Why disabled people stay at the bottom of the heap
a review by Mary Johnson
Beyond Ramps: Disability at the End of the Social Contract. by Marta Russell. Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press (1 Red Barn Rd., Monroe, Maine 04951) Paperback $18.95.
"To move beyond ramps, we must first agree that ramps are indisputably necessary," writes longtime disability activist Marta Russell. Beyond Ramps: Disability at the End of the Social Contract. is Russell's leftist economic primer on why disability rights continues to make so few inroads in changing things in the real lives of real disabled people, most of whom live in, as she puts it, "an economic straitjacket."
In her first chapter, "Normalcy as a mechanism of social control," Russell sets the tone, laying the groundwork for the case she will make: "The danger of the 'normal' construct," writes Russell, "is that it serves to make disabled people seem less than human. When disabled people are not seen as fully human," she continues, "it is easy to . . . to cut us out of the social contract, even eliminate us."
"Oh, come now!" some readers will balk. "Isn't that going a bit far?" Maybe, maybe not. In succeeding chapters, Russell piles fact upon fact to support her thesis that our capitalistic society at the end of the 20th century is indeed doing its best, mostly intentionally, to cut disabled people out of what she calls "the social contract."
The facts come from a stable of liberal and left journalism regulars like Alexander Cockburn, Michael Harrington and Left Business Observer, spiced with disability reporting from the pages of disability publications (not a few from the pages of Ragged Edge predecessor The Disability Rag) as well as mainstream news reports. And even if one might sometimes question whether her rendition of the anecdotes and statistics are precisely as their original reports would have them, the conclusions she draws from them are difficult to dispute.
She looks at the money trail following Larry McAfee, the quad who in 1990 made news seeking court sanction to kill himself (he lived in a hospital; the state of Georgia had no provision to let him hire in-home help). Russell notes that endorsing physician-assisted suicide for McAfee was a way to save the state money. Maybe it's hard to picture Atlanta pols sitting around reasoning coldly that offing McAfee would keep dollars in state coffers. But Russell serves up enough quotes from wide-ranging sources (From The Weekly Standard: "Sick people are expensive. The dead are a burden on no one.") to make us realize that many of today's policy luminaries are saying such things quite directly, without a twinge of conscience. It's called "cost of care" and "saving money" - but it's the same thing.
Russell's chapters - on the Nazi roots of eugenics, on telethon fundraising for cures, on the Americans with Disabilities Act (which became law only because crip lobbyists agreed to scuttle affirmative action and promise to keep money out of it altogether, she says, ensuring that nobody would have to do anything if it cost any money) - wouldn't surprise anyone involved in the movement. Nor are many of the stories she uses news to anyone who's been around disability rights. Her chapter on eugenics and genetics lead her to a discussion of social darwinism, which leads inexorably to the heart of the book: an economic analysis showing that "America's disabled population lives in an economic straitjacket, squeezed simultaneously by current social, physical and entitlement policy barriers to employment and a national ethic that equates human value with work."
Somebody's needed to say that for a long time.
When we look at the facts that have been staring all of us in the faces for decades, this is virtually the only conclusion that can accurately be drawn, unless we want to ignore certain facts out of a make-nice agenda. Which is what many crips in high places seem to continue to want to do - though "why" is hard to understand.
Beyond "agenda-based rhetoric" she writes, "there are disabled people who do work, there are disabled people who can work but are prevented from doing so for various reasons and there are those who cannot work. It is discrimination to deny a disabled person who can work an opportunity to do so, but it is not "special" treatment for people who cannot work to be guaranteed a humane standard of living - rather it is a measure of a just civilization that they are decently provided for."
Russell jabs not only right-wing politics but leftists and liberals as well. The progressive movements in this nation supported eugenics and now support the right to die. The labor movement, she writes, contributed to ethics that propel eugenics: "If work was to be the end-all of existence, then disabled people (who could not work) would inevitably get marginalized."
"Living in a socio-political climate that measures one's worth by economic efficacy demands that we scrutinize the 'right' to die beyond a liberalist expansion of individual rights . . . . The issue of physician assisted suicide must be viewed within the context of an economic order which is eviscerating the social contract by encouraging government to retreat from its responsibilities to the public's welfare," Russell writes. While applauding the efforts of Not Dead Yet, Russell asks, "can any identity group [by itself] prevail against an economic system which increasingly sheds all of those of no use [in] generating capital?"
Not an easy read, but elegantly reasoned, Beyond Ramps raises - and seeks to answer - the kinds of larger questions that virtually no one else in today's disability rights movement seems to be asking.
Write to The Ragged Edge
Back to cover page
Table of Contents
© Copyright 1998 The Ragged Edge
This Website produced by Cliffwood Organic Works