You Can’t Say “Eat The Rich” If You Don’t Include Disabled People In Your Labor Activism
Class doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In fact, disabled people are one of the most disenfranchised groups when it comes to labor rights.
By Reina Sultan
Being very active on social media, I have found community with other self-avowed leftists. In many ways, it has nourished both my mind and spirit. I have not written much about it, but I grew up in a very white, very conservative area, where assimilation was the biggest thing I aspired to. I wanted nothing more than to be quiet, white, and what I thought was normal. I say this because it is indicative of how much I had to work through to get to the place I am now. This meant dismantling internalized phobias of every sort. Being on Twitter helped a lot with this because I was able to learn about and understand my long-held beliefs as wrong. I think a lot of folks learn in this way. Because of this, though, many of us lack a complete education on really important issues. Our public, online education often means we are going to make public blunders. A lot of folks struggle with being accountable for these mistakes.
To me, recognizing all of the ways in which systems oppress us and working to dismantle those systems are key parts of being a leftist. In working through my own internalized issues, it became clear to me that so many of these oppressions are connected. When we talk about dismantling capitalism, we have to understand the ways in which the capitalist system disenfranchises people with differing identities. That’s why ableism on the left is so disturbing. Leftists are a diverse group, with differing ideologies, but there is no appropriate reason we should ever be employing ableist language to get our points across—especially not if we understand the ways in which capitalism particularly hurts disabled people.
@coffeespoonie, a disabled Jewish person, knows these issues firsthand. She has been tweeting for a while about the difficulties of getting an Uber when she has her service dog with her. This is a huge accessibility issue for many disabled people with service dogs. Despite it being an ADA issue, Uber drivers face basically no repercussions when they cancel disabled people’s rides. This is not necessarily the fault of individual Uber drivers, but rather the fault of Uber. Uber is notorious for being terrible to their drivers, but also terrible at ensuring the safety of their riders, whether they are women, femmes, or disabled people.
In pointing this out, @coffeespoonie posted a thread and accompanying video to demonstrate how bad this problem was for her and for other disabled people trying to get rides. In it, she details notifying the driver beforehand that she had a service dog, as well as preparing to keep the car as clean as possible with a towel and lint roller. Though she never did this with the intention of harming the Uber driver—even saying in the video that she did not want him to be fired—the driver was let go by Uber. When this happened, a shitstorm began.
People accused her of being a grifter who didn’t care about the difficulties of working a low-wage job. Amongst these accusations were both ableist and anti-Semitic slurs. I was horrified to read what people who called themselves leftists were willing to say to a wheelchair-user who was only advocating for her rights as a disabled person with a service animal.
The abuse got so bad that @coffeespoonie had to make her Twitter account private and many of us had to report and block people who were using vile, inappropriate language to describe disabled people. If you even tried to engage with these people, they would call you a “r*tard” or an “id*ot,” somehow in the name of class solidarity.
What all of these people don’t seem to understand is that class doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In fact, disabled people are one of the most disenfranchised groups when it comes to labor rights. Not only is discrimination in hiring rampant, but so is underpaying disabled workers. Some disabled people have reported receiving wages lower than $1 an hour. If labor rights are important to you as a leftist, disability rights are impossible to detangle from that. Abusing disabled people in an attempt to be the biggest labor-rights activist is misguided and violent.
Not only are disabled people paid less, but their cost of living is higher. The lack of socialized medicine makes the multiple doctors appointments and prescriptions unaffordable for most. Medical debt is common—millions of Americans are in debt just for getting the healthcare they need. As a chronically ill woman, I know how debilitating healthcare costs can be, but I don’t have accessibility issues, which can come with their own costs. Buying a service dog can cost upwards of $15,000. Converting a van to be wheelchair accessible costs between $10,000 to $20,000. Needless to say, the costs of being disabled in the U.S. are overwhelmingly high.
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Disabled people’s issues are already so often left out of leftist activism, and now they find themselves being harassed for simply trying to get accessible transport. To add insult to injury, some leftists casually use ableist language in Twitter arguments and in their everyday lives. Even if you aren’t addressing a disabled person, it’s never okay to use that language in debate. Some self-proclaimed leftists—particularly high-profile ones like Matt and Elizabeth Bruenig—often employ ableist slurs against those who disagree with them. Anyone who points out that these words are inappropriate gets blocked. Funnily enough, all of their tweets get deleted seemingly every single day, so I can’t link to their ableist abuse from mere days ago.
The point of all this is to say that ableism does exist on the left and that it doesn’t in any way get us closer to our goals, but instead further oppresses an already marginalized group. You can’t say “Eat the Rich” if you don’t include disabled people in your activism. By excluding disabled folks, you’re fundamentally leaving out a group acutely affected by the capitalism that leftists claim to abhor. To be ableist and to use ableist language demonstrates that you do not understand the compounding identities so many of us have—or you choose to ignore them. In that case, you are certainly not the kind of leftist I am or want to be.
Reina Sultan (she/her) is a Lebanese-American Muslim woman working on gender and conflict issues at her nine to five. A California native, she enjoys the beach, the sun, and complaining about the weather in D.C., where she now lives. Reina is passionate about smashing the patriarchy and eating the rich. Her work can also be found in Huffington Post, Rewire.News, and Rantt. Following @SultanReina on Twitter will provide you with endless hot takes and photos of Reina’s extremely cute cats.
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