Why not Capitalism?

Marta Russell


still perceives disability as a medical matter. That is, society associates

disability with physiological, anatomical, or mental “defects” and hold

these conditions responsible for the disabled person’s lack of full

participation in the economic life of our society, rather than viewing their

exclusion for what it is — a matter of hard constructed socio-economic

relations that impose isolation (and poverty) upon disabled people. This

medicalization of disability places the focus on curing the so-called

abnormality – the blindness, mobility impairment, deafness, mental or

developmental condition – rather than constructing work environments where one

can function with such impairments.


my view, the economic system can be held primarily responsible for disabling

physically and mentally impaired people. Disablement is a product of the

political economy or the interaction between individuals (labor) and the means

of production. In this view, disabled people’s oppression can be traced to the

restraints imposed by the capitalist system. Those who control the means of

production in our economy impose “disability” upon those with bodies which

have impairments perceived to cause functional differentials and as such, do not

conform to the standard (more exploitable) worker’s body.


passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, for example, business

has fought, tooth and nail, integrating disability in the workplace by providing

a reasonable accommodation as required by the ADA. In the first decade of the

law, the disabled employment rate has not budged from its pre-civil rights

figure of 70 percent unemployed. Capitalist business accounting practices can be

held accountable.


persons are isolated and excluded from full participation in work life because

business practices foster it. As I have written previously:


goal of business is to make profits. The basis of capitalist accumulation is the

business use of surplus labor from the work force of skilled labor in a way

which generates profits. Typical business accounting practices weigh the costs

of employment against profits to be made. Productive labor, or exploitation of

labor, means simply that labor is used to generate a surplus value based on what

business can gain from the worker productivity against what it pays in wages,

health care, and benefits (the standard costs of having an employee). The

surplus-value created in production is then appropriated by the capitalist. The

worker receives wages, which in theory, covers socially necessary labor, or what

it takes to reproduce labor-power every working day.


employer will resist any extra-ordinary or nonstandard operation cost. From a

business perspective, the hiring or retaining of a disabled employee represents

nonstandard additional costs when calculated against a company’s bottom line.

[Economist, Richard] Epstein endorses this point of view, stating that

employment provisions of the ADA are a “disguised subsidy” and that

“successful enforcement under the guise of ‘reasonable accommodation’

necessarily impedes the operation and efficiency of firms.”


real or perceived in any given instance, employers continue to express concerns

about increased costs in the form of providing reasonable accommodations,

anticipate extra administration costs when hiring nonstandard workers, and

speculate that a disabled employee may increase worker’s compensation costs in

the future. Employers, if they provide health care insurance at all, anticipate

elevated premium costs for disabled workers. Insurance companies and managed

care health networks often exempt “pre-existing” conditions from coverage or

make other coverage exclusions based on chronic conditions, charging extremely

high premiums for the person with a history of such health care needs.

Employers, in turn, tend to look for ways to avoid providing coverage to cut

costs. In addition, employers characteristically assume that they will encounter

increased liability and lowered productivity from a disabled worker.


disability discrimination, resting on employer assumptions that the disabled

person cannot do the job or on employer-resistance to hiring a blind, deaf,

mobility or otherwise impaired person just as they might not want to hire blacks

or women, undoubtedly contributes significantly to the high unemployment rate of

disabled people. Disabled workers also face inherent economic discrimination

within the capitalist system, stemming from employers’ expectations of

encountering additional nonstandard production costs when hiring a disabled

worker as opposed to hiring a worker with no need for special accommodation,

environmental modifications, liability insurance, maximum health care coverage

or even health care coverage at all.


this analysis, the prevailing rate of exploitation determines who is

"disabled" and who is not. Disability thus represents a social

construct which defines who is offered a job and who is not. An employee who is

too costly (significantly disabled) will not likely become (or remain) an

employee at all. Census data tends to support his view. For working-age persons

with no disability the likelihood of having a job is 82.1 percent. For people

with a non-severe disability, the rate is 76.9 percent; the rate drops to 26.1

percent for those with a significant disability.” [“Backlash, the Political

Economy, and Structural Exclusion,” 21 BERKELEY JOURNAL OF EMPLOYMENT AND

LABOR LAW (Feb. 2000) pp 348-349.]


ADA has not “leveled the playing field” – the goal of most civil rights

legislation – by eliminating economic discrimination.


liberal capitalist economies, redistributionist laws which, if enforced, will

cost business are necessarily in tension with business interests, which resist

such cost-shifting burdens. This is evidenced by employers hard resistance to

providing reasonable accommodations, the business-biased conservative courts

which are consistently ruling on behalf of employers, not workers with

impairments and the persistent high disabled unemployment rate.


benefit by not having to employ or retain a worker with an impairment. Therefore

many disabled workers are, and will continue to be, eliminated from mainstream

economic activity. So the question becomes is it possible to reform business

practices so that disabled persons are not excluded from the workforce?


could offer subsidies to offset business costs to level the playing field.

Indeed it has recently passed one such reform, the Work Incentives Act, a

subsidy that will allow disabled workers to retain their public health care by

permitting them to buy into Medicare and Medicaid. But typical of most reforms,

this measure falls way short. For example, the buy-in is only for an eight year

stretch. What then?


dubious subsidies already exist. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

provides that federally-financed institutions are required to pay a

"fair" or “commensurate” wage to disabled workers, but they are

not required to meet even minimum wage standards. The traditional sheltered

workshop is the prototype for justifying below-minimum wages for disabled

people, based on the theory that such workers are not able to keep up with the

average widget sorter. Any nonprofit employer is allowed to pay subminimum wage

to disabled employees under federal law, if the employer can show that the

disabled worker has "reduced productive capacity."


such U.S. workshops employ more than 391,000 disabled workers, some paying 20 to

30 percent of the minimum wage; as little as $3.26 an hour and $11 per week. In

reality, workers with disabilities in these workshops know that they are

sometimes paid less, not because they lack productive capacity but because of

the nature of segregated employment.


could pay for disabled workers’ reasonable accommodations. Perhaps that would

remove the issue of that added cost from the employer’s bottom line and stop

some employers from fighting disabled employees’ much needed accommodations in



reform, however, is not likely to make a difference in any substantive sense.

For one, productivity is the center of capitalist accumulation. Labor is always,

a priori, the retarding factor of productivity because labor can never produce

fast enough or equivalently, at a low enough valued rate, to suit the

expectation of an accelerating profit curve. It is likely that impaired persons

(due to the reasons explained above) will always be seen as less than what is

desirable to maximize profit. In addition, the put-into-practice theory of a

natural unemployment rate assures that the Federal Reserve will see to it that

large numbers of people are kept unemployed to preserve the “health” of the

economy. Disabled persons are traditionally a part of this “reserve army of



it must also be recognized that workers with impairments in socialist countries

also face isolation from the mainstream economic activities of their societies.

Sheltered workshops for the blind existed under communism in Poland and they

still do today under the new market regime there. Impairments are medicalized

under socialism as in the U.S. under capitalism. All of the welfare states

whether capitalist, communist or socialist, have wrongly deemed disabled people

as medical defects “unable to work” and shifted them onto (in the U.S.

below-poverty level) government subsistence programs or put them in

paternalistic sheltered workshop environments. Being confined to living on

abject poverty benefits is then called a “privilege.” None have created

modes of production where disabled persons can fully participate in the economic

lives of their nations and provide for their families.


the search for envisioning a just new economy, we must ask what is an economy

for: to support market driven profits and outmoded models of production or to

sustain social bonds and encourage full participation for all — including those

members of our society who have an impairment?


economy is only working if it works for people, if it delivers health care, a

living wage and a secure livelihood and income for every person. A government

guarantee of full employment would require reorganizing the economy to allow

everyone free choice among opportunities for useful, productive and fulfilling

paid employment or self-employment. In order to bring more excluded persons into

the workforce, it will be necessary to expand the work environment beyond the

capitalist profit motive and ensure that federal and state governments act as

the employers of last resort. Base compensation must be set at a living real

wage below which no renumeration for disabled or nondisabled workers is allowed

to fall.


illness (as separate from impairment) can make it impossible for some to work

for pay with a reasonable accommodation or to sustain a job, those individuals

must have a government entitlement to an adequate standard of living which rises

with increases in the wealth and productivity of society.