The Left vs. Disability

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #9 in November 2009]

Disability is a story of the creation of peripheries: physical, social, and economic boundaries in cities, cultural practices, and workplaces. Disability remains on the margins of both mainstream society and social movement struggles, even though it’s the only form of oppression that we may all experience as we age. A “social model” [1] of disability emphasizes the ways in which the idea of “disability” is socially constructed, shaped and defined by politics, economics, and cultural norms. Social barriers and exclusions exist not only in the built environment and society at large, but also within the Left.

The relationship of people with disabilities to the city is mediated, and often constrained, by space—people with disabilities have had to struggle constantly with the built environment as a barrier to social inclusion. This applies to doors that are too heavy to open for a wheelchair user, signs that are unclear for someone with a developmental disability, street crossings that are poorly marked for people with low vision, meetings without interpreters for deaf and hard-of-hearing participants, and ill-equipped public buses.

The case of public transit serves as a good example of the role of the state in defining the boundaries of “ability” and “disability.” When the disability rights movement began to organize around access to public transit in 1983, Chicago witnessed protests against the Chicago Transit Authority’s plan to buy more than 350 new buses, none of which had wheelchair lifts. In a “separate but equal” system of providing services to people with disabilities, Chicago offered paratransit, or on-call transportation for those who subscribed to the service. Paratransit was criticized for its inefficiency to users, who had to request a pick-up with 24 hours notice. Service ended at 8 pm and was bounded by the city limits. ADAPT (Americans Disabled for Access to Public Transit) filed a complaint with the Illinois Human Rights Commission that charged the CTA with denying access based on disabilities. At the same time, ADAPT coordinated a wave of dramatic direct actions that included rolling out in front of moving buses and crawling up the steps of the state capitol. After many years of struggle, lifts on buses became the law.

Inspired by the civil rights and women’s rights struggles of the 50s, 60s and 70s, the disability rights movement has been building internationally over the last two decades. Yet in the U.S., despite the fact that the ADA has made made access the law and put disability issues in the public eye, the inclusion of disability in discussions of oppressed groups amongst the Left often remains an afterthought. This is evident both in the accessibility of meetings and conferences, where interpreters and accessible buildings are absent, but also in the content of these meetings. Disability issues rarely appear alongside race, gender, sexual orientation, or immigration status as pressing social justice topics. Sometimes the narrow aims of social movements pit struggles for disability rights against, for example, livable wages or affordable housing.

This paradox is exemplified by a 2007 protest in front of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees’ (AFSCME) national office in Chicago, according to long-time disability rights activist Jim Charlton. In response to the threat of a loss of jobs, AFSCME was defending the very state institutions that have oppressed people with disabilities. [2] ADAPT picketed the offices in an attempt to force trade unionists to recognize that their defense of these institutions was, in effect, a defense of crimes against people with disabilities. Charlton asserts the interests of unions and the wider left, can be united with the interests of people with disabilities when we recognize that our goals can’t be accommodated by the dominant world system. The Left needs to—and can—agree on a definition of freedom that acknowledges this.

Most of us will struggle with disability at some point in our lives, and because the population of Americans with disabilities is increasing significantly with the “graying of America,” the need for awareness around disability issues is pressing. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 19% of Americans self-identify as having a disability, and the number is multiplying as war veterans return. Will the growing population of people with disabilities continue to exist in the peripheries of our minds, cities, and movements? Or will we recognize that disability can and should shape policy and culture from the very center of American social and political life?


  1. See Oliver, M., “The Individual and Social Models of Disability,” 1990 (in soc dis.pdf).
  2. There is a long history of the state’s involvement in institutionalizing people with developmental disabilities or mental illness against their will, and of maltreatment in care facilities. The case of Howe Developmental Center in Tinley Park provides a recent local example. Equip for Equality, a watchdog group for disabled-care facilities, reported 23 patient deaths between 2005 and 2008 that it attributes to misconduct and poor care. See this video, among others.

Other Resources:

  1. J. Charlton, Nothing about us without us: Disability oppression and empowerment (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).
  2. M. Johnson and B. Shaw, To ride the public’s buses: The fight that built a movement (Louisville, KY: Avocado Press, 2001).
  3. U.S. Census Bureau News (2008, December 18). “Number of Americans with a disability reaches 54.4 million.”

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