Disability rights: A rich theater of the class struggle

Shea has been an organizer in the Disability Rights movement for more than 30 years, starting with the Disabled Peoples Liberation Front in Boston. He attended the First International Conference on the Rights of People with Disabilities held in Havana, Cuba, in 1995. The following is based upon a recent talk given by Shea.

PART 1: There are two important things to know about the struggle of people with disabilities in the U.S. First, we organize to lift the restrictions imposed upon us by capitalist society. Second, we are people in isolation breaking through many barriers into the power of collective struggle. We are like the old union song: “The union makes us strong.”

There is so much in this theatre of the class struggle. I will give an overview of some of the most significant events. Our job is to add more significant events to that history, and we will.

The real Helen Keller

I wanted to open with the example of Helen Keller. She is a historic figure because of her achievements despite the obvious barriers of deafness and blindness, and despite the barriers imposed by society upon deaf and blind people. Few know that she was a socialist, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, and an organizer who spoke out against the first imperialist war (World War I).

She was criticized by the bourgeoisie for her politics. Their message was “Stick to the wonderful things you are doing with blind people; don’t comment on war and poverty.” But she didn’t keep quiet.

She said: “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, 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!

“It is laudable to give aid to the handicapped. Superficial charities make smooth the way of the prosperous; but to advocate that all human beings should have leisure and comfort, the decencies and refinements of life, is a Utopian dream, and one who seriously contemplates its realization indeed must be deaf, dumb, and blind.” (letter to Sen. Robert La Follette, 1924)

The bourgeoisie’s portrayal of Keller has to be overcome because it is the usual maudlin, nauseating, inspirational tripe that they say about people with disabilities. We don’t need to inspire the bourgeoisie.

I want to speak about some of the movements that have been influenced by people with disabilities and were formed by people with disabilities.

1932 Bonus Army raises veterans’ rights

There is the Bonus Army. In the spring-summer of 1932, 17,000 World War I veterans — many with disabilities — and their families and supporters marched on Washington. They demanded that the government immediately fulfill its promise of benefits. The government had awarded the mostly out-of-work veterans bonus certificates, but they were not redeemable until 1945.

Many set up an encampment and said they wouldn’t leave until they could immediately cash in their bonus certificates. This Bonus Army consisted of many veterans who had acquired physical, psychological and emotional disabilities as a result of fighting in the war, and then found themselves dumped back into society without support. These veterans were trying to organize to get some of that support they needed and were promised.

President Herbert Hoover’s response to the Bonus Army was to send in Army troops, led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, to drive out the veterans and burn their encampment. At least two Bonus marchers were killed, many others injured, and many arrested.

Another important group was the League of the Physically Handicapped, which organized in the 1930s in New York City. Its members had physical disabilities and organized because they were being discriminated against when seeking jobs with the government-run Works Progress Administration. They picketed and occupied WPA offices, and their picket lines were supported by much of the left. The League won some partial concessions.

Independent Living Movement is born

After the Second World War, improvements in health care, sanitation and medical technologies increased lifespans. These health improvements also meant that many who wouldn’t have lived before these developments were surviving with more residual impairments.

By the 1960s and 1970s, there was a critical mass of people with disabilities, organizing mutual support and peer support networks. They set their own models for the support services they needed to live independently in their homes and communities, and in the delivery of these services. They advocated for physical accessibility in buildings, jobs, homes and schools. This was the beginning of the Independent Living Movement of the 1970s.

In the midst of these developments, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was signed. It was significant that the wording of the act was directly lifted from the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “No otherwise handicapped person [they used the term “handicapped” at that time] will be excluded from participation in, denied the benefits of, or subjected to discrimination under any program or activity by the U.S government.”

The act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by federal agencies, in programs receiving federal financial assistance, in federal employment and in the employment practices of federal contractors.

The signing of this act was a direct concession to the growing disability rights movement. But the law was not implemented. The Nixon, Ford and Carter admin­istrations sat on the regulations until 1977.

It took the longest occupation of a federal building still in use to get the law applied. In 1997, protesters occupied the San Francisco offices of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare for 28 days. The HEW offices in Washington, D.C., were also occupied for a shorter period. The occupation eventually won an agreement by Carter’s HEW secretary to enact the regulations.

The major part of that struggle was the active, concrete solidarity of unions and community organizations. These groups held support demonstrations outside of the occupation and kept supply lines open to the sit-in, making sure that food got in and messages got out. The Oakland branch of the Black Panther Party extended important support, even though the BPP as a national organization was decimated by the FBI’s criminal Cointelpro program years earlier, and much of its national leadership was in prison, had been murdered or was in exile. Their support was very much appreciated.