Quality versus quantity, it’s one of those questions for the ages, isn’t it? Occasionally it’s something we take for granted, since our unconscious force of habit can steer us towards one or the other,hhssssh without us ever really thinking about it. But in the case of activism and philosophy this can mean life or death; inclusion or seclusion; progress or defeat.
Let me begin by coming clean with you: I use a wheelchair. It’s not something I brag about, especially when I have the luxury of hiding behind this keyboard to disguise my “secret identity.” For most people, being disabled is a real drag. People look at me at the supermarket like I’m a circus freak. My landlord is furious at my requests for access accommodations to get into my unit. And dating? Hah! I haven’t been on a date in years.
As one long time disability advocate told me, we (disabled people) are just a waste of resources. We take up space, money, and time. And what sane person would ever want to give any of those away?
We are seen as broken, useless, sick, and dependent. Under capitalism, we are especially loathed as non-workers who do not contribute to the production of commodities, progress, or exploitation for profit by the capitalist. We are hard to exploit, dammit! Instead, we require valuable resources that could be lining the cashmere pockets of industry fat cats. We are an extra few tanks of fuel for the private jet, down the drain. Another dinner soirée that was never to be. Taxes that could go towards another airbase for another ill-conceived occupation.
It’s no wonder why under most totalitarian regimes such as those of Mussolini and Hitler, we were the first to be executed, or, to put it more politely: cut from welfare and left to die. The crippled and disabled have no use in a fascist or even a capitalist state. President’s State of the Union speeches are quick to attack the so-called bloated and broken systems of Medicare and Medicaid while espousing our military’s prowess with the very next breath.
So…why are we here? Why wasn’t I killed off a long time ago? It’s an interesting question, and not one that I have all the answers to. From what I understand of history though, it has very much to do with one very important movement: The Humanist movement.
Prior to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment movement of the 19th century, humanism and moral philosophy barely existed in Europe. Most of the public delighted in the spectacle of public executions and the torture of the weird and different. They supported the Crusades, the Witch-hunts, the “conquests” of Alexander the not-so-great. And while there have always been revolts and protests to these horrific practices, for much of human history they were simply the status quo.
Living in the darkness of illiteracy, Europeans could only find brief glimpses of humanism through portions of the Judeo-Christian texts, most of which were reconfigured to the grotesque interests of the State. And just like today, the State had zero use for people like me – ineffectual, unemployed cripples. I would’ve been locked away and most likely tortured and starved.
Fortunately, changes would emerge from these bleak conditions. Influenced by Chinese revolving woodtype, the Guttenberg printing press swept through Europe in the middle of the 15th century. This revolutionary invention spread secular curiosity and, along with the changing political climate of the rising merchant class, new ideas began to seep into the collective consciousness of the people. Artists began to emerge with a greater mastery of the brush; Leonardos and Raphaels were to study and create the masterpieces we still know today. The great sculptures by Michelangelo chiseled into existence, spurred on by the Arabic translated texts of the Ancients. And from these bore the great moral and political philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Karl Marx, and countless others who fed the increasingly voracious appetites for knowledge and different ways of thinking. The concept of courtly love – a love defined not by birthright and status, but by free will – emerged within the aristocracy as well. To love and be loved, to create art for the benefit of humanity, to question the order of the cosmos and the laws of States; these activities defined a population of reinvention and self-discovery.
We activists tend to place too much emphasis on revolutions of nations and production, while wholly forgetting the revolution of humanist thought. The revolutions that came about during and after the Renaissance were not just about ending the slavery of the Religious State – they were also about ending the slavery of the mindsets that despots imposed. It was about people beginning to think for themselves, to decide their own value system, their own purpose in the world (existentialism) and their commitments to one another.
As far as I understand it, this is exactly when disabled people started to “matter.” This is when we were seen as human beings for the first time, not as the helpless cursed property of the philanthropic churches, set out to save our souls. The humanist movement, as the name implies, is also the birth of human value; one that is dependent upon only one factor: being a member of the human race.
For the past three or four hundred years we have been fighting to exist in a society that struggles to see us as fully human, as fully deserving of life and happiness. We had a major victory in the USA in 1990 when we fought alongside AIDS activists for our right to ride on buses, enter businesses, access public bathrooms, and to have options outside of institutional living. National heroes like Ed Roberts and the Rolling Quads fought for visibility and self-worth amidst a sea of bigotry and abuse. Massive gains came through the passage of the American with Disabilities Act: the lifeblood of the contemporary American Disabilities movement. Without the brave work of our LGBTQ comrades, without their unfathomable sacrifice, courage, and loss in the wake of a devastating disease, Congress and the President would have never, ever, ever signed so many rights of disabled people into law. It was a wonderful example of the last generation coming together to work for a common goal.
But disability rights today are seen very differently in the activist community. For many radical activists fighting for systemic change, we are simply a burden. Can you phone bank? Can you come down to our [inaccessible] office to make flyers? Can you “bottom line” this event? That’s a no, no, and no. And so it becomes a question of Quantity over Quality. Activists are always calculating resources, and disabled people are bad use of those limited, precious resources.
So what does the result of this thinking look like? The major anarchist hub in my city is up two flights of stairs (oh well!). The radical punk store can’t stand my request to turn down the jams because my body is writhing in pain. And the marches always happen without me (as do the banner making parties, up those flights of steps). Our inclusivity is not important; it never makes the cut for “safe space” guidelines and it’s extremely rare to find it in the vocabulary of oppression or demands for equality in radical or progressive communities. Ableism is the only “ism” I have to explain to people on a daily basis. It’s not just that we don’t exist, the very word available to describe the bigotry oppressing us isn’t used or understood to explain what’s happening! And if it ever is there, it’s a token word at best, never to be taken up with serious purpose for actual changes in organizing.
That’s a significant problem, because the disability movement is one of the only movements that struggles to be visible for itself. If you can’t move out of bed, how are you supposed to protest? If you’re eating all of your meals through a tube and you’re having seizures each day, how are you supposed to write letters or phone bank? The simple truth is, at the end of the day, we need able-bodied people to defend us as well. We need our comrades to be there for us, to value the qualityover the quantity. To help us feel welcomed and feel that our lives matter.
If you decide to engage with us, you might be surprised at what you find in return. Because disabled people have a no-bullshit realism that is critical for organizing, and we can offer things that the ableists could never dream of. The creativity and artwork of the disabled community is beautifully vulnerable and unique, and our ability to help with survival in “domestic” struggles of air quality, injuries, stress, mental health, burnout, depression, nutrition, medicines, and more is staggeringly effective. We are also more visible when we can protest and, if you help us get there, our powerchairs make a damn good blockade 😉
But the disability movement isn’t just segregated physically. It is also segregated politically into the tepid waters of reformist policy making. And while we need changes in policy now for our immediate survival, we also reside there because radical activist communities shun us as ineffective dead weight. It can be a strange, almost twilight zone experience sometimes, seeing Republicans speak up for my survival more than the freedom-loving, oppression-smashing Anarchist collective down the street. But it goes to show that human value doesn’t know a party line, and meaningless catch-phrases can be espoused by anyone.
The question for us now is – Quality or Quantity? Inclusivity or Productivity? For those of us in the disability movement, it may be a matter of both. One of our common expressions is “no body left behind,” spelled in such a way as to remind us that all physical beings have value and are worthy of resources. And while you might be calculating just how many flyers you can get out to how many bicyclists that will post how many tweets to get how many bodies at how many marches, you might consider taking a deep breath, a step back, and a new approach. Because a “march” of ten rolling crips can be worth a hundred running pickets. A one-hour brainstorm of ten normies can miss what a neurodivergent person spots in a minute. A 20-year-old can repeat a hundred mistakes that an 80-year-old could’ve prevented with one conversation.
Wisdom and effectiveness can come in many forms and even if they didn’t, wouldn’t it be nice to try and find out? We may just surprise you 😉