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Disability and the Left By Stephanie Melnick

To win disabled people over, the left needs to change the rhetoric. We cannot mirror the Right’s idea of “useless eaters”. If we truly want to create a better future, we need to find a way to make a world where everyone can live happily – including those who cannot work.

A few weeks ago, the popular pro-worker’s rights twitter account @JortsTheCat responded to a woman complaining about poor service on a grocery delivery app by telling her to get her own groceries.

On the surface, with no background in disability rights, this could be interpreted as a pro-worker comment indicating that the woman should not blame an underpaid worker for trying to rush service. People versed in disability rights, on the other hand, read this comment very differently due to many past experiences.

It is a common phenomenon on the Internet for people without disabilities to tell disabled people to “do it yourself”, to mock us for needing any adaptions or accessibility aids, and to doubt our needs. We see it in the DWP’s requirements for disabled people to justify every single penny of expense, and the culture of assuming claimants are lying. The burden of proof is always on the disabled person, and even with proof we are sometimes disbelieved.

It was in that context that many disability rights advocates reacted badly to Jorts’ tweet. While people did not know if the original tweeter was disabled or not, the very act of forcing them to “prove” their need for the service was placing a burden on someone to justify their existence. The tweet assumed the poster was abled, and thus guilty of the sin of using a service that paid badly. Guilty until proven innocent. This was, of course, greatly reminiscent for disabled people of all the many times we have been interrogated and doubted.

It should be noted at this point that, days after the incident, it was discovered that the original tweeter turned out to be a trans-exclusionary feminist. She is not someone deserving of our support, but the point is not her, but rather the pattern of behaviour that leads to assumptions of ability and placing burdens of proof on disabled people.

It should not have taken an internet cat account to bring disability to the attention of the Left. Indeed, it should not always be our job as disabled people to remind abled leftists that we exist. In an ideal world, we would be included by design, not left to be shoved in as an afterthought.

This one incident is just the latest in a continued pattern of disability exclusion in left-wing campaigning and activism. I do not believe that Jorts intended to be ableist, nor do I believe we should “cancel” a twitter cat over a single reply to someone who turned out to be problematic herself. I do want people to understand why disabled people had such a fast knee-jerk reaction to this comment.

The very nature of the name of the worker’s movement immediately excludes people who cannot work due to disability. Most groups will be quick to reassure disabled people that is not what they mean, and that we are indeed included; but the fact we need to be specially included as an aside, as an addition, as an exception, is automatically exclusionary in so many ways. The terms working class, worker’s rights, labour movement, etc all focus solely on work and labour as the epitome of morality, of being the one thing that is valued. Workers are good; non-workers are exploitative and evil. How do you think that makes people who cannot work feel?

Disability is often excluded from the standard list of “equalities groups” that organisations claim to support. We are included only with the “other”, the “etc”. It is clear that we are seen as disposable, second-class, assumed to be absent within movements. Many left-wing events do not include accessibility measures, and even when asked for, they are frequently denied on grounds of cost. When we are remembered, usually only one type of accessibility is considered, despite the wide range of different impairments and thus needs.

A few years back, I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. I immediately realised that in the anarcho-communist society depicted that autistic people like me would not survive. The need for alone time or individual space was denied. Those who asked for such things were ostracised and considered to be immoral. Despite having no prisons as such, there was still a carceral institution in the shape of a mental health facility; i.e. a prison specifically for disabled people. In visions of left futures, disabled people are still excluded and hidden from view.

This silence on disability is why so many disabled people do not trust the Left, and certainly do not trust the branches specifically branded as for workers. When we are included, it is as an afterthought or an exception. We are seen as an inconvenience to the movement, as an annoying burden on the road to a workers’ paradise where we will, unable to be counted as “workers”, still remain second-class citizens.

To win disabled people over, the left needs to change the rhetoric. We cannot mirror the Right’s idea of “useless eaters”. If we truly want to create a better future, we need to find a way to make a world where everyone can live happily – including those who cannot work.

Stephanie Melnick

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