Disability and Inclusion: Some theory and praxis

Susan Pashkoff explores the social model of disability, the exclusion of disabled people from society, and puts forward suggestions for how the left can support inclusion and accessibility.


The majority of this piece will consider the issue of inclusion of disabled people. In order to understand the problem of inclusion for disabled people, first we need to understand what disability is and that the traditional way of presenting it as the opposite of being abled bodied has been historically contested by disabled people. Disabled people switched the focus away from seeing ‘the problem’ resting within the individual, to seeing the problem as being the organisation of given societies. From this perspective disability is seen as the social oppression of people with impairments. To appreciate this shift in focus , we must distinguish between people’s individual impairments (e.g., congenital, age related, brought about by illness, and by the actions of the economic system in which we live, e.g., work related injuries, injuries brought about by war, mental health impairments, being on the autism spectrum, etc) and the fact that disability is the exclusion of those with impairments from the societies in which they live. So, impairment (relating to individual medical conditions and considerations) is not the same thing as disability which is the imposition of unnecessary social restrictions. We, as disabled people, do not have disabilities, we have impairments and our oppression derives from our exclusion from or marginalisation within society, economically and socially.

“Disabled people switched the focus away from seeing ‘the problem’ resting within the individual, to seeing the problem as being the organisation of given societies.”

Disability is Social Oppression

In the social model of disability, disability is social, individuals do not have disabilities. Individuals have impairments of many different kinds and these impairment realities will affect them on a regular basis. But disability is social and relates not to the individual medical conditions or “individual tragedy” as impairment is often treated in capitalism. Rather it relates to the society’s refusal to include people with impairments, their refusal to adapt society such that people with impairment can participate in society as fully as people without impairments. Instead, individuals with impairments are encouraged so as to adapt to the conditions of society rather than society adapting to include impaired people and therefore are punished if they cannot comply. The fact that people are living longer, means that it is inevitable that the number of impaired people will rise. Given the exclusion of disabled people from society, that means that more and more people no longer fit the needs of the system itself. We also need to understand that capitalism produces impairments as well; think of work-related injuries like back problems, arthritis, impairments caused by machinery, impairments caused by disasters at work, impairments caused by war, etc. My understanding of the interrelationship between impairment and capitalism developed out of discussions I have had with Bob Williams-Findlay; while capitalism produces impairments, it also creates disability and exclusion.

Disability is a social oppression based upon the exclusion of those with impairments from the society. It depends on several things, including the nature of production in the society (that is the mode of production of the society), the class background of people with impairments, gender, racialism, and whether they are LGBT+. We need to understand that social oppression is complex and those people that are racialised, women, LGBT+ live with additional oppressions because oppression is intersectional. What we need to understand is that disability relates to the fact that the most important role that workers play in the capitalist economic system is the provision of labour. In the case of those unable to work without assistance or reasonable adjustments on the part of the capitalist employer, disabled people remain excluded from the primary role of working-class people in the capitalist economic system. Those that are unable to “contribute” through provision of labour (and that is how workers are viewed in the system) create a problem for the system. That is what led to initial institutionalisation, the introduction of the workhouse, the exclusion of the poor and disabled people. What this means is that the capitalist economic system needs to adapt the conditions of production in order to enable disabled people to participate. Whether they are willing to do so depends on many things, for example, the level of unemployment, and distribution (that is the wage/rate of profit relationship; if wages are low, they are probably more reluctant to make adjustments to include disabled people).

Much of the history of the exclusion of disabled people and their entitlement to support and relief (welfare) or not relates to this basic role of working-class people in the capitalist economic system. On the one hand, whether we can participate as workers or not depends on the willingness of the employers to provide or make reasonable adjustments in the production process to include disabled people. On the other hand, the refusal of capitalist employers to actually make reasonable adjustments or whether they can get non-disabled people to work for lower wages, thereby it makes it unprofitable for employers to hire disabled people. This contradiction arises very early in the history of the capitalist economic system. If we look at the writings of Jeremy Bentham on the 1795-7 Poor Law Amendment; we see several points that still permeate the discussions around benefits and the medicalised treatment of disability. Bentham argued that those without access to wealth contributed to society through their labour; if people are not doing so, he raises the discussion around eligibility for support rather than entitlement that was found in the 1795-7 Poor Law Amendment.

“What we need to understand is that disability relates to the fact that the most important role that workers play in the capitalist economic system is the provision of labour.”

In The Politics of Disablement (which I strongly recommend), Mike Oliver discusses the relationship between capitalism and disability which I will do little justice to here unfortunately. In chapter 3 of The Politics of Disablement, Oliver discusses the transformation in capitalism to industrial production:

”The operation of the labour market in the Nineteenth Century effectively depress handicapped people of all kinds to the bottom of the market […] 

As a result of this, disabled people came to be regarded as a social and educational problem and more and more were segregated in institutions of all kinds including workhouses, asylums, colonies and special school and out of the mainstream of social life (Oliver, The Politics of Disablement, p. 28).”  

But understanding the relationship between the needs of the capitalist economic system and its evolution is important to understand the history of disability which is created under capitalism. While during the earlier phases of the capitalist system, much work was agricultural and done as part of family and community production, the shift towards industrial production in urban areas meant that disabled people could not participate in the production process as before. The institutionalisation and removal of disabled people, people unable to work, was the initial manner in which the capitalist economic system addressed this contradiction. Discussions of whether disabled people, older people and unemployed people were entitled to support or whether they are eligible for assistance from the state or charities still remains the basic approach of the capitalist economic system towards social welfare policies towards the poor (those without wealth), disabled people and older people. The creation of pensions was a massive step forwards as workers actually managed to live longer due to healthcare and sanitation systems as well as workplace regulations, but it did not solve the contradiction within the system itself. Elderly and disabled people are still routinely warehoused in institutions rather than being treated with dignity and respect. 

The social model of disability argues that the problems that impaired people face are not due to their impairments, but rather that the society itself it responsible for our being disabled; that is, we are excluded from society be the way in which society itself is structured not our individual impairments. These exclusions range from simple things that easily changed like the nature of lids on jars which are difficult to manage, ramps instead of stairs makes it easier for disabled people to actually get around in cities easier, public transport that has ramps instead of stairs, extra room on public transport to ensure that more disabled people can get on public transport, access to disabled toilets, these are obvious things.  By talking about ourselves as disabled people, we are describing our social situation. Removing barriers and exclusions against disabled people is necessary but not sufficient, disablism is part and parcel of the capitalist economic system. Reforms can ameliorate the exclusion of disabled people, but changing the system itself is essential for the inclusion of disabled people as equal parts of our communities and societies.

Likewise, we know that women’s oppression relates to their primary role in social reproduction both in and outside the workplace; that is women are not oppressed because they physically reproduce the next generation of workers. They are oppressed because they do unpaid labour in the home which is necessary to keep the capitalist economic system functioning (women’s unpaid labour at home is a fundamental part of the necessary production and reproduction of the working class, it is not just workers’ consumption commodities and services produced in the workplace. However, this labour is not paid for by the capitalist economic system. That labour is more than physically producing the next generation of workers, it is preparing these children for their future roles in the capitalist economic system, it is care, nursing and support for their extending family members, it is ensuring that the family and the family home is fed, cleaned, and cared for. This labour is treated as naturally the role of women even though there is no reason that it could not be done by men or an extended family unit comprised of men and women. As such, rather than being the natural role of women, it is social oppression that has tied women into doing this labour without pay. Moreover, women often enter the workplace doing forms of this work; when it has been socialised and brought into the production process itself, it is seen as low-skilled work and it is often low-paid (especially if not unionised).

While both disablism and women’s oppression can be ameliorated in the context of the capitalist economic system itself, these oppressions are part and parcel of how the capitalist system itself functions. An obvious example of how women’s oppression can be ameliorated is the provision of community-based childcare, thereby removing it from an individual private responsibility of women in the family and move towards a social solution. An additional example is the recognition of the importance of care in the society and its treatment as an essential part of the workers’ consumption bundle. But what often happens is this work is demeaned as unskilled rather than recognising the amount of skill and learning required to do the work. That is part and parcel of women’s oppression and as is often the case part of the oppression of older and disabled people. Rather than treating people as “vulnerable” because they need additional support and assistance, we must recognise that it is capitalist society and its needs that have made people vulnerable. Older and disabled people know what their oppression derives from and hearing their demands is the first step in addressing their oppression. For example, altering what is produced in our societies to fulfil the needs of the majority (which we often talk about when we talk about socialism and ecosocialism) rather than the needs of capitalism means that we are increasing the production of care and support for working class people as essential services that are needed in our societies. Privatisation of social support and assistance (and for that matter, childcare) has led to both insufficient quantity and quality of support and assistance.

“While both disablism and women’s oppression can be ameliorated in the context of the capitalist economic system itself, these oppressions are part and parcel of how the capitalist system itself functions.”

Neoliberalism and Social Welfare

The Neoliberal version of capitalism which has enabled the destruction of public provision of social welfare benefits alongside of the destruction of working conditions and wages (wage stagnation in the advanced capitalist countries is well documented). While blaming the victim is an artform for the Tories, they have reached new heights. Disabled people are excluded from work as employers do not want to make reasonable adjustments as wages are so low and they can get cheap labour without laying out extra money to make reasonable adjustments to hire disabled people; while at the same time, somehow the unemployment of disabled people is responsible for the lack of growth in the British economy. The absurdity of this argument is irrelevant as it is has been embodied in the transformation of social welfare to Universal Credit and disabled people not working is officially stated as a cause for the economic crisis raised in the Tories Autumn budget.

Since the creation of Universal Credit following the 2007-8 economic crisis, disabled people are forced into work capability assessments to determine whether they are capable of working often adjudicated by non-medical professionals. The attacks on social welfare provision have led to attempts to force disabled people into employment due to being “insufficiently impaired” to warrant full support and assistance.

This nonsense of blaming disabled people for whatever economic crises that have occurred (heaven forfend that the capitalist system itself and the whole history of supply side economics should actually be responsible for the economic crisis) during austerity has been revived again; the Tory party is back to blaming disabled people for a stagnant economy; the demonisation of those “not contributing to society” (by not working; by the way disabled people do work) they argue (rather than a myriad of ridiculous ideological economic policies around supply side economics as well as Brexit) is the reason for British economic stagnation.

According to the Autumn Budget statement, British economic growth is not happening due to large numbers of people not in employment (yes, it is amazing how they deny that working class precarity has any impact on growth and productivity; imagine if they actually read Adam Smith whom they claim to revere), so the way to economic growth is of course to force working class people into employment, on p.14, we find the following:

“1.19 Growth depends on the number of workers in the economy, as well as productivity. Labour market participation has improved since the spring, but inactivity has continued to increase among some groups, including those who are inactive due to long-term sickness. Growing the labour supply by helping these people back into work will increase the potential output of the economy. The Autumn Statement builds on the landmark labour market package introduced in the Spring Budget by introducing the Back to Work Plan.

1.20 Alongside a welfare system that supports people to work, allowing people to keep as much of their hard-earned money as possible is a priority for this government. As part of the government’s long-term plan to grow the economy it will cut taxes for 29 million working people.

1.21 The OBR says these measures will bring 78,000 people into the labour market. Although it is not reflected in the forecast, due to uncertainty around the impacts, the OBR notes that ‘some measures could provide a further boost to labour supply’, such as proposed changes to fit notes.

1.22 The OBR confirms that policies announced at the Autumn Statement will increase economic growth. It estimates that the overall effect of these supply-side measures is to boost the size of the economy by 0.3% by the end of the forecast. The OBR’s forecast also reflects long-term demographic and technological changes. The OBR judges that as the population ages, individuals will work for fewer hours on average. Due to the higher proportion of intangible assets in the economy, it assumes capital is being retired at a faster rate than previously. These factors mean that, prior to the impact of policy measures, labour and capital are assumed to grow more slowly than before, which pulls down long-term growth. This further justifies the government’s continued focus on creating growth by boosting the supply side of the economy.”

Currently, the British government is blaming economic stagnation on disabled people for being work-shy and lazy, the government’s Autumn Budget says:

“There are now a record 2.6 million people who are economically inactive due to long-term sickness and disability, almost half a million more than before the pandemic. The government is taking steps to reform the fit note process to support more people to resume work after a period of illness and expanding the Universal Support programme that matches those with health conditions and disabilities into vacancies. The government is also expanding the NHS Talking Therapies programme and Individual Placement and Support to help people with mental health conditions. The government will work with employers and business representatives to develop and promote best employment practices to support employees with health and disability issues. The government is reforming the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) so that more individuals, such as those with limited mobility and mental health conditions, receive the right support to find work where they can, rather than being automatically deemed unable to work or look for work.

To better help the long-term unemployed into work, the government is expanding Additional Jobcentre Support, extending and expanding the Restart programme in England and Wales, and strengthening sanctions for those who choose not to engage with measures that help them find work. For those that cannot work for legitimate reasons there must always be a safety net. The government will uprate all working age benefits for 2024-25 in full, by September 2023 CPI inflation of 6.7%, and will continue to protect pensioner incomes by maintaining the Triple Lock and uprating the basic State Pension, new State Pension and Pension Credit standard minimum guarantee for 2024-25 in line with average earnings growth of 8.5% (Autumn Budget, p. 3).”

It is important to note, that the increase in benefits is actually lower than the actual increase in inflation and the cost of living, which is tied not only to higher oil prices, but the rising price of food. Benefits are already far too low (this is deliberate to force workers into work and to lower the social subsistence level of wages) and not representing the actual costs of living – this was the reason for the £20 weekly upgrade during the covid pandemic – by deliberately keeping benefits below the cost of living (even on the lower CPI of inflation), they think this will force people into work. Guess what, it doesn’t. Women who are not working because they have children at home are not going into paid employment because they cannot afford childcare. Realising that people can work from home, the Tories have decided to force people into work from home. Will they provide computers to enable disabled people to work from home, what about free broadband and personal assistants for disabled people, baby sitters and care support for women caring for children and family members with impairments, Sanctions laid against those not in work means that even if an appeal is successful against those denied disability benefits and support, those dependent on benefits will not have income to survive.

This brings us into the discussion of disability, social inclusion in the community produced to fulfil the needs of disabled people coproduced with those providing support and assistance can ameliorate social oppression of impaired people. Moving towards the inclusion of disabled people rather than blaming them for the problems of economic growth in Britain, ensuring the inclusion and recognition of the contributions of women in our societies, moves towards a more equitable society for people that are oppressed due to the requirements of the capitalist economic system itself.

Supporting Inclusion

Given the above, what can we on the left do to support the inclusion of left-wing disabled people? We are comrades, certainly we must include our comrades in political work. Certainly, we can stand in solidarity with disabled people fighting for inclusion and reforms in the system whether they are on the left or not. That seems obvious, acting as allies and comrades with oppressed people is what we always say we want to do.  If there are disabled people’s movements supporting their actions and protests seems obvious; this means that we support their actions and events, not tell disabled people what you think their tactics should be.

But as is often the case, the left behaves as though it has the solutions for addressing oppression (or ignoring it as it dilutes the class struggle) rather than actually listening to what oppressed people know; they instead tell oppressed people what their problems are and how they want to solve it. This is almost classic behaviour, as an example, the left think that national care services should solve the problem, but they do not understand the historical failure of previous national care services and the institutionalisation of disabled people.  Some members of the left do not hear that disabled people want to be included as equal members of communities they live in. Some members of the left do not hear the views of disabled people and support them in the struggle for inclusion; rather there is a tendency to tell oppressed people what we think will solve the problem. That is not being an ally; that is imposing our views on them.

This is often done to other oppressed people; I cannot tell you how many times, men tell me what my oppression is and have tried to impose their analyses for my own as though I am too stupid and incompetent to understand my oppression and how to fight against it.

What we can do is ensure that all events, meetings and protests are disabled inclusive; knowledge contained in an accessibility guide will help. This should not be too difficult if we make it a priority. We choose places for events that are accessible, that have no stairs which will prevent disabled people from participating, where easy access toilets are available, we ensure that there are subtitles at zoom meetings, we ensure that there are sign language interpreters at events, etc.  But this will require the left to deliberately ensure inclusion. Ensuring inclusion will not end disablism, as that is social, but it will begin to enable inclusion of disabled people and challenge the assumptions made about the nature of disability. While this may increase our costs for events because we live in a society which excludes people, it will actually ensure that our commitment to including disabled people actually means more than just words saying we stand in solidarity.

Recently, there have been a number of protests in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza. The marches have been getting larger and longer. Rather than ensure the inclusion of disabled people in these protests by ensuring that there was a shorter march towards the end where disabled people could join the march and to participate in the protests, rather than provide a list of tube and train stations that were completely accessible without using stairs, accessible toilets on the march so that disabled people could find them easily, we have met nothing but ignorance and resistance.  It was deemed our problem rather than the organisers of the marches to ensure our ability to participate. If anyone thinks that is solidarity, guess again.

Ensuring that disabled people and organisations can participate in protests means that shorter marches need to be sign posted in advance and that space must be made during the march where disabled people can join the march … that is solidarity.

Interestingly, as a number of us were planning how to deal with this exclusion (and let’s be honest, disabling behaviour) by the organisers of the protests, a great piece came into our hands called CRIP Solidarity for Palestine. It is almost a template of what should be done before protests so that disabled comrades can be included in the protests. It seems quite honestly that exclusionary behaviour seems to be a problem of the older left rather than younger members of the left (Na’amod, a Jewish organisation made up of younger people, put out an accessibility guide for their protest as well); at yesterday’s protest, for the first time, the organising groups put out suggestions for a shorter march for those unable to participate in long marches.

“Ensuring that disabled people and organisations can participate in protests means that shorter marches need to be sign posted in advance and that space must be made during the march where disabled people can join the march … that is solidarity.”

I want to go through the CRIP Solidarity for Palestine piece as it is extremely useful and literally includes best practice to ensure accessibility for disabled protestors. There are some things whose wording I would alter, but what is there is what is needed. For example, the date and the route of the march (include post code/zip code so that people can find the locations easier) knowing your rights, suggestions for shorter marches, accessible public transport, where accessible toilets are found …


The Route and Alternative Shorter Routes

Before the Protest – Things to Bring

Getting to the Protest – Accessible Train Stations


During the Protest – Stop off points, Toilets, Points for Rest, Inclusive Tactics.

Solidarity from Home and Supportive Resources

This document includes, how to get to the march using public transport or accessible parking if you would rather drive; a reminder for people what they may need to bring on the march before it starts (remember weather conditions in Britain are extremely changeable), medication, water bottles, go with a friend, a bust card in case you get arrested, writing a lawyers’ name and contact number on your arm in case you need them), a list of accessible public transport and stopping places along the march if you need a break (that are also easy accessible as not all places are step free and have easy access toilets), what you will need to access public ‘disabled toilets’.

I want to highlight some other points in the guide relating to the march itself which applies both to disabled comrades and those that are not disabled.

Inclusive Tactics*

Think about how fast you’re moving – some people need to go slower. Walking too fast puts these people at risk of being separated from the march and being more vulnerable to negative interactions with the police. If you can, try to match your walking speed to the needs of the person who has to go slowest.

  • Be fragrance-free. See Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s Fragrance Free Femme of Colour Genius: https://brownstargirl.org/fragrance-free-femme-of-colour-genius/
  • Be mindful of people with less visible conditions – not all disabilities are visible or obvious to non-disabled people. Some people wear sunflower lanyards. These help people communicate that they have a disability and may have differing needs. Some people also wear medical alert bracelets, which help healthcare workers identify key information about them in an emergency. Some may not show any visible indication that they are disabled.


Filming and photos

  • Don’t take photos or film folks’ faces at protests! This can be directly used by police post-protest to identify individuals. Consider using a filter such as Pixelator which pixelates faces, or actively avoiding faces or recognisable features or clothing. You can also put a sticker over faces.
  • Use a filter / blur / sticker to cover faces, take a screenshot of the final image and upload that to your social media if you need to (screenshotting reduces ability to “unscramble” covered faces).
  • Bear in mind that police have previously monitored disabled people getting out of their wheelchairs at protests and reported this info to DWP (see fracking protests in Lancashire 2018).”

* one thing that is missing in the discussion of inclusive tactics is the use of smoke cannisters. These are terrible for people with lung impairments like asthma and COPD causing choking and the inability to breathe; please consider that you are forcing people that cannot tolerate the smoke to leave the protest when you set off a smoke cannister. 

Finally, the guide ends with how you can participate if you are unable to go to the protest, solidarity at home; this is important, not everyone can participate in marches but that does not mean that we cannot be in solidarity with people. This is important as participating in marches are not the only things we can do to express solidarity. Solidarity can be done in all sorts of ways and everyone needs to remember that … one form of solidarity is not more “pure” [strictly speaking, it should be ‘one form of solidarity is not “purer”  than another’] than another. Anyway that comrades can participate is important, we must stand together to recognise the importance of all forms of solidarity as well as fight for inclusion for disabled people in all events, rallies and marches.

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Susan Pashkoff is a revolutionary Marxist, Economist, political activist and blogger. She writes on issues around US and British politics and economics, gender and women's oppression, and disability.

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