Marta Russell’s legacy and the political economy of disability

Disability Politics in a Global Economy:

Essays in Honour of Marta Russell

As this review is written, the US Congress is “debating” a tax bill proposal that would lead to automatic cuts in federal programs like vocational rehabilitation, housing assistance, and Medicaid—including home and community-based waiver services, as well as doing away with tax incentives aimed at encouraging businesses to hire people with disabilities or make their facilities accessible. All in the interest of providing enormous tax cuts for the wealthiest individuals and corporations in US society. If you have read anything by Marta Russell, you could easily say she predicted the impending disaster since the 1990s. That is little consolation. But reading more about Marta Russell’s understanding of disability, capitalism, and democracy is particularly important now to counter the onslaught of legislation shredding the few remnants of the social safety net in the United States.

Who was Marta Russell? The editor of this eclectic collection of essays, Ravi Malhotra, gives the reader a brief history about her as a person and an activist. In the rest of this volume, writers from diverse disciplines from Canada and the United States elaborate on the impact Marta Russell has had on disability studies, disability activism, and political economy. Her legacy was substantial, if judged by the variety of political, literary, and social issues the writers address.

Her political writings were extensive, ranging from scholarly articles to “populist monographs” and activist articles. She grew up in Mississippi, disabled from birth, and active in the emerging civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s. She began work in the film industry in California in 1974. She eventually was able to produce her own documentaries until mobility issues in the late 1980s prevented her from continuing work in film. After applying for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits, she devoted time to writings and documentaries confronting the socioeconomic marginalization of people with disabilities. Russell also played important roles in disability advocacy groups such as ADAPT and Not Dead Yet. She stopped writing in 2005 due to health issues, and died in 2013.

As a writer and activist, Russell developed a markedly materialist analysis of disability, although she does not explicitly adopt Marxist politics. Her 2002 essay “What Disability Rights Cannot Do: Employment and Political Economy,” published in the disability studies journal Disability & Society, is included in the appendix of this volume. The essay is an excellent example of how Russell intertwines the importance and limitations of civil rights (quoting Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 convention address in which he raises questions about the economic system and broader distribution of wealth) with a materialist analysis of how disabled persons form part of the reserve army of labor. Her criticisms of US political and economic policy are acutely insightful, especially in today’s landscape of Trump and bipartisan tax cuts. The collection would have benefited from foregrounding this essay to give the reader who is unfamiliar with Russell’s work a sense of her incisive and clear critique of disability oppression and analysis of the economic inequality disabled people face due to austerity and lack of democracy under capitalism.

Disability Politics in a Global Economy is not conceived as an introduction to disability studies. Various writers honor Russell’s legacy by expanding on a variety of topics that her work has addressed in the past. While the less familiar reader might not know all references and concepts, nonetheless, the breadth of issues taken up by essays gives the reader an idea of how the reality of disability impacts every facet of life under capitalism. In her writing Marta Russell took up many of these issues specifically in the United States.

Editor Ravi Malhotra, who cowrote the 2002 article “Capitalism and Disability” with Marta Russell for Socialist Register, highlights some of the main ideas she presents in her 1998 book, Beyond Ramps: Disability and the End of the Social Contract. Malhotra appropriately describes this text as a “hard-hitting and pioneering if populist monograph.” She does not make subtle arguments in Beyond Ramps. Yet her angry analysis makes clear that the social marginalization of people with disabilities originates in capitalism’s austerity politics for the majority, ultimately leading to a policy of eugenics that ideologically and institutionally determined the lives of disabled people as “unfit” in US history. Russell elaborated politically and theoretically on these issues in subsequent writings and activism.

Some of Russell’s key contributions to understanding disability are the focus of various essays in this volume. Russell adhered to the social model of disability in contrast to the medical model. The social model of disability is founded in a materialist analysis distinguishing physical, sensory, or intellectual impairment of an individual from the social barriers capitalist society constructs to exclude and marginalize people with various disabilities as “less productive” or less compliant members of society.

The traditional model of disability as singularly focused on medical diagnosis, impairment, and treatment typically marks the disabled person with a deficit in need of cure or assimilation. Russell analyzed how the notion of “worthy” vs. “unworthy” disability is the foundation for establishing and administering the social safety net in the United States. A class system of “worthy” (disabled veteran), less “worthy” (disabled worker), and “unworthy” (disabled with no work history) creates antagonisms between those who have a disability and those who do not (yet), as well as a pecking order between those with disabilities. In the neoliberal era of constant cuts to Medicaid, SSI, welfare and the rest of the social safety net, the push to deny rights and benefits to disabled persons has become even more extreme.

Mark C. Weber updates Russell’s arguments and information about the SSDI program, a prominent part of Russell’s work, in “Social Insurance for Disability: Contemporary Challenges and Insights from Disability Civil Rights.” Weber challenges SSDI benefits being administered on the premise of medical diagnosis, or deficit. The assumption is that a disabled person is helpless, and the state must offer support out of charity. This medical model contradicts the social model of disability activism, which stresses that a disabled person can work and/or participate in society if provided accommodations.

Yet the reality of capitalist society and businesses making those accommodations is extremely limited. Thus, although social insurance is a conservative reform—in that it does nothing to remove structural and ideological barriers for those with disabilities—it is also a reform of extreme necessity and importance to keep disabled members of society out of complete destitution. Weber argues that SSDI is therefore consistent with civil rights demands.

Weber also counters conservative rants against benefit fraud by pointing out 2014 evidence that fraud is less than 1 percent in SSDI. Criticisms of the “newfound generosity” of disability benefits belie the reality that benefit levels have remained stagnant, while demand has increased over the last forty years due to population growth, increased number of women on SSDI, and the large baby boomer cohort moving into the age in which more people face likely disability. It is simple demographics compounded by recent economic crises.

Russell was particularly trenchant in her criticism of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. She critiqued its weaknesses as “free market civil rights,” a bill that was made palatable to Congress by framing the issue of disability as one of independence, thus feeding into the myths of American history and justifying removing people from welfare roles. The ADA never included affirmative action for disabled Americans, and thus left the majority of people with disabilities still excluded from the workplace. The unemployment rate for disabled people barely budged after ten years of the ADA; in 2013 only 14 percent of working-age Americans with work-limiting disability were employed, in comparison to 29 percent in 1990. Russell placed these statistics, and the marginalization of people with disabilities, into the larger context of increasing neoliberalism and austerity, noting that free market capitalism has created conditions of misery for those who are denied work (disabled, as well as racial minorities) and for those currently working longer hours for less pay under harsher conditions.

One of Russell’s collaborators, Jean Stewart, looks at how disabled people who face unemployment, discrimination, and racism are now being “pipelined” into the US prison industrial complex, where a startlingly high percentage of inmates are known to have prior disability. In their contribution “Disablement, Prison and Historical Segregation: 15 Years Later,” authors Jean Stewart and Liat Ben-Moshe challenge the way mainstream media label people with physical impairments as “trapped in their bodies,” while one of the main concerns of the disabled community is actually the increasing incarceration of members with physical, intellectual, sensory, and mental disabilities.

As the US prison population has continued to ascend (2,266,800 adults in all prison facilities in 2011), people with disabilities who cannot get jobs end up participating in the informal economy, and landing in the dragnet of “quality of life” ordinances imposed in many US cities. Reliable data is difficult to obtain; until now states did not mandate collection of prisoner statistics based on disability. Yet Stewart and Ben-Moshe use examples from studies of the school to prison pipeline to illustrate how special education students—who are often disproportionately Black, Latino, and/or poor—are channeled into prisons as the US social safety net has gradually been torn apart.

The authors also address a consistent concern of Russell’s—the segregation of people with disabilities in nursing homes for profit. As a result of deinstitutionalization, the need for community living “in the most integrated setting appropriate to the individual’s needs” was mandated based on the 2009 Olmstead v. L. C. Supreme Court ruling. People with disabilities define “community living” expansively to include full participation in all areas of life such as recreation and sexuality.

Yet the free market versions of community housing arrangements simply moved many disabled people into nursing homes, where, as the authors argue, “disabled minds/bodies are worth more to the GDP in an institutional bed than in their own bed.” The alternative of living at home with paid caregivers, a much cheaper and preferable option for many people with disabilities, is also fraught with economic inequalities, as a provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) exempts home care workers from overtime and minimum wage requirements. Thus, disabled individuals who prefer to stay at home with home health care are pitted against poorly paid, often minority and women health care workers.

Another contribution to the collection looks at how Russell’s work continues to impact educators and students alike. “Ramping It Up: Calling Attention to Dis/ability at the End of Education’s social Contract” by David J. Connor and April B. Coughlin shares the experiences of teaching in public high schools in the United States in a time when public education is being stripped of funding. As teachers, the authors describe the flaws of special education and the possibilities of inclusive classes as they try to incorporate into their classroom curricula Marta Russell’s criticisms of “normalcy” as a construct that dehumanizes people with disabilities.

One author narrates her experiences of being a wheelchair user teaching in a public school in New York City, where only 13 percent of school buildings are fully accessible. When her students became tired of having their English class change locations due to a broken elevator, she used the opportunity to educate them about the need to see “her” problem (can’t use the stairs) as their problem as well. She refers to Russell’s concept of “social solidarity” in which people can “build upon mutual respect and support without dismissing or diluting difference. For instance, to move beyond ramps, we must first agree that ramps are indisputably necessary . . . making a common political ‘home’ blending difference into commonality.”

Not all of the essays are successful. Nirmala Erevelles’ essay “Beyond Ramps/Against Work” promises to expand on Russell’s politics of intersectionality by taking up Michelle Alexander’s process of “becoming Black” into a similar process of “becoming disabled.” However, she ultimately tries to weave too many analyses into a short essay without really developing a coherent argument.

“Autonomism and the Disabled and Able Working Classes” by Zach Richter provides an interesting historical analysis of labor policy that standardized the “sane” and able-bodied in the late nineteenth century in the workplace by segregating disabled workers into institutions and sanatoriums. Yet his conclusion that “modernity has systematically dispossessed disabled people of their labor value to the gain of the abled population” runs counter to Marta Russell’s understanding of capitalism’s undermining of all workers’ rights and material conditions.

There are many essays in this collection that merit further mention, but suffice it to say, the entire volume underlines the importance of Marta Russell’s contributions to understanding all aspects of disability under capitalism, especially in the current neoliberal era of austerity. The collection is not necessarily for the beginning reader on this topic, but it adds to the body of disability studies that tries to address the daily reality of disability oppression by taking up personal, social, political, and economic oppression—both today and historically. It should encourage readers to seek out more works by Marta Russell, which is the collection’s most important impetus.

Issue #102

Fall 2016

World economy

The return of crisis
Issue contents

Top story

Editorials

Features

Interviews

Debates

Reviews

WeAreMany.org