June 11, 2007

Opening a Dialog on Disability and the Left

I recently received an email from my old friend Mike Meiselman (who says he eschews screen names as part of his bid to get onto the "no-fly" list--I guess everybody needs a hobby). Mike wrote it after reading "The Left and Mental Health," a recent article by Bill Fletcher, Jr., posted at the website of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization / Organización Socialista del Camino para la Libertad.

In the interests of deepening this discussion, I asked for and got Mike's permission to publish his response. I strongly suggest reading Bill Fletcher's short piece first, and if the discussion raises questions or sparks thoughts, I hope you, dear reader, will post something in the comments section below.

Thus saith Mike Meiselman:

I want to thank Bill Fletcher, Jr. for his recent note concerning mental health concerns. Coming from an individual as well respected as Brother Fletcher I hope his message will not be lost.

Yet even a person as respected as Bill has to start his paper on mental health by asking people to take what he says seriously--to hear him out before laughing.

Mental illness, cognitive and physical disabilities have not and are not taken seriously by the left. In fact, most all on the left do not see any place for people with disabilities (PWDs) except as wards of the state.

Last year at the annual meeting of Jobs with Justice in St. Louis the National Action planned a demonstration in favor of keeping a state institution for people with disabilities open. One of Jobs with Justice's major supporters, AFCSME, wants to keep these state-run institutions open, as the employees are AFSCME members. When challenged whether this was in the best interest of the residents, comrades and friends deferred to a parent's organization that supported the institutionalization of their children.

Parents often do not represent the wants and needs of their children, disabled or not. But one can hardly fault the parents for their thinking. The financial and emotional stigma attached to raising children with severe disabilities is multiplied by the lack of supports available for the caretakers. Unfortunately, AFSCME's interest and the interests of some parents took precedent over the desires and needs of the prisoners in these state institutions. No one contacted the residents, nor were any disability advocacy organizations; it was enough to get some parents' approval.

Locking people with disabilities up in institutions has a history. The initial establishment of these institutions was progressive. Now they have become regressive. In the 1960s, faced with shrinking budgets, many state institutions were closed and the residents kicked out with no supports whatsoever. These closings and evictions had nothing to do with the welfare of the people with disabilities. They were simply measure taken in accord with capitalism. Economically they were unable to justify their existence.

We know now, however, that the overwhelming numbers of people with disabilities thrive outside traditional state institutions when they receive appropriate supports. In fact, a major goal of the disability rights movement is implementing "Olmstead" legislation (after a Supreme Court case of a couple of years ago). The Olmstead decision orders that money spent on an individual incarceration in a state institution should follow each person into the community and appropriate supports follow them.

The upsurge in the struggle for the civil rights of Black people in the '50s and 60s inspired many liberation movements. PWDs were also inspired. Berkeley, California gave rise to the Independent Living Movement. First fighting to gain admittance to the University and then facing many hurdles in being able to attend classes, people with disabilities took on the Administration and the attitudes of the campus community.

Inspired by their success, Independent Living movements sprang up all across the USA. People in wheelchairs and their supporters took on public transportation. Chaining themselves to buses in cities from San Francisco to Chicago to Boston, they began to win increased access to so-called public transportation. In state after state, city after city, struggles like ones to make voting stations accessible, to allow people with disabilities to attend court without the humiliation of being carried up flights of stairs, for an end to segregated schools. People with disabilities fought for basic democratic rights.

We support the struggle for Democratic Rights. We are active participants in many such struggles. For the most part though, we are absent from the struggles of PWDs. Why are PWDs fighting these struggles without the broad support of a concerned people? Because of the stigma attached to people with disabilities. It's similar to white skin privilege. "At least I have it better than that poor soul" is what we say when we send money in to "Jerry's kids" every Labor Day. We look at people with deformities, developmental disabilities, injuries and illnesses and turn away.

Today, especially after the tragedy at Virginia Tech, there is more fear being spread about how dangerous people with disabilities are, along with cries that more people need to be housed in state-run institutions as a matter of public safety. Increasingly louder voices call for preventive detention for people with mental disorders. Where is the left in opposing these attacks on democratic rights?

I know there are revolutionaries and progressives who work with PWDs. I know there are progressives working with SEIU and AFSCME or trying to organize the workers who serve PWDs. We should be uniting with the aspirations of the people who we work for and be very careful about the unity we have with those who profit off the institutionalization of PWDs.

I am not going to attempt a full-blown declaration concerning the disability rights movement here. It is long and complex. In fact, my own disability does not allow me the concentration needed to write much more.

Do some research. I suggest these books--Nothing About Us Without Us: Disability Oppression and Empowerment by James I. Charlton, and Beyond Ramps: Disability at the End of the Social Contract by Marta Russell. Or just google Disability rights and see what comes up. And you could do a lot worse than to check out my wife's blog, Big Noise.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this. There were so many chilling points in this. It's sad and embarrassing to think about how difficult our society can make life for those with disabilities, mental and physical both. Hopefully between advancing technology and advancing educational efforts this will get better.

JKaye said...

I'm not sure I have a strong position to take here, but echo both Mike Meiselman and Bill Fletcher that this is an issue worthy of attention. (Frankly, I was embarassed for Da Road at the disclaimer about Fletcher's post, one that appears nowhere for other posts I've noticed. On the other hand, at least it was posted, which may be more than others have done.)

My history with these kinds of issues is personal on a few levels-- former spouse (whom I still take care of) is both mentally and physically disabled.

Coincidentally I was working at the County Mental Hospital here in Milwaukee during the early 70's when the wave of "de-institutionalization" started. At the time I thought it was great, I'd seen first hand how horrible some institutions were. (I later came to know the attorney who won a decision-- not Olmstead, not sure of the name-- that enabled a lot of that de-institutionalization.)

But since that time I've also seen how horrible throwing people out on the street without support services is as well. Not only by seeing former patients of mine on the street in my neighborhood, but also by working for a non-profit housing outfit that included a "supportive housing" arm that was anything but supportive. And Yuppie neighbors with a horrendous "NIMBY" (not in my back yard) attitude toward the disabled, paticularly mentally disabled folks.

See, I'm an old-fashioned guy. I remember when "community organizing" meant organizing and helping folks that needed help. These days, "community organizing" seems to mean mobilizing the most backward, intolerant elements of the nieghborhood against those worse off.

OK, no answers here, but a big shout that this is an issue that matters.


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Corporations reign over healthcare and disability policy in America.
In "Beyond Ramps", Marta Russel poses this question: "The question for the entrepreneurial nation remained, what to do with the "unproductive", those not exploitable as laborers? And ultimately, how can people with disabilities be made of use to the economic order? The solution has been to make disablement big business."

People with disabilities become commodities. Social policies are born and die based on market value. Institutionalization is the corporate response to disability. We are "commodified", we are part of the gross national product, much like housing starts and the price of corn.

In the 80s Russell found that each person with a disability generated from $30,000 to $82,000 in annual revenues. While I don't have today's number, it has to be much more.

Anonymous said...

When i wrote the post to which Mike responded i was motivated by some problems that i had actually seen playing out in political work.
I very much appreciate Mike's comments and the comments of others. The difficulty in much of the Left is precisely that we do not wish to look at mental and emotional issues, as well as the general category of disabilities. We become freaked and paralyzed.
I believe that we need to integrate into political education and discussion, discussions concerning psychology and the personality. We need a better grasp of what motivates human beings, as well as how human beings address and respond to oppression (and not just the issue of struggle). People cope with extraordinarily difficult situations, sometimes in healthy ways and other times in very unhealthy ways; and sometimes both. This can all have an impact on struggles and organizations, surfacing like a hidden submarine, almost always at the wrong time.
--Bill Fletcher, Jr.

Bruce said...

That Bill Fletcher prefaces his piece on mental illness and the Left with a request for no cracks or sarcasm is an indicator that his article should be well taken. I agree that those in the Left often have no more experience dealing with these issues than anyone else. This may be difficult or unfamiliar terrain to tread for many of us, but I feel that Bill’s words should be considered seriously. Along with some comments about his piece, I’d like to also say some words about the lives of mentally ill folks and those who care for them.

When Ronald Reagan was governor of California he “saved” taxpayers a bit of change by closing state mental hospitals and casting untold numbers of institutionalized people to the streets. They were men and women of all ages and races, many were WWII and Vietnam vets. The numbers of those who became suicidal or drug addicts after their release or who remained homeless until their death is not known. Out of his sight, out of his mind—Reagan’s non-solution might be called one of his own earlier denials. In the Soviet bloc countries such as East Germany, countless sane people were institutionalized for crimes against the state. Many went mad.

So how about us? How do we deal with mental illness and drug abuse in our projects, organizations and amongst ourselves? People are drawn to revolutionary politics for different reasons: to fight back and organize more effectively, to find family or sanctuary, sometimes to fulfill unclear personal needs. If internal causes are the basis of change, and external causes the condition of change, you could say that becoming part of an organization or movement can give expression to one’s potential for positive or negative behaviors. Or both. In the absence or lull of social movement we can expect to draw fewer to a revolutionary cause or organization. That just makes sense. But as projects and movements grow, the contradictions and ills that plague oppressed and working folks will also be manifest within the organizations we build.

For revolutionary socialists fighting to transform this sick society, risks run all around us, and inevitably we absorb some of these risks. All of us have certain insecurities, even neuroses, and many of us do self-medicate. We may drink a bit, though I suspect most of us don’t have a problem that merits intervention. Without some clear boundaries, discussion about this stuff outside or inside an organization can get dicey. Dialog may go in an unintended direction or result in unanticipated hurt or embarrassment. So how do we raise issues and support folks instead of alienating them? First off, by talking with those we trust. Which isn’t to say that trust produces answers; it’s a place to start.

So if this be a call for discussion on alienation and the destructive effects of mental illness and substance abuse in the Left, I’d like to see dialog continue in one form or another. Otherwise, Bill’s words could just fade to just another interesting, albeit provocative, piece of writing.

Many of us have been affected at some time or another by the demons of mental illness in our own or others’ lives. And then there are the friends, comrades, military buddies or loved ones who care for the mentally ill whose work can be daunting, disorienting, and is often carried out in private. That work itself drives some folks crazy. Caretakers need acknowledgment and support, and in most places they are not organized.

In our projects and organizations, would we allow our or others’ fears and inexperience (or opportunism) to preempt a direct and caring approach? Denial and walking away clearly don’t work, so how do we confront these challenges in the Left, and amongst those we love? If the mental instability of someone is disruptive or destructive to a project or movement, how do you intervene? Do you fix the roof before it rains, or after the storm hits? Without the skills (and the will) to deal with these issues it only makes sense to find professionals who do. Which isn’t to say that mental health professionals or drug abuse counselors always heal people or change their behaviors. But until we can create our own interventions, professional support can be a good step.

Compounding all of this is the contempt for working class folks and the racism and patriarchal hierarchies within typical US health delivery systems. Add to that the stress that many mental health professionals face in their work. Those professionals who do have the luxury of not being overworked may take more time to “get into their patient’s head” and provide support over the long haul. Though few may have the revolutionary perspective and brilliance of, say, Fanon, in the end we may need some of these folks as allies.

I am not a cardiologist, but like many others I know CPR. I am also not a psychiatrist, yet I’ve had experience working with mentally ill folks. For many years I was a health worker in México and worked with promotores/as de salud (rural health promoters) who dealt with many health issues and struggled against their social causes. Many of my fellow team members had physical disabilities such as spinal cord injury or cerebral palsy. Though our mental health skills were limited we treated people as equals, and we believed that crazy people often have valuable insights and can make contributions to community and organization. Some of those friends are now organizing against state sanctioned torture and provide mental health support for torture survivors.

In my mind, within the context of building a movement for socialism, for example, mental illness and substance abuse should not be considered incidental externals to our work. Though we may be clean, we should not be afraid to get close to the grit and pain of others. Further, admitting to ourselves that it’s OK to be a little neurotic can be healthier than denying our own demons, because in the end, an attitude of respect toward those struggling with mental illness should contribute to our boldness in fighting against this society’s toxins.

These words surely offer fewer answers than questions. But I believe that unraveling some of the causes that make people crazy and make them do crazy things to themselves, or to others, can do well for Left projects and resistance movements.

Maybe folks in Atlanta will have things to say about this stuff.