the National Organization of Deaf Cubans are made up of and led by people who have these disabilities. In Cuba, physical and mental health care, daycare, education, recreation and senior centers are always free.

Under capitalism in the U.S., these basic human services are only available according to one’s class, income, assets or health insurance. Women, people of color, LGBTQ people and the disabled here have never had equal access to these essentials.

Cuba is, therefore, truly striving to provide to each according to their needs, from each according to their abilities. This slogan was coined by Karl Marx nearly 140 years ago to describe communism, which is the ultimate goal of socialist revolution. It is the only economic and political system designed for the needs of the multitudes and not the profits of the few. Both disabled and able-bodied will thrive when every tool of science, technology and medicine is used to heal and not to abuse.