Capitalism, Disability and Ableism

Author: JP Ingram

I have an episodic disability which involves chronic fatigue and pain. Often my muscles spasm and ache and I get out of breath and dizzy when I stand. It took me a long time to start thinking of myself as disabled and to understand what that means politically. Part of this process involved unpicking the internalised ableism I grew up with and absorbed from my family, my school and the community I lived in. I was trying to figure out if I was actually disabled- and if so, was I disabled enough?- as well as grappling with the shame of not being able to do things that I thought I should be able to do to support and take care of myself.

Disabled people are one of the largest groups of oppressed people. And we’ll all be disabled at some point in our lives, even if it’s temporary, because of ageing, chronic health issues, pollution and toxic environments, violence and stress. As the writer and disability activist Mia Mingus says “disability is one of the most organic and human experiences on the planet.” But disability and ableism are too often sidelined and ignored in our communities and spaces.

Broadly, ableism can be defined as any kind of discrimination towards people with disabilities.

We’re all aware of the impact of austerity on disabled folks and disability benefits, but it goes much further and deeper than that. I’ve encountered ableism everywhere, including in many activist and radical communities and spaces. And we need to examine where it comes from so we can resist it and work towards making our communities and our spaces fully accessible to everyone.

‘Productivity: the ableist heart of Capitalism

Capitalism plays a huge part. We’re all expected to be constantly productive in some way, whether it’s through wage labour, unpaid labour or voluntary work, raising children or other care work. And if we’re not productive we’re somehow less than human. The Nazis even had had their own abled pin up – the Ancient Greek statue of the Discobolus, the discus thrower – which they used as the ultimate example of the master race: a white, abled, supremely athletic young man. To them disabled people were a burden: ‘useless eaters’ that needed to be wiped out. Around 250,000 disabled people were ultimately murdered under the Nazi Aktion T4 program.

Nowadays ableism is evident in a multitude of ways; from the attempt to ban plastic straws, which only make up a small amount of plastic pollution and are a vitally important aid for some disabled folks, to genetic testing and selective abortions for foetuses with identifiable or potential disabilities. (I know this is complex and decisions about continuing with a pregnancy are deeply connected to the lack of support and resources for parents with disabled children). Even the disproved link between the MMR vaccine and autism was motivated by the idea that autism is to be avoided or prevented at all costs.

All of these are linked to the basic ableist assumptions about what it means to be a person and to have a good (ie worthwhile) life. And the visibility and status that’s granted when you’re seen as a full person. Both disabled people and animals occupy similar devalued positions and the writer Sunaura Taylor speaks of “an oppressive values system that declares some bodies normal, some bodies broken and some bodies food” and explores how those labelled “animals” (human and non human) are mistreated as a result.

The ideology of ableism is the bedrock of capitalism; where self sufficiency, containment, independence and autonomy are prized. You can see it at at so many different levels: in the prioritising of national economic independence, in individual and cultural celebrations of autonomy, and in relation to work, where disabled folks are seen as ‘lazy’ or ‘faking it’ to get benefits.

Capitalism depends on this myth of independence and the false belief of total self sufficiency. Disability disrupts it and opens up spaces for us think about our interdependence and how important and transformative it is for us to have deeply meaningful reciprocal relationships with each other.

But because individualism and independence are so accepted and internalised it can make it hard to understand what this interdependence actually involves. And our communities often fail to take up accessibility as a practice and end up reproducing the structural ableism that disabled folks constantly encounter. It’s been the ableism I’ve encountered in activist and radical communities and spaces that has hurt me the most. People who are able to attend meetings, protests, events, to travel, to take more risks, who have more time and who work faster ultimately build more social capital and take more dominant roles in groups and projects. And if you aren’t able to go at the same pace you can easily become sidelined and isolated.

It can be really hard to start thinking about accessibility when there’s so much else going on and resources are or seem scarce. It involves time, energy, and often money to make things accessible. It means challenging our own internalised ableism and blindspots, which we might benefit from. And we’re never going to be perfect – there’s always going to be more to think about, more to learn and ways which we can do better. But it’s not about being perfect. It’s about how we can start thinking about accessibility and slowly integrate it into our lives and communities. And how we can disrupt the emphasis on our value being tied to labour of any kind. Because ultimately it’s about valuing us ALL and building communities in which everyone’s lives are valued, accepted and celebrated.

As the disabled organiser and advocate Sandy Ho says:

“An accessible movement of any kind means that when organisers look back to evaluate their impact they can say “who was missing? None of the oppressed”

So what can you do?

A lot! As well as identifying and working your own biases you can begin to dismantle ableism in your communities and spaces in many ways. This means prioritising accessibility as a fundamental part of what you do:

  • Think about accessibility broadly and include folks with invisible physical disabilities, Deaf and hard of hearing folks, people who are visually impaired, neurodivergent folks, survivors of trauma and people with drug and alcohol issues
  • Ask people what access needs they might have and be open to feedback from them
  • Don’t make assumptions! You don’t know who’s disabled by looking at them
  • Don’t assume all disabled folks are one homogenous group
  • Remember that ableism can involve and intersect with other power differentials – class, race, gender, ethnicity etc.
  • Use the Rooted in Rights checklist (or a similar one) when organising events (see resource list)
  • Ask about accessibility at events and make complaints when things aren’t accessible
  • Challenge others’ ableist behaviour and comments
  • Read, watch and buy disabled folks’ work
  • Make sure you go at a pace that includes everyone
  • Be patient!

Resources and references:

Access is Love: aproject to help build a world where access is understood as an act of love and that encourages folks to incorporate access into their everyday lives. Loads of resources and links. Check it out!

Leaving Evidence by Mia Mingus

A beautiful blog about disability justice, community accountability and transformative justice.

Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna Samarasinha, Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018. Powerful exploration of disability justice and how we can build sustainable communities of liberation where no one is left behind.

Overcoming Burnout by Nicole Rose, Active Distribution, 2019. This is a brilliant book made up of a series of blog posts written about Nicole’s experiences of organising and chronic ill health.

The blog posts are available here:

The book is available for £5 here:

All proceeds from the book go to directly supporting IPP prisoners (folks serving indeterminate prison sentences in England and Wales).

Rooted in Rights accessibility checklist: A clear and comprehensive checklist for making your events and activities as accessible as possible:

“You do not exist to be used”. Why your life purpose is bigger than capitalist productivity, GillianGiles

Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation, Sunaura Taylor, The New Press, 2017. Explores cross species solidarity and how disability and animal justice are deeply entwined 💜