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Handicapitalism Makes its Debut


Marta Russell

While

a backlash is in full gear against the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

across the nation, the Wall Street Journal (Dec. 15, 1999) recently tagged

disabled people as the “Next Consumer Niche.” Another icon of America’s

ruling class, Fortune Magazine (Feb. 7, 2000) picked up on the “Disabled

Americans are a vast market” theme and soon after Fortune 500 sponsored an

info-mercial on CBS (Feb. 12, 2000) which declared that disabled people have $1

trillion in consolidated buying power. So it was that handicapitalism made its

media debut.

Handicapitalism,

a term coined by Johnnie Tuitel (a lecturer with a disability seeking to

trademark the term), is firmly centered in free market ideology. It has nothing

to do with the ADA or the right of disabled persons to employment, reasonable

accommodations, and access. Rather the handicapitalist philosophy is that

disabled people “should not be viewed as charity cases or regulatory burdens

but as profitable marketing targets.”

Citing

1995 Census data that there are 48.5 million people 15 and older with

disabilities in the U.S., with annual discretionary income totaling $175 billion

as support, handicapitalists pose that products and services ought to “be

spurred by the profit potential” lying in these numbers, “not by ADA

compliance.”

“Targeting

people with disabilities for purely altruistic reasons,” Cheryl Duke,

president of W.C. Duke Associates Inc., a disability-consulting firm in

Virginia, explains to the WSJ "isn’t going to get the return on investment.

If you do it because it’s a moneymaking project, it will continue."

Discounting

the value of rights, the handicapitalists hold that in order for disabled people

to be tolerated by our capitalist society, rights must be subsumed to the profit

motive. Under this philosophy, social success will be ours when disabled persons

gain status as consumers with enough buying power to command it. But where does

the buying-power reside, who really controls it and who benefits?

The

handicapitalist $1 trillion-buying-power media blitz places in the public mind

the illusion that disabled people, as a class of persons, have achieved economic

prosperity. This flies in the face of the facts. Buying-power data does not tell

the story of the persistently high unemployment rate and wide income disparities

that dominate the economic lives of the vast majority of disabled persons.

The

majority of disabled people are not even working people. Despite a growing

economy and a 29-year-low unemployment rate, potential workers with disabilities

remain chronically unemployed. Ten years after the passage of the Americans with

Disabilities Act (ADA), national employment surveys show that the unemployment

rate for the disabled population remains at 70 percent – no where near to

achieving economic parity with the nondisabled population.

For

example: • Three out of ten (29 percent) working age adults with disabilities

work full or part-time compared to eight of ten (79 percent) of those without

disabilities, a gap of fifty percentage points.

Of those with disabilities who are employed, only 18.4 percent of disabled

people work full time. The comparable figure for nondisabled people is 62

percent.

The vast majority (79 percent) of those unemployed say that they would prefer to

work. The Census Bureau, however, finds that disabled persons are less likely to

have a job than people with no disability. While the likelihood of having a job

is 82.1 percent for those with no disability, it is 76.9 percent for those with

a non-severe disability and drops to 26.1 percent for those with a significant

disability.

There is a wage gap between disabled and nondisabled workers. In 1995, workers

with disabilities holding part time jobs (disabled are more likely to work part

time) earned on average only 72.4 percent of the amount nondisabled workers

earned annually. Such wage differentials were observed for disabled persons

working full time. Median monthly income for people with work disabilities

averaged about $1,500 in 1995 – 25 percent less than the $2,000 earned by their

counterparts without disabilities.

Poverty remains disproportionate amongst disabled Americans. Census data (1995)

shows the nondisabled poverty rate to be 13.5 percent compared to a poverty rate

of 20.2 percent for disabled persons. Fully one third of adults with

disabilities live in a household with an annual income of less than $15,000

compared to one in eight (12 percent) of those without disabilities – a 22 point

gap. Furthermore, the gap between disabled and nondisabled persons living in

very low income households has remained virtually constant since 1986.

The annual income cutoff at $15,000 doesn’t paint a complete picture of the

depth of poverty some disabled persons endure. For example, since $720 is the

average per month benefit that a disabled worker received in 1998 from Social

Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and $480 is the average federal income for

the needs-based Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the real income of over 10

million disabled people on these programs is between $5,000 and $10,000 – far

below the $15,000 mark.

So

where is all the consumer driven buying-power the handicapitalists rave about?

There are 17 million working age disabled people, 5.5 million of whom have a

job. The employed will have some extra money to spend beyond expenses everyone

must pay, such as rent, utilities, and food (the poor have some buying -power).

The rest of the 48 .5 million disabled people are under 18 or over 65. Some

buying-power may rest with the parents of disabled children and the elderly who

have had a lifetime to accumulate a bank account before they acquired a

disability. It certainly does not rest with the 11 million working age blind,

deaf, developmentally disabled or mobility impaired people who are unemployed,

living on SSDI or SSI, and not earning fat salaries on the upwardly mobile

track.

The

equally important question is how much of the money being spent on disability

specific needs and products is under the control of the disabled individual? It

is most likely that the real buying power resides with government agencies who

make purchases for disabled individuals under programs such as Social Security,

Medicare, Medicaid, the Department of Rehabilitation or with private insurance

companies. Rather than the buying power being in the hands of the disabled

“consumer” these agencies make the purchases on behalf of their disabled

clients. The decision-making power is far removed from the disabled individual.

As

it turns out, the WSJ story was spurred by WE media, an an Internet portal whose

corporate partners include HotJobs.com Ltd., a job-search site that pushes

products and real estate targeted at disabled persons. Best known for its New

York City billboard proclaiming “"We’ve been called gimp, cripple, and

our new favorite, retard," it also publishes WE Magazine, a slick yuppie

life-style publication that outs disabled persons in fashionable clothing in

luxurious and chic public environments and advertises $500 Bulova watches.

Politically, WE seems to be equally comfortable with Mayor Guiliani as they are

with Al Gore.

But

who are WE? Voice of the people? WE is not even controlled by a pack of disabled

entrepreneurs. I had to search far and wide to find any disabled persons

associated with it. All three main movers and shakers in this enterprise are

white non disabled males, though there are some disabled persons listed on the

advisory board and as contributing editors. As have other civil rights

movements, Disability Rights Movement must question who profits from the

disability specific buying that does goes on?

Canceling

his subscription to WE, Mike Brannick of Arkansas writes, “you put far too

much emphasis on high dollar items. How may of us can travel to Europe or dine

in five-star restaurants?”

Millions

of disabled people, like Brannick could never afford these products slickly

reproduced on the pages of WE. Many have only acquired some disability-specific

items because a government program will pay for them. WE and its philosophy of

handicapitalism glorifies what amounts to a wee disability consumer constituency

in the face of gross inequality while undercutting the value of equal rights.

Rights,

contrary to the handicapitalist opinion, are not "altruistic." Civil

rights laws, though certainly not a complete remedy for the inequality described

here, are an important element in the struggle in building oppressed groups

economic parity under capitalism.

There

is a gaping hole in the handicapitalists’ vision. Employers do not see

disabled people as “a moneymaking project” when faced with the nonstandard

costs of providing reasonable accommodations, higher health insurance premiums

and other expenses that may arise. They come to view the disabled employee as a

liability and want to unload them. The unregulated labor market has not

rectified the high disabled unemployment rate, yet, as is necessary under

capitalism, the consumer market cannot grow without more disabled people making

the money to buy products. The consumer market, then, depends on advancing the

employment of disabled persons.

If

the courts continue to rule against disabled plaintiffs in employment

discrimination cases (studies show employers win by wide margins), states

continue to challenge the constitutionality of the ADA where employees have

brought suit against them for disability discrimination, and the EEOC continues

its lax enforcement of our employment rights — our economic condition will

continue to stagnate. How might the handicapitalists’ much anticipated “Next

Consumer Niche” fair then?

Disabled

people (an eighth of the world population) remain the most impoverished, the

least likely to rise above subsistence in EVERY nation in the world. The wee

middle class of disabled persons in the U.S. does not exist in many countries.

In the underdeveloped nations disabled people have no rights, no ADA. They can

be found sleeping on sidewalks without wheelchairs, crutches or other goods they

need to live a life with dignity (not that we don’t have this in the U.S.

too). There are no curb cuts in Africa or Asia and very few in Western Europe.

There are no accessible buses to provide transport to a job. Disabled people in

the U.S. only have what little we have now because we have struggled for our

rights. Holding up yuppie life-style consumerism – handicapitalism – as a

solution to disabled people’s problems in the face of such reality is a terrible

hoax.

Making

their debut, here are a few wealthy people with corporate sponsorship stepping

up and calling for a capitulation to capitalism when the ADA is under a viscous

attack by the conservative courts. Handicapitalists are forging a partnership

between wealthy and powerful nondisabled persons with the aspiring-to-be

entrepreneurial disabled middle class ready to jump onboard. This forebodes a

political alliance between conservative and liberal disability leaders and

government not to push for civil rights but to rely on the handicapitalist

strategy for disabled advancement within capitalism.

Let

the market rule?

Unless

disabled people see ourselves as active creators of equality (which means

undoing capitalism which can never be made equitable) we will be doomed to be

tools of the owning class and our people, like other oppressed groups, will

remain impoverished.

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