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March 2018, Week 5

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 		 [ The late Marta Russell was singular in viewing the
marginalization of people with disabilities through the lens of
political economy. The books contributors offer a body of work that
builds on her legacy and on the rising political insurgency of people
with disabilities.] [https://portside.org/] 

 PORTSIDE CULTURE 

 MARTA RUSSEL'S LEGACY AND THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF DISABILITY  
[https://portside.org/2018-03-29/marta-russels-legacy-and-political-economy-disability]


 

 Bridget Broderick 
 March 1, 2018
International Socialist Review
[https://isreview.org/issue/108/marta-russells-legacy-and-political-economy-disability]


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 _ The late Marta Russell was singular in viewing the marginalization
of people with disabilities through the lens of political economy. The
book's contributors offer a body of work that builds on her legacy and
on the rising political insurgency of people with disabilities. _ 

 , Routledge 

 

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.
 

DISABILITY POLITICS IN A GLOBAL ECONOMY: ESSAYS IN HONOUR OF MARTA
RUSSELL
[https://www.routledge.com/Disability-Politics-in-a-Global-Economy-Essays-in-Honour-of-Marta-Russell/Malhotra/p/book/9781138887589]
Ravi Malhotar, Editor
Routledge; 244 pages
Hardback, $128.00; Paperback, $49.50 (to be released April 17, 2018)
E-book, 44.96
ISBN: 9781138887589; 9781138590946; E-book: 9781315714011
 

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.

_[Reviewer Bridget Broderick
[https://isreview.org/person/bridget-broderick] is a socialist
activist and speech pathologist living in Chicago._

_Book editor Ravi Malhotra
[https://isreview.org/person/ravi-malhotra], a long-time militant in
the disability rights movement, is a law professor at the University
of Ottawa and a sponsor of the socialist journal, New Politics. He
coauthored, with the late Marta Russell, a piece on disability and
capitalism in Socialist Register 2002. Launches for his Disability
Politics in a Global Economy: Essays in Honour of Marta Russell are
scheduled for May 3 at the University of San Diego and on Sept 20 in
Ottawa Canada. For more information on the events, he's reachable at
the Faculty of Law, Common Law Section, University of Ottawa, Ottawa,
Can. His work can also be screened at http://ssrn.com/author=902566
[http://ssrn.com/author=902566] He even has a Twitter account:
@RaviMalh [http://@RaviMalh]]_

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