By Anne Finger
On April 14, the largest disability rights demonstration in our nation's history was held in Washington, D.C. ADAPT wasn't there, Mouth and The Ragged Edge weren't there -- and neither was yours truly. I found out about it when I read The New York Times the next day.
The demonstrators, who had gathered to protest the cut-off in Medicaid, Social Security and other programs to legal disabled immigrants in the "welfare reform" bill, weren't the usual disability rights crowd. The Times reported that the rally began with klezmer music and that many protesters were older men, some dressed in military uniforms, wearing medals from World War II.
The rally had been organized largely by immigrant groups representing those who had come to the U.S. from Russia and Ukraine, although immigrants from Asia and Latin America were present as well. The demonstrators pointed out that many of them had worked in this country for decades, paying into the Social Security system. (Their protests have been successful: this draconian provision of "welfare reform" has been repealed.)
The overhaul of the welfare system has impacts on us as disabled people that are both direct and indirect. As a political movement, we ignore at our peril both the concrete changes that are being enacted, and, more importantly, the changes in the way in which welfare and entitlement programs, such as Social Security, are coming to be viewed by our nation as a whole.
In the original welfare reform bill, two provisions directly affected disabled people: the cut-off of aid to legal immigrants with disabilities and the "tightening up" of the provisions governing Social Security disability benefits for children. Along with this latter measure has come a press blitz of articles which talk about how parents "coach" their children to "act disabled." Thus, those who want to cut back benefits for disabled children don't get seen as attacking children with "real" disabilities--kids with Down Syndrome, say, or children in wheelchairs. Instead, "reformers" position themselves as really attacking greedy, manipulative parents, not sweet little crippled children.
Far more important than the direct actions affecting disabled people under "welfare reform" are the changes in the national mindset that we are experiencing. Prior to (and alongside of) welfare reform we have seen a wave of articles in the media talking about the fearsome dependency that welfare breeds--and painting welfare recipients as hustlers and cheats who find ways to beat the system.
Contrast this with the ideas prevalent thirty years ago. In the 1960s, we had a War on Poverty. However we may judge the actual programs carried out under that banner, there was, at least, a national consensus that poverty was something that ought to be eradicated. Now, few if any of our politicians are so bold as to talk about ending poverty. (One right-wing flak even talks about how poverty is a good thing -- it builds character and all that -- although I doubt if he is planning on moving to my neighborhood, giving up health insurance for his family, getting rid of his car, being afraid to let his children go outside to play, and eating overpriced, spoiled food from the local "convenience" store.) Instead, politicians talk about ending "dependency."
Few voices point out that homeowners (whose average mortgage deduction on federal taxes is roughly equivalent to what is spent on AFDC benefits to a poor family) aren't being accused of dependency or of sucking at the teat of government largesse. And there are rumblings going on about cutting back on Social Security--so far largely confined to talking about benefits received by well-off, elderly Social Security recipients.
It isn't hard to imagine that this same mindset and eagerness to balance the Federal budget--and to create a class of low-wage workers--might turn its eye on us next. Just as right-wing politicians pointed out that plenty of mothers worked, so why couldn't women on AFDC, someone is sure to point out that some of us work, so why can't we all? The money spent on AFDC is small change compared to the $60 billion a year that goes to disabled people under Social Security payments. And the number of people receiving Social Security Disability is growing rapidly--nearly doubling in the past two decades. How can the disability rolls be growing so quickly? Are these people all really entitled to benefits? Is life getting too easy for them? Can we see the twinkle in the budget cutters' eyes already?
In the past, of course, we played the role of "worthy recipient" to the AFDC's role of "unworthy leech". So, of course, some of us will still have to seem "worthy"--I imagine those with the most visible disabilities. But the rest of us will be painted as exaggerating our disabilities (and after all, we all know the game: services are inadequate, so we have to pretend to have more impairment than we do so we can get what we actually need). Some of us will be seen as lying back and taking it easy while the noble ones among us are managing to work. The disabled people who have managed to get into the work force--often through enormous efforts at overcoming discrimination and with support systems and privileges that many of us don't have access to--will be held up as what is possible for all of us.
What should we as disabled people do? First, we need to understand what the attack on welfare means: that it has more to do with creating a class of low-wage workers and demonizing certain categories of people than with balancing the Federal budget. (If the powers-that-be really wanted to trim the deficit, they could start with funding for the Stealth bomber, designed to penetrate Soviet air defenses which no longer exist).
We need to work actively to end the silly notion that one is either "disabled" (defined as unable to work and thus able to receive income support and Medicaid/Medicare and, sometimes, in-home supportive services) or "non-disabled" (defined as able to work, no matter what our impairment and thus largely ineligible for any kind of assistance). The number of people getting income support will decrease when assistance is available to people who need it, regardless of whether or not we are employed.
More importantly, we need to argue against "productivity" and "bringing home a paycheck" as a measure of human value. We need to work for a society that values a range of kinds of labor and ways of working--everything from raising children to working for disability rights.
Anne Finger is the Fiction and Poetry Editor of Ragged Edge magazine.
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