Poverty and Disability: the Vicious Circle

I first started to look at disability as a class issue when 18 of our members from Piedmont Peace Project and I attended a national peace movement conference in Atlanta.  Six of us were disabled and three in wheelchairs, including me. No other group had visibly disabled people present, although I’m sure some hidden disabilities were there. We were in an accessible hotel, but when we got dressed up and went to the main event in a nearby historic church, we arrived only to find out we could not enter.  We could not get up the steps or inside the doors.

Now, as I look back I realize I was affected by disability and class most of my life at a very deep, personal level.  My mother was completely disabled when she was 29 and I was five.  My parents spent their lives paying off medical bills because we had no insurance.  It didn’t occur to me that my mother would have been able to get around if we were able to afford a wheelchair. To us, that was an impossible dream.

But now I wonder what it would have been like to have her attend my first day of school or even my high school graduation. It wasn’t until my sisters and I had jobs that we were able to buy her a wheelchair. For the first time she could go to the mall and to movie theaters. But I was forced to give my credit card every time my mother went to the hospital, with yet another heart attack, before she would be seen.  When she died I had racked up over $50,000 in debt, just so my mother could get the care she needed.

My parents died at a young age of rare immune system diseases and lack of healthcare – my father at 52 and my mother at 62.  I have Multiple Sclerosis and both of my sisters have immune system diseases.  While these are not diseases that just affect the poor, almost every one of my friends, cousins and others with whom I grew up have died or are disabled because of poor health.  Maybe it was because we worked in the fields while being sprayed with the crop dusting planes.  Maybe it was because we worked at a factory that was poisoning our communities with mercury and other toxic substances in the water.

While this was over 25 years ago, the same conditions – poverty and disability – still go hand in hand in most parts of the country.  In North Carolina over the recent holidays, my 20-year-old nephew had to go for an emergency appendectomy.  He now has a $35,000 medical bill.  He lives with us and attends school full-time and works part-time.

Even Massachusetts, which has some of the best healthcare programs in the country, has not stopped or slowed down the number of people going bankrupt over medical costs.  Over half of bankruptcies in the United States are due to healthcare costs because of lack of insurance.  And obviously the most affected people are those who are poor and unemployed.  And, as a result a much higher number of low-income people are disabled.

It is now impossible for me to separate disability and class in my mind. I grew up very poor – the daughter of a tenant farmer – but never put the two things together.   I helplessly watched my parents, friends and family die at early ages.  I never expected to live to my current age of 58.  I didn’t have retirement plans because I assumed I didn’t need any.

It wasn’t until I was in a cross class group for several years (the group where Felice Yeskel and Jenny Ladd developed the idea of Class Action), that I was challenged by the group to think about a longer life.  I owe my current health status to this group of friends as they shifted my thinking and helped me with the ability to believe I could shift the inevitable and take better care of myself.

Poor people are more likely to become disabled because of lack of health care, good nutrition, clean environment, as well as safe living and working conditions. In addition, people with disabilities face barriers to education and employment. Poverty and disability become a vicious circle.


Linda Stout, the Executive Director of Spirit in Action, is the author of Bridging the Class Divide and Collective Visioning: How Groups Can Work Together for a Just and Sustainable World.

2 Responses

  1. syd

    I think immune system illnesses such as MS, CFS, Fibromyalgia et al are primarily women’s illnesses, and as such are dismissed by the male-centric med profession as being “not real”. I know MS and CFS have come a long way toward some acceptance, and yes, men too are diagnosed with them, but the overwhelming majority of victims are women. (I use the word with knowledge of what these conditions DO.)

    1. Lena Rothman
      Lena Rothman

      Hi Linda. Sorry I didn’t post sooner than this.I grew up poverty/lower working class and have become disabled over a process of 25 years. I have an invisible disability called Multiple Chemical Injury/Sensitivity. To make a long story short, I am unable to practice my profession as a Chinese medical practitioner because I cannot “tolerate” people’s choice/use of fragranced body products,laundry detergents,fabric softeners,room deodorizers and on and on. Here I was in CM school thinking I found a way to earn a living that I loved, that had meaning for me and made me very happy. At the same time I was developing sensitivities and have had to isolate myself for the past ten years to not become ill. It’s nearly impossible to get a job where I don’t have to deal with people or chemicals in everyday products. I’ve gotten better, stronger and have been able to have some kind of life for the past 4 years.My monthly check is subsistence level.Recently I got a call from a womyn that wanted treatment from me. I spoke to her about perfume,body products,etc. She swore up and down that she’d be fragrance free. I understand that people that are unfamiliar with this disease don’t have a clue about it. I worked on her once and had to cancel the next planned session because I couldn’t work with her.Besides the economics of disability, the emotional toll is sometimes devastating.Sometimes it feels like there is no way out.Yes, class and disability go hand in hand. Every once in a while they might show a movie of a person with disabilities,with incredibly difficult diseases and somehow they manage to do something remarkable with the hand dealt them. While I have deep appreciation of what they’ve been able to do, it makes me feel like there’s something more wrong with me that I couldn’t be as strong, as brave, as successful as they were.I almost feel ashamed that I can’t do better when held up to this example.Not sure where class fits in here but I do know that if I can’t have access to people, places, things, I cannot earn a living. It sucks.

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