A Tale of Two Systems: A disabled worker compares the treatment of disabled people in Cuba and the U.S.

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Being born disabled, I became aware of other disabled individuals around the discrimination they encountered. I could not understand why this was happening. Nor could I comprehend why the needs of so many people with disabilities were not adequately being provided for. It was only after reading The War on the Disabled: Adding Insult to Injury by Heidi Durham that I understood. I have come to the conclusion that the drive for profits under capitalism is responsible for most disabilities — injuring working people through unsafe working conditions, poverty and wars.

Profit is injurious to our health. Cost-conscious employers still injure workers. Employers have always resisted the introduction of safety measures in the workplace. Only through mass social protests have workers won these protections. In the U.S., poverty means unsafe living conditions, poor nutrition and inadequate living conditions. Since most people of colour are impoverished, they are more likely to become disabled. Wars support the military industry that builds weapons for destruction, and then rebuilds more weapons. In addition, the ruling class uses war to gain markets and resources at home and abroad. These wars kill and maim working people.

The system then takes no responsibility for those it disables. There is no profit in fully allocating science and technology to accommodate us. Nor is the compensation ever adequate. It’s also difficult to obtain. Contrary to popular belief, employers in the U.S. supported workers’ compensation laws, only because the legislation denies employees the right to sue their bosses for severe injuries from a hazardous work environment. The industries that rely on disabled labour, the Dickensian “sheltered workshops,” are exempt from paying the minimum wage — making massive profits and keeping their workforce permanently dependent.

Like private industry, the government has done little to provide for disabled people. Instead of allocating money to provide services that would allow them to live independently, it funds programs that perpetuate dependency. Without a nationalised health care system, for example, we get only medical aid — which we lose once we get a job! Most of the jobs available don’t pay enough for decent medical support. Workers with disabilities, then, are trapped in poverty.

There is an alternative. Capitalism is about profits, not the needs of disabled individuals. I firmly believe that a political and economic system that directs resources to the people’s needs would treat disabled individuals with greater dignity. This system is socialism. The workers’ state of Cuba shows the benefits for people with disabilities when those who produce decide how the economy is run.

I read about such an experience in a recent issue of New Mobility, a disability movement magazine. In “Return to Cuba,” Harriet Johnson shared her experience of visiting Cuba in a wheelchair. She went there to attend an international conference for disabled people and to learn how people with disabilities are faring in Cuba. Wherever she went, the friendliness and assistance she received from strangers was genuine and generous.

Her visit impressed me. First, Cuban society does not stigmatise disabled people. Instead, it provides for their needs. This is a sharp contrast from the U.S., where there is a myth that a disabled body equates with being dysfunctional. This produces discrimination that prevents disabled individuals from obtaining a livable wage in the private sector. The pseudo-social industries of the medical industries and disabled industries feast on their profits, while persons with disabilities are forced to survive on crumbs.

Second, the U.S. embargo prevents Cuba from trading with both itself and other countries, creating serve austerities. Yet the Cuban government is taking positive steps to support disabled individuals. To compensate for shortages, Cuba places emphasis on community-based services, primary care, family involvement and increased access to mainstream jobs and resources. Johnson praises Cuba’s advances, despite material scarcity, in raising literacy rates, eliminating unemployment and providing quality health care for everyone.

I am equally struck by the role of disability organisations in Cuba. In the U.S., the groups have to solicit charity or petition government representative for support. In Cuba, they actively participate in the making of policy. With an overall membership of 75,000, these bodies are analogous to trade unions. For example, an organisation for the hearing-impaired convinced the government to introduce a signing system in the schools. The government researched signing within the community and then standardised a sign vocabulary and grammar.

Cuba’s 1995 plan of action for people with disabilities has instituted 36 programs in 13 regional areas. It includes the elimination of architectural barriers in new construction. For barriers that currently exist, there is a systematic process of inspection and prioritising of the removal of barriers, but no timetable is set. The plan calls for employment in regular jobs. There are provisions that ensure that special schools prepare students for education and productive work. For severely disabled youth, there are 427 special schools which are well maintained, though they lack supplies. Johnson praises the Cuban government for taking strides to support disabled people. However she does criticise it for putting people without disability in charge and deciding what is best for the disabled.

Finally, I was amazed that, with government support, a disability organisation was able to hold an international conference to discuss issues affecting disabled people. This would not happen in the United States.

There were workshops, round table discussions, lectures and visits to professional places. Some of the conference topics were: the right to social integration; the right to leadership; the right to get a job and be promoted; the removal of structural, sound and psychological barriers; arts and disabilities; the right to express and enjoy their own sexuality and to receive sex education and counselling; and the image of the disabled in the media and access to the media. Two hundred attended from 18 countries — nine from the U.S. and others from Germany, Canada, Spain and Latin America. Most were from Cuba.

Three Cuban groups sponsored this conference. One was La Asociación

Cubana de Limidados Fisico-Motores (ACLIFIM), and organisation for people with physical  and motor disabilities. In 1997, the International Feminist Brigade to Cuba visited this group, and I was able to learn more about them from a brigade participant. ACLIFIM is one of three major organisations of the disabled in Cuba.

I was particularly impressed with the role of ACLIFIM. They work for the provision of accessible housing and workplaces and disability aids. Because of the embargo, the production of walkers, wheelchairs and other aids is limited. ACLIFIM also focuses on eliminating the preventable causes of these disabilities. They have an employment centre that looks after the necessities for all disabled people and those wanting to work.

A culture that fosters everyone’s potential. I learned about services provided by the Cuban government and the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC). The government finances the system of housing and hospitals. Despite a shortage of medicine caused by the embargo, their children’s hospitals are of high quality and the best in Latin America. Furthermore, with compulsory education for everyone, there are national schools, special education and even tutoring for the homebound. There are also technology schools for adult education.

The FMC works with and helps women with disabled children. They provide supplies to women with disabilities who are unable to stand in the long food lines caused by the embargo.

In the workers’ state of Cuba, people with disabilities develop their full creative potential in the arts and sports. Examples include works by Marcos Parcon, a quadriplegic who uses his mouth to paint his beautiful works. This is very different from the United States, where our economy produces a culture that fosters the works of Callahan, a white male cartoonist whose works are profoundly sexist and homophobic. Because he is a quadriplegic, the mainstream media hails his “art.”

Defending what we all want. To support people with disabilities in Cuba, working people in the United States must condemn our government’s embargo on Cuba. We can write letters to the editors and elected representatives. ACLIFIM asked for this in a letter to the Freedom Socialist newspaper (January-March 1998). They stated: “We suggest you publish articles about the consequence of the criminal blockade and the suffering of our children, elderly, and disabled due to the policy of the U.S. administration. The people of U.S. ought to know about this.”

Most important, we must fight for socialism in our country. People with disabilities have a high stake in this: we are part of every oppressed group in this society. We are labourers, women, gays and lesbians, Native Americans, Chicanos, Afro-Americans, the young and the seniors. Our movements need to recognise this and support each other. For example, the union movement has the ability to shut this country down. We need to push it to support the disability movement. We must remind the labour leaders that most disabilities are due to workplace accidents.

Demands for the disability movement should be:

  • Nationalised healthcare that is free and available to all
  • Complete accessibility to everything — jobs, schools, buildings, transportation and communication services
  • Full integration for all into society; no more segregation and isolation
  • End all forms of discrimination against us
  • The right to free speech and quality public education should be available to all disabled children
  • The right to a living wage and full economic independence
  • The right to have full control over our bodies and in particular, full reproductive rights for disabled women
  • The right to safe and healthy working conditions

The actual experience of disabled people in Cuba, highlights how much better life can be for people with disabilities when society prioritises human needs, not the drive for profits. The many achievements of the Cuban workers’ state inspire me — a disabled worker living in the belly of the capitalist beast — to organise for socialism everywhere. Cuba has achieved so much with very little. Just imagine what we could achieve if working people had at our disposable the resources of the globe and a whole different game plan! Viva Cuba! Viva international socialism! Viva humanity!

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