Who Doesn't Need Assistance?

Disabled People Within the Anarchist Vision

Ben is an anarchist who has been a personal care attendant for several years, and is not physically disabled herself.

Imagining how disabled people would get along in an anarchist society is a useful reality check for anarchist visions. Buildings and organizations– society as whole– can be organized to be accessible to the widest section of society possible. The questions shift focus from specific groups, from “Can wheelchairs get in? Can blind people use it?” to “Can everybody use it?” These principles, called universal design, do not pretend to meet every single person’s needs. Instead, the idea is for design to be fluid. Every time you encounter a barrier, you tweak the design to serve a broader population without cutting anybody out.

These days, people have a whole range of disabilities, including mental, physical, visible, and invisible disabilities, and an equally great range of needs. Instead of thinking in black and white terms of disabled vs. able-bodied, for an anarchist vision it is more useful to think about a whole spectrum of ways of being human.

Manual wheelchairs are not that different from bicycles, ever popular in low-tech visions of the future. To get around, physically disabled people rely on a range of mobility equipment: wheelchairs, walkers, ventilators, etc. While all these things can be built as simple mechanical devices, equipment is increasingly computerized. More sophisticated technology can meet more specific needs, but requires more specialized repair and parts. While some of this sophistication is helpful, some of it is pushed by corporations at the expense of the disabled person. For example, a sensitive, light-weight, programmable joist-stick means that somebody with a limited range of movement can drive their own wheelchair. If a person can pull more easily than they can push with their hand, the joist stick can be programmed so that pulling it backwards makes the chair go forward. But some people might want less specialized, less expensive equipment that is easier to repair.

Would an anarchist society include more generalized equipment, expecting other people to step in where machinery won’t do the trick? How would an anarchist society balance resource use and technological advancement with the potentially oppressive nature of technology? What is appropriate technology in this context?

People set their own limits for how much they are willing to rely on others. Communities and ecosystems limit resources and time available for technological tinkering. Philosophically speaking, appropriate technology balances these limits. In a society based on both individual freedom and community cooperation, it is easy to envision utopian engineers designing equipment to meet each persons’ needs, out of eco-friendly materials, and scores of friendly, respectful, skilled attendants on time every morning to get their client out of bed.

But to people already potentially burned by insensitive aspects of the anarchist community, this vision seems little more than a pipe dream. Chanting ‘Fuck the Corporations” might mean little more than frustration to somebody who relies on corporations to make a wheelchair, ventilator, tubing, leg bag, etc. Like all profit-oriented corporations, equipment producers don’t necessarily have the best interest of their clients in mind; they make disabilities into products. But where else are these things available? There are few, if any, anarchist or independent equipment manufacturers. These things are rarely available in dumpsters, and cannot be made in an afternoon free school class. Anarchist communities’ slow process of organizing community support infrastructure is laughable to people who rely on attendants to get out of bed each morning.

Community understanding and support is essential as disabled people refute the medicalization of their bodies. Western alopathic medicine, and to some extent western society as a whole, views disabled people as broken humans who, because they are ‘unfixable’ and ‘nonstandard’, are provided substandard healthcare. For instance, there are very few breast cancer clinics that will see women with disabilities. Doctors are concerned first with the person’s disability, and often completely ignore other health problems. Hospital staff rarely has the training to work with disabled people’s bodies, transfering them from chair to exam table, etc. The disability rights movement continues to fight for visibility, in healthcare and all parts of life.

While diagnosing a problem is an important step in solving it, healthcare issues are only one aspect of many that define every person’s life. In this sense, people with disabilities are links in a spectrum of humanity, encompassing a whole range of bodies and minds. When you consider the vast range of conditions that are labeled disabilities-mental, physical, visible, invisible-the spectrum is clear. Who does not need assistance at one time or another?