Accessibility, The Free Market, and Punching Nazis While Sitting Down

Before Hitler set about exterminating Jewish people, he practiced on the disabled. The Aktion T4 programme was particularly fond of administering “involuntary euthanasia” to children. Parents were tricked into relinquishing their little ones with the promise that they would be offered special care. This special care consisted of a lethal injection, and would be recorded as a tragic case of pneumonia.

Victims included those with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and various localized deformities. A district judge, Lothar Kreyssig, wrote to protest against the programme. The minister of justice, Franz Gürtner, replied: “If you cannot recognize the will of the Führer as a source of law, then you cannot remain a judge.”

Kreyssig was deposed. In towns hosting killing centers, residents reported the persistent smell of burnt human hair.

The Nazis believed disabled people were better off dead. I’ll leave you to decide whether they felt it was better for the ‘patients’, better for the Nazi vision of society from which they were being expunged, or better for both. In any case, the Nazis saw no value in these people.

So it was under German fascism. Since the 40s, fascists operating within ostensible democracies have had to find ways to obfuscate their intentions, including their disableist ones. And I don’t just mean the ability to hide behind digitally transmitted pictures of cartoon frogs.

Of course there are obvious displays of ignorance, like Donald Trump referring to deaf actress Marlee Matlin as “retarded”, or Betsy DeVos having seemingly no understanding of The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. But it runs much deeper than this.

Attorney General appointee, Jeff Sessions is on record saying he believes protections helping to integrate disabled children have accelerated the decline of “civility and discipline” in mainstream classrooms. The notion that groups which include disabled people are less civilized as a result is particularly striking for its fascistic overtones.

That’s not to say Sessions outright proposes the eradication of the disabled from society, Nazi-style. But, then again, he wouldn’t have to. There’s a more passive way of killing off those deemed surplus, and that’s by letting them die neoliberalism-style. That’s precisely what the slashing of Medicaid, the trashing of the ACA, the segregation and disenfranchisement of the disabled in education, and the diminishing of workplace rights would mean.

Of course, to get away with this you need an alibi. And that alibi comes in the form of a particular brand of freedom. According to the Milton Friedman school of free market economics, true deregulation will lead to the eradication of discrimination. Why? Because there’s money to be made by and from all types of people. Pure market forces, we’re told, are “color blind”. Ergo, cutting state support for the vulnerable is actually good for them!

There’s just one problem with this ideology: It’s a trap. The rich establishment don’t need intervention and support from the state. At the point that it is removed, they are placed at an increased advantage, happily able to exploit the market and those now placed at its mercy.

The market has no mercy. That’s the point. But like the Christofascist God for which it makes a telling analogue, it cannot be questioned. To tamper with market forces means to defy its will. Accordingly, when the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was first discussed at the start of the 1990s, it was met with opposition. Business leaders argued it represented a reregulation of the labor market, which ultimately would lead to greater opportunities for discrimination.

This was all completely disingenuous, of course. These people don’t really believe in God or the free market. They want to be free to discriminate as they please, for greater personal gain, and for everyone else to believe they are entitled to do so guilt free. They are interested in being Gods.

One way this is achieved is by erasing the meaning of being disabled. It is for good reason that many object to the term “differently abled”: Differently abled implies equally abled, and equally abled means you can weather the “mysterious ways” of the market just as well as me. You don’t need support or special treatment.

This works as well for mental health as for physical: As a depressive, I’m told it is my choice to feel that way; I’m just wallowing. There’s a gleeful orgy of futility happening down at the marketplace, and I don’t want to get on the bus. It’s my own fault I’m missing out.

Another way of leveraging the concept of the market to defer guilt is through the notion of niche. Friedman’s model imagines greater prosperity for all, but that’s not to say the market would become homogenous. There would still be sectors and segments; varieties of business and product.

By characterizing disability as a discrete ‘target’ group, the aim is to excuse the creation of products and services which do not cater for disability. “Oh I’m not making things for disabled people. But I’m sure someone else is, don’t worry. Such-and-such law of economics states it must be so.”

Disability does not work that way, though. It isn’t a discrete community or field of interest. It is complex, multifaceted and pervades all kinds of cultural identity through race, socio-economic level, gender identity, and faith. If you create an inaccessible product or service, you are almost guaranteed to be disenfranchising someone, including your future self.

It is because disability is such a broad category of human experience that it’s so easy to neglect. Even some of those trying to combat discrimination and bigotry have trouble grappling with disability rights as civil rights. It was, after all, amid concerns that the Women’s Marches did not originally include a clear statement on accessibility that the virtual march was conceived.

A few things to remember

Firstly, try not to snort at “armchair activists”. Some don’t have the choice. They’d like to march, but they simply can’t.

Secondly, be wary of people who insist on removing politics from conversation or company policy. The official position is that we live in a meritocracy, benevolently guided by market forces, so positive discrimination is not necessary. You’ll find that it is only the ones who are already well represented and paid that take this stance (remember the ‘trap’ I described previously).

It’s more passive and less transparent to discourage political discourse than it is to outright tell someone that their politics is not welcome. If someone tells you to “take the politics” out of what you’re doing, or to “stop making things political”, it’s not because anything benefits from being less political as such. It’s because they don’t want to make room for your politics in that space. That would mean taking some of theirs out. Well screw that; resist.

Thirdly, be aware that making accessible products and interfaces under a regime that regresses on disability rights is resistance. It goes against the prevailing ideology. Do it loudly and help others get up to speed. This is especially important when devising protests and related resources. When you’re inclusive, you reach more allies.

Finally, whether or not you believe it is right or sensible to punch a neo-nazi, remember that not everyone who might like to punch a neo-nazi has the physical strength, the dexterity, or even the appendage to do so. And some of these people would be first in line if they did, because they know fascists are the kind of cowards that pick on them first. Accordingly, whether you aim to do it literally or figuratively, punch a neo-nazi for someone who can’t.