Disability rights in the age of austerity

In 2007, archaeologists Lorna Tilley and Marc Oxenham found the bones of a young man who lived 4,000 years ago in what is now northern Vietnam. He had been profoundly ill. He had fused vertebrae, weak bones and other evidence that he was paralyzed from the waist down before adolescence as a result of a degenerative disease. He had little if any use of his arms and could not have fed himself or kept himself clean — yet this disabled person lived another 10 years. (“Ancient Bones That Tell a Story of Compassion,” New York Times, Dec. 18, 2012)

These people had no metal and lived by fishing, hunting and raising barely domesticated pigs. The scientists concluded that the people around him took the time and care to tend to his every need. Tilley has written on this view for Anthropological Science and the International Journal of Paleopathology.

This and other cases of what appear to show tender care for the sick and the aged reflect a new and different view of so-called primitive cultures. According to the Times article, Tilley says, “Not only does his care indicate tolerance and cooperation in his culture, but suggests that he himself had a sense of his own worth and a strong will to live. Without that, she says, he could not have stayed alive.”

About 30 similar cases have been found in areas ranging from Europe to Asia, the U.S and the Middle East. Some remains go back 45,000 years and show disease and pathology so severe that the affected people must have needed round-the-clock care.

The Times found this story extraordinary enough to give it front page coverage in the science section. It was news because these archeological findings are the exact opposite of the general beliefs about Stone Age peoples: that they were barbarians, had no compassion, were brutal and warlike with each other, and threw away people with disabilities. Popular belief is that compassion and care for people with disabilities and others is a product of civilization.

‘Disability’ at different times in history

These archaeological discoveries prompt a revisiting of what “disability” has meant at different times in history. This is especially true since many people with disabilities today — this writer is dyslexic and hearing impaired — feel that the economic and social system we have now wants to throw us away and that to get our rights we must fight the system.

Take the Americans with Disabilities Act, for example. It took years of struggle to get this legislation passed in 1990. Now even that is being undermined by cutbacks.

It has always been a fight to get benefits, compensation, medical care, accessibility, education and other things disabled people need and deserve in order to fully contribute to society.

The book “Disability History of the United States” by Kim E. Nielsen gives voice to the Indigenous people of this continent and their views on disability. She relates a story about disability in pre-1492 Indigenous culture that was carried down in the New York state-based Iroquois Confederation, a grouping of different tribes.

“A Huron man brought the Great Law of Peace to the Iroquois … as a pathway to restore peace, compassion and righteousness, and a way to develop the strength necessary to live out the law.” The man went to all the nations in the Iroquois Confederation. One day when he was teaching the Mohawks, a sad man came who had lost all his family to death. The Peacemaker consoled him.

This person went on to become the Peacemaker’s interpreter or spokesperson. This was needed “because the Peacemaker had a stutter that made it difficult for people to understand him.” With his helper, the Peacemaker reminded the people of the Iroquois of the need for harmony.

In traditional culture, Nielsen explains, everyone was believed to have a gift, skill, ability or purpose. When individuals, communities and the world are in harmony, individuals share their gifts and benefit from the gifts of others.

Most pre-Columbian Indigenous communities had no word or concept for what we call disability. For example, if someone described today as being “cognitively impaired” was a good water carrier, that was the person’s gift and it was appreciated. There was no stigma attached, and he or she was loved and welcomed. People were not defined by their ability or their disability but by their contribution to the whole. People were appreciated for what they did and the wholeness of their personalities.

Disability and alienation under capitalism

Nielsen says that in some tribes the closest thing to the word “disability” was a relational term. It applied when someone had weak community relations or lacked them, or when a person was removed from or unable to participate in community reciprocity. Today we might call this “alienation.” So if you were alienated from society, that was a disability.

This was a sophisticated and compassionate concept developed by a society where there were few if any divisions and most people lived as equals, working together and sharing food and resources. In a general way, the pre-1492 economic and social conditions mirror those of our ancient ancestors described in the Times. Their social relations were probably similar as well. This society was hardworking, sophisticated, compassionate and accepting.

How did Christopher Columbus view the people he met in the “new world”? He wrote in his journal, “They would make fine servants. … With 50 men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” This representative of civilization went on to enslave native people and stole their land.

Civilization is not the protector of the weak and the nobler emotions. Civilization marks the beginning of class society and the exploitation of one person by another for material gain. The form class society takes today is capitalism, a system that allows a tiny percentage of the population — some call it the 1%, although it’s really many fewer people — to own the means of production and take for themselves most of what the 99% have sweated to produce.

While class society has certainly brought technological development, it has not brought compassion. It has brought inequality, stratification, judgment and great suffering to most people.

Under capitalism this alienation, which the Indigenous people found so wrenching that they called it a disability, is actually built into the system. The alienation woven through capitalist society originates in working people’s alienation from their own labor. Most of the value of what a worker produces is taken by the boss, while the worker is left with a tiny salary, often barely enough to survive on.

If disability in pre-1492 Indigenous culture is defined as alienation, then how is disability defined under 20th- and 21st-century capitalism? It is defined as the inability to toil for the boss.

While Indigenous cultures regarded all people as having gifts, including those with severe motor impairments, capitalism labels these same people as worthless and grants them a shameful stigma. Indigenous cultures freely shared the little resources they had and willingly gave care as it was needed.

Under capitalism, if you are not part of the profit machine, if money can’t be made from you, you are not entitled to resources or care and are thrown on the scrap heap. Under capitalism, people with disabilities must fight the system to get basic rights such as food, shelter, housing, community and dignity — so freely given as part of the system in Indigenous cultures.

Why is knowing this important to the struggle to preserve and enlarge disability rights today?

To be continued.