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?

If You Mean It, Be It

Many of us become active because we see things that outrage us. We want to change them. Unfortunately, our good intentions tend to dissolve in a reactionary activism that falls short of recognizing the depth of what we are fighting against. If we see a homeless person and have a surging feeling that we need to help them we may do one of several things. We can give them change from our pocket, give them a less insulting sum of money, or become truly affected and strive to change the system that creates this situation. The eradication of the root causes, hierarchy and capitalism, is the only fight that will bring revolution as opposed to revolutionary acts which will not necessarily create fundamental change.

Dedication to eradication of hierarchy and capitalism requires that one follow a certain course.

The first step to revolution is confronting yourself. Many people tend to disregard this step or claim that they have experienced it while in reality they are shamelessly perpetuating hierarchy within their radical community. Oftentimes knowledge of current events and history is mistaken for awareness.

Looking at oneself and changing socialized behaviors that reflect fears and insecurities which are partially responsible (along with structural factors) for institutions such as sexism, homophobia, and racism is no small task. This means confronting fears, studying dynamics in relationships, and if followed through it means having a transformative experience and breaking free of the power of socialization. In doing so one gains control over his/her own socialization (it never disappears) and is able to change his/her behavior. Like any major life transformation there is a high price to pay. The difficulty of facing personal flaws and affecting and losing relationships are two examples why many radicals do not fully realize this step before becoming involved in activism.

Being social beings, once awareness has been raised there is a desire to share what has been learned with others. The next step is to take that feeling and educate as many people as possible. It is not going to a demonstration but the impassioned education of those in ones community that will change the system. This step can be characterized as interpersonal transformation or simply as raising awareness.

Once awareness has been raised in a community the question of those who have taken personal responsibility becomes “what can we do?” This is the closest we have ever come to seeing revolution. This joining together of dedicated revolutionaries can and has led to amazing organizing and group work. The Zapatistas are a formidable example of revolutionary organizing. This is the difference between an activist and a revolutionary.

This leads us to the unknown final step in reaching revolution. Unknown because it has never existed. When a large enough transformation takes place and it is a movement of people who truly have experienced the aforementioned steps, then there is a strong basis for a true revolutionary movement: a movement that is truly committed to changing the system and eradicating hierarchy. A revolution under any other circumstances will only be a tiring repetition of age-old struggles for power with varying levels and appearances of oppression.

Vehicles for Social Chnage

Portland Anarchist Black Cross’ Community Transport Project

The Anarchist Black Cross seeks to bring attention to the plight of all prisoners and to inspire an Anarchist resistance and support movement on the outside. We fund-raise on behalf of prisoners or defense committees in need of funds for legal cases or otherwise, and organize demonstrations of solidarity with imprisoned Anarchists and other prisoners.

What could bring Socialists, Anarchists, Feminists, and Marxists together? A collaborative project developed by the Anarchist Black Cross in Portland (ABC-PDX) called the Community Transportation Project.

The program addresses the dilemma of prisoners from urban areas who are serving their time in prisons located in far-away rural areas. If an inmate’s family or support persons can’t afford a car, they have to ride a bus for hours and then take a cab to the prison, which are rarely served by city bus routes. This in itself is financially problematic for many people; families who labor under economic challenges find visiting nearly impossible on a regular basis. Prisoners who cannot maintain a connection with their family and community are more likely to be sent back to prison after they’re released.

The project is designed to encourage frequent visits to prisons by families and support people by providing transportation at little or no cost. In doing so, ABC-PDX believes that prisoners who wish to stay tied into their community can. “We also aim to be a vehicle of advocacy for family and friends who often feel confused and disempowered or fear that questioning the authorities will harm their incarcerated loved one. More importantly, we bring families and concerned individuals together to talk about problems they encounter. It is from these conversations that solutions are designed and implemented by those affected,” says a volunteer for the project.

To find out more about the Community Transportation Project and how you can help please contact: ABC NET-PDX at: (503)449-8287, abcpdx@yahoo.comPO Box 4392 Portland, OR 97208-4392.