The more things change ...

Since the medical model was created in the Victorian era, the classification of disability has widened considerably. From the early days when disability meant physical incapacity, the term disability now encompasses a wide range of medical and psychological conditions. The reasons for this lie in the changes of the needs of capitalist society.

In the early days of capitalist development, most production involved machines which needed people to exert physical labour as quickly as possible. To this end, a workforce was needed which was physically fit and had functioning limbs, but little was asked of them mentally.

As production processes refined, a workforce was needed which could understand more complex instructions - in society in general, this led to an expanding education system. As equipment became more complex, a workforce was needed which could read and write. In tandem with this development, we started to see the development of the concept of learning disabilities, such as dyslexia.

At the same time, some physical differences became less important. In the early 20th century, when machines were designed for right-hand use for maximum efficiency, left-handedness was seen as a disability which needed to be corrected. Now, being left-handed is rarely referred to as a disability.

However, new genres of disability continue to be developed. In recent times, Britain and much of the West have seen a move from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. The needs of capitalism have changed similarly, and now an outgoing, cheerful workforce is needed to work in call centres, marketing or in shops and fast food outlets. So we now see the increased recognition of disabilities which affect social interaction, such as autism and attention defecit disorder.

Likewise, the recognised ways of dealing with disability have changed. In some ways for the better; nobody wants to see a return to the early 20th century, when left-handed kids were physically abused every time they used their left hand, until they learned to use their right hand. But modern medical techniques have brought their own problems, as over-medicalisation of (often justified) behaviour has led to school age kids being prescribed drugs such as Ritolin.

Genetic research has brought the extreme medicalisation of behaviour; starting with the supposed discovery of a "gay gene", there were announcements of genetic dispositions to homelessness! It has also brought the spectre of insurance companies and employers being able to test people for pre-disposition towards certain medical conditions. So, from the Victorian era when the concept of disability was used in a way to discourage people from not working, we now have the situation where it is increasingly being used to prevent people from working. Talk about a 180-degree shift in emphasis!

At the end of the day, medical research - largely carried out by big capitalist multinationals like Glaxo Smithkline Beecham - is generally not to improve the quality of life of working class people. It is generally driven by the desire of the capitalist Establishment to maximise the exploitation of the working class.

Red Disability is not fundamentally opposed to people having medical treatment to "cure" disabilities. But we believe that it should be the true choice of the individual, and no pressure should be exerted on people to undertake "treatment". That includes social pressure - inflicted by a capitalist society which treats people with disabilities as "abnormal".

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