How Capitalism Contributed to Modern Conceptions of Disability


The Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers two definitions of disability. They are: “a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities,” and “a disadvantage or handicap imposed by the law.” This is quite puzzling. The first definition has to do with the body, but the law is outside of that purview. These two definitions seem at odds with one another. It is almost as if two completely different terms are being defined here.

It is true that people with disabilities are disadvantaged by the law. The rate of unemployment and homelessness are much higher than among the general population. The law “imposes a handicap” on the disabled, but this does not mean that everyone who is legally disadvantaged fits the category “disabled.” Drunk drivers are “handicapped” by the law, but this does not mean drunk driving is a disability. Further, not everything about a body that makes it better or worse at something is a disability. I wear glasses, for example, but I am not disabled by virtue of doing so.

Both definitions of the term “disability” provided here miss something. We might ask why some physical or mental conditions are categorized as disabilities (and come with the social oppression that entails), while others are not. When we use the term disability, we typically mean something to do with biology. When there is a contradiction between the definition of a term and the way it is used, that is a good sign ideology is at work. This leaves us with an important question: where did this definition come from, and who does it serve?

Against this contradictory definition, I want to propose a return to the social model of disability. This was put forward by a British organization called the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS), founded in the early 1970s. At the time, most organizations having to do with disabled people functioned as charities, rather than being about political advocacy. UPIAS was founded to challenge that. It was an organization built explicitly to further the political self-activity of the disabled community.

In one of their founding documents, UPIAS draw a distinction between disability and impairment. This is the first major piece of the social model. The distinction could be seen as tracking the two-point dictionary definition offered above. It “bridges the gap” between physical and legal impairment, rather than setting them apart from one another. The document reads, “in our view, it is society which disables physically-impaired people. Disability is something that is imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society. We define impairment as ‘lacking all or part of a limb, an organ, or a mechanism of the body,’ and disability as ‘the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by contemporary social organization, which takes little or no account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from the mainstream of social activity.’” I should note that the definition of impairment provided here requires expansion. That project, however, is best left to another essay.

This definition draws a clear line of demarcation drawn between disability and impairment. Impairment is the physical or mental differences between people, whether genetic or acquired, that is experienced as a limitation on activity. Disability, on the other hand, is the name for a social process by which some people with impairments are treated differently as a group by society. Disability is created out of impairment. The point of this distinction is to clear up some of the mental fog around the term disability. It unites two seemingly contradictory aspects of the same phenomena.

The question now is this: if disability is created out of impairment, how is it created? There are as many different versions of the social model as there are answers to that question. As the movement for the rights and recognition of disabled people has grown, the radical roots of the social model have been lost. UPIAS approached the social model, whether consciously or not, from an anti-capitalist framework. In their view, the creation of disability had to do with the organization of economic life. On this question at least, UPIAS acknowledged the primacy of the economic base. They write, “in the final analysis, the particular form of poverty principally associated with physical impairment is caused by our exclusion from the ability to earn an income on par with our able-bodied counterparts due to the way employment is organized.” Disablement, then, can be argued to be a fundamentally economic phenomenon. It has to do with the way work is organized, as well as the way work impacts our lives outside the immediate act of performing labor.

Other answers could be given to the question of how disability arises out of impairment. We might say that it is primarily legal, and could be remedied with the passage of laws that increase access. This should be part of the answer, but I would argue that the legal superstructure is merely an expression of the economic base. Laws that equalize access can only occur in a specific economic framework. To really grapple with the question of disability, we must contend with the economic organization of society.

Understanding disability, I will argue, must be about recovering the radical content of the social model as it was first put forward. This requires an examination of the history of disability. Where did the concept first arise, and how might the original social model deal with that?

Roughly one thousand years ago, society was organized in a feudal system. It is enough for our present purposes to say that feudalism was characterized by the division between those who farm the land (serfs, slaves, etc) and those who use the surplus to finance their political and military endeavors (the lords).

Under feudalism, (specifically in Europe, which I will focus on for the sake of space) people we would now call disabled were mostly integrated into communities and families. The blind, the lame, and the infirm (to use the parlance of the time) participated in the production process within the home. They performed housework, cooking, and other labor that reproduced the existence of the producing class. When they were able, they worked outside the home. In either case, the job of caring for these people fell mostly to families rather than professional institutions.
In a minority of cases, impairment made it difficult to work at any level. People who fell into this category were taken care of by the Church, in monasteries. Nuns and monks did this out of a sense of religious duty. Some impairments were seen as curses, the result of being far from God’s light. Physical impairments could be taken as evidence of original sin. Other kinds of impairment (what might now be called mental or learning disabilities) were seen as something akin to blessings, or a freedom from original sin. People we would now call disabled were closely related to religious institutions, though the sense in which they were related varied wildly.

I use the term “people we would now call disabled,” because the concept of disability did not exist under feudalism in the same way it does today. No one thought of blind people, lepers, or the lame as being all part of one category: people lacking ability. The focus was very much on specific forms of impairment as discrete entities. As we have seen, people had very different ideas about specific forms of impairment. The thought was that all people fall short of God by a matter of degrees, and people we would now call disabled fell on one end of the spectrum. The idea of carving up society into people with ability and people without ability would never have occurred to anyone. Such a sharp dividing line did not exist.

Two events served to disrupt this status quo. The system of monastery-based care, in the face of the Reformation, became unstable. After the formation of the Anglican Church, Henry the Eighth ordered the shuttering of many monasteries. Those that survived were not set up to expand, so reliance on monasteries for the care of the impaired became untenable.

Secondly, capitalism began to develop. Farmers were stripped from their land, and new proletarians became concentrated in large workshops. Tasks were divided among these people in ever more specific ways, so that specialization became the order of the day. Instead of people consuming the product of their own labor (minus a tithe to the lord), people began to produce wholly for the profit of another, in a competitive framework. This competition compelled the capitalists to expand production in order to stay afloat on the market. Work continued to speed up, and cities continued to grow.

As cities grew, the village and family structures that impaired people were integrated into crumbled. The Church did not exist to “fill in the gaps” left by the dispossession of small farmers. The state stepped in out of necessity, in order to control the unrest of the new working class. Peasants and newly-minted proletarians mounted resistance to dispossession and forced migration. The capitalist class and the state new that they would have to force people to work for them. This marked the beginning of poorhouses, workhouses, and other such institutions.

Workhouses were reserved for those who were able to work, but who were viewed as refusing to do so. In these institutions, people were compelled to work for very low wages. Poorhouses were much the same in terms of conditions, but inhabitants were not forced to work. Naturally, proletarians flocked to the poorhouses, as they did not want to work. To avoid a total depletion of the labor force, the lawmakers had to draw a distinction between people who were allowed in poorhouses and those who were forced into workhouses.

In 1872, the Poor Law was passed, marking an important turning point in the development of disability. This law drew a distinction between the “impotent poor” and the “able-bodied poor.” This is the first recorded use of the term “able-bodied” as an official, legal signifier. It is interesting to note that the word “ability” (in the abstract) appeared before the word disability, not the other way around. This is very strange, linguistically. There is no such thing as “ability” in and of itself. One must be able to do a particular thing. Disability is always defined in contrast to disability, so it is odd that these two words did not initially appear side-by-side.

In this context, “able-bodied poor” meant those who were physically able to work in a factory or otherwise produce goods. The thing that able-bodied poor people are able to do is be exploited by capital. From the moment ability appeared in a legal context, it was defined in terms of the ability to make profits for someone else. To be “disabled” was to lack this ability.

Prior to this, the concept of disability as a whole did not exist. With the rise of the capitalist mode of production, a new idea rose to prominence and eventually legal recognition: there were people with the ability to be exploited, and people who do not have that ability. Those who did not have that ability were useless to capital, and so were tossed by the wayside. Capitalism gave rise to the categorization of impaired people as disabled. The segregation and oppression of people with disability began with the rise of capitalism.

I go through all this history is because it contextualizes the social model. UPIAS asserted that disability arises with the organization of employment in the capitalist mode of production. History would seem to bear that out.

I believe disability oppression will cease to exist when we can overcome production for the sake of profit. We currently exist in a society that values human beings in proportion to their capacity to contribute to the production of surplus value. But that is not the only way to produce things. We could just as easily organize the economy around meeting human needs, rather than profit. We would be able to slow down production so impaired people could keep up and contribute to society fully. Organizing production in an anti-capitalist/socialist direction would combat disability oppression.

There have always been differences between human bodies and minds that make individual lives easier or more difficult. A great many human societies have found ways to work together and match abilities to needs. There have always been impairments, but the idea that these people constitute a lesser category — or even a category at all — has not always existed. A world organized according to this idea, in which disabled people are segregated, excluded, mocked, and attacked, came into existence along with wage labor. This society was made by human beings, and can be unmade by human beings as well. Collective human action has the power to remake society according to a principle that leaves no room for the oppression of impaired people: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

Further Reading

Russell, Marta, and Ravi Malhotra. “Capitalism and disability.” Socialist Register 38.38 (2009).

Oliver, Michael J. “Capitalism, disability, and ideology.” Special Educational Needs and Inclusive Education: Systems and contexts 1 (2004): 82.

Barnes, Colin. “Theories of disability and the origins of the oppression of disabled people in western society.” Disability and society: Emerging issues and insights (1996): 43-60.

Finkelstein, Vic. “The social model of disability repossessed.” Manchester Coalition of Disabled People 1 (2001): 1-5.

Perelman, Michael. The invention of capitalism: Classical political economy and the secret history of primitive accumulation. Duke University Press, 2000.


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