Fight for the rights of people with disabilities!

By Mary P. Kaessinger
May 27, 2020

This is a slightly edited version of a talk given during the“What Road To Socialism?” webinar held by Workers World Party on May 16.

Disability is a condition that strikes all classes.  Ruling-class families start charities, like the Kennedys, who started the Special Olympics.  That’s nice, but it didn’t bring universal health care, shelter or good food — faults in the system which the pandemic has so blatantly exposed.

Others who have had access to television platforms conduct lengthy telethons, like Jerry Lewis, who engendered pity by bringing disabled children before the cameras.  According to a famous T-shirt slogan, “Piss on Pity!”  We don’t want pity.  We want respect!

Those of us in the working-class fight aim to assert our dignity and make things right. We do this on many fronts.  Capitalism provides us with endless opportunities.

Militant disability rights activists, including WWP members,  joined other activists to form the People’s MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority) to fight for accessible subways and more.  New York City subways have elevators in only 20 percent of the stations.  Subways are important for more than getting around.  They bring us to work.  A NYC comptroller’s study found the employment rate was significantly higher among people with disabilities who lived near a subway line than for those who did not.

Disabled activists from WWP formed the Fair Wages Task Force, along with the New York state chapter of the National Federation of the Blind.  We wanted to reform the Fair Wages and Standards Act of 1938, which allows employers to pay subminimum wages to workers with disabilities, often pennies on the dollar.

Our effort fell short. If we persisted and got the minimum wage, participants would lose benefits that Medicaid provides, like aides. That’s how the government enforces the impoverishment of people with disabilities.

Another major fight at the heart of the current disability rights movement is for “independent living.”  That means living in our homes in the community rather than in nursing homes or other institutions.   Also, nursing homes have become breeding grounds for the COVID-19 virus.

The current pandemic poses yet another problem for people who use ventilators to breathe.  Those who use them, like disability activist Alice Wong, feared her life-saving ventilator would be taken away for use by formerly able-bodied people, hospitalized  with COVID-19.  A New York law allows the state, in the event of a hospitalization, to confiscate ventilators kept at home. In a medical crisis, the state should purchase and provide ventilators for all who need them.

The fight for socialism will tear down the rickety, mean structures of capitalism.  Building socialism will allow us to build things the rIght way.

Pinotti Kaessinger (she/her) joined WWP in the early 1970s.  As a union activist, she gravitated toward the party-initiated Center for United Labor Action, acting as a “shop steward” for people applying for unemployment benefits. Today she is active with the Disability Rights Caucus of WWP and the People’s MTA.