The Disability Rights Movement and the Left

By Charlton, James I. | Monthly Review, July-August 1994 | Go to article overview

The Disability Rights Movement and the Left


Charlton, James I., Monthly Review


As a person with a disability who has been active for more than twenty years in left politics, I find the relationship between the disability rights movement and the left a frustrating and often disturbing one. Here I discuss the growing political consciousness of people with disabilities, the politics and challenges of the disability rights movement (DRM), and the movement's relation to the left.

Disability Consciousness and Social Change

Many barriers exist that have prevented the development of a mass disability consciousness. These include a history of oppression, isolation, degradation, and paternalism. Furthermore, people with disabilities have multiple, partially overlapping, and semi-contradictory identities. We can assert an identity based on our own specific disability, our ethnicity, or even the disability organizations or issues we relate to. Our self-definition is further influenced by gender, class, and sexual orientation.

In spite of these factors, we have witnessed a growing identity with disability related issues by people who have historically not self-identified with even their own disabilities, let alone broader social issues as they relate to disability. This was recently confirmed in a Harris Poll, where over 60 percent of people with disabilities identified with specific disability issues. Tens of thousands of people with disabilities have become involved in disability-related issues. Thousands have joined protests around inaccessible public transportation or the lack of adequate personal assistance services. In 1988, students at Gallaudet University, a university in Washington D.C. for people who are deaf or hearing-impaired, forced the University's Board of Directors to rescind an offer of the University's presidency to a hearing person and to offer the position to a deaf man instead. A disability culture is emerging in fields like music, theater, and literature that emphasizes pride, anger, and self-directed humor. Last year, the first national conference of university students with disabilities was held at the University of Minnesota under the theme "Disabled and Proud."

Recent developments in the disabled community parallel, although to a much lesser degree, the process of consciousness that marked the rise of many liberation movements. Today, we are witnessing the gradual replacement of the "false consciousness" of self-pity and helplessness by the "raised consciousness" of dignity, anger, and empowerment. This is a significant change within our community in less than twenty years. The way in which thousands of people with disabilities relate personally and politically to society has been profoundly affected; basic notions are changing:

(The) movement goes beyond the attempt to secure new rights and entitlement for disabled persons. It also represents an attempt to reshape the manner in which the problem of disability is defined and to encourage new interventions. We are witnessing the emergence of a new paradigm designed to redirect the thinking of disability professionals and researchers alike.(1)

The Disability Rights Movement

It's hard to pin point when the disability rights movement began. In the first part of this century, a few individuals with significant disabilities began to be involved in issues like vocational rehabilitation, social services, and politics. Well known persons in this period include Mary Switzer and Helen Keller. Today, most activists locate the beginning of the contemporary disability rights movement in the early 1970s.

People with disabilities who were influenced by or directly involved with the student movement and civil rights movement began to organize around disability related issues. Many began to see the barriers to their independence as politically or socially determined. They came to understand that both external barriers like architectural and communication inaccessibility, poverty, and discrimination, and internal barriers like the lack of self-esteem, were the results of a social process, potentially subject to change. …

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