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
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.”
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
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."
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?
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
the market rule?
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