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.