Blogging Against Disablism Day 2013: Accessible Labour Rights

Blogging Against Disablism Day always represents a fantastic opportunity to express solidarity across two important causes: disability rights and labour rights. The two have more in common than many people seem to think, and this marks a perfect opportunity to talk about their intersections. The labour rights movement includes disabled people, and the disability rights movement includes labour organisers. Together, we have a lot to offer each other, yet, all too often, I see us pitted against each other or treated as mutually exclusive, like our causes aren’t related at all.

Despite the fact that disabled people are more likely to live in poverty and be unemployed or underemployed. Despite the fact that many caregivers and aides are underpaid and forced to work in unsuitable conditions. Despite the fact that disabled people are effectively kept out of the workplace by a combination of social attitudes, inaccessibility, and government policy. Despite the fact that many family members are expected to provide ’round the clock care free of charge with no breaks. Despite the fact that…well, I could go on, but I hope you’re getting the picture. Disability rights and labour rights are intertwined.

And yet, aspects of the labour rights movement can be very inaccessible, creating barriers to participation for disabled people and reminding us, yet again, that we are not welcome in social movements and society in general. We are expected to sit quietly in the corner and wait for someone to liberate us, which doesn’t sit well with us—it wouldn’t sit well with anyone, I imagine. When we try to assert ourselves, though, we’re told to go back to the corner and wait, because the grownups are talking.

Accessibility doesn’t have to be hard, and it can make a huge difference. It’s not difficult to make materials available in accessible formats, for example, including both text and audio versions of announcements, educational materials, and more. It’s not difficult to make sure that a march or event is on an accessible route, and that facilities used for labour events are fully accessible. With so many volunteers and organisers within the labour movement, it shouldn’t be difficult to offer simultaneous interpretation at live events for d/Deaf and hard of hearing attendees.

After all, some of the very people the labour rights movement is fighting for are disabled. Part of the movement’s intrinsic push is to make workplaces safer, and a lot of people are injured, sometimes very seriously, on the job in this country. The housekeepers, meatpackers, truckers, and other temporarily or permanently disabled people whom the movement is working in solidarity with should be able to attend the events held in their honour, should be able to participate in labour actions. A wheelchair user who wants to sit in solidarity on a picket line should be able to do so.

Inclusivity in the labour movement would send a clear message of solidarity, and it also would put an end to the invisibilisation of disability. Working in unsafe conditions can have serious consequences, and people should see these consequences. They should be able to meet workers who lost their hearing on factory floors that didn’t provide hearing protection and didn’t take steps to abate the noise. They should meet housekeepers with serious lower back injuries caused by repetitive, high-volume work. They should meet meatpackers who have lost limbs, miners with crushed spines. These people are part of the labour movement too, and they shouldn’t be hidden away through the decision to make venues and events inaccessible.

Because when organisers consider their options for an event and go with one that isn’t accessible, that’s a conscious decision, and it sends a very clear message. Sometimes it’s the result of ignorance, but that, too, stems from social attitudes about disability. More disabled people need to be among the leadership at labour groups, and should be consulted when groups are planning actions and events. Simple measures like checking to see if a venue has stairs that might block access, confirming that there’s at least one accessible bathroom stall in usable condition, and checks on aisle width and other parameters can determine if a space will be usable by as many people as possible. Taking an accessibility orientation or working with a consultant to establish an accessibility committee, in a larger organisation, will help keep events consistently accessible and encourage participation among disabled people.

These things don’t just benefit disabled workers and disabled people who want to work in solidarity with workers. They also benefit a myriad of other people. Older adults, for example, who might appreciate rails and a lack of stairs to make it easier to get to events. Parents with young children who have strollers and tiny people with easily-tired feet, but might still want to attend labour organising events with their families.

It’s the other side that’s exclusive, and has no need for people who don’t look, act, and function in a certain way. The labour movement should be inclusive because this should be a component of all social justice movements, that people from a variety of backgrounds, lives, and experiences should be not just tolerated by actively welcomed and made an integral part of the movement. And it should be inclusive because of the direct and obvious ties between labour and disability.

What does it say when you have a lecture about the disabling aspects of working as a housekeeper for major hotel chains, but no wheelchair users can get inside? What does it say when you have a march about worker injuries that no injured workers can participate in because there aren’t any rest stops, it’s not wheelchair accessible, and no alternative transportation is provided? What does it say when your movement revolves around the abuse of human beings and the treatment of their bodies as capital, and you don’t engage with a very old and very active movement dedicated to fighting these very issues?