Identifying And Rejecting Ableism In Movement Work

Estelle Ellison
15 min readJan 26, 2024

To understand people’s collective capacity in leftist movements is to grasp how ableism informs and shapes people’s relationships within many different power dynamics. Comprehending and combatting ableism alone is not sufficient for ending oppression in all its forms and combinations, but, despite this, effective opposition to ableism must play an indispensable role in any political tendency that hopes to drive liberation struggles forward. Because of this reality, deconstructing the various ways that ableism finds expression in leftist movements is as important as addressing the ways that many analyses of ableism fail to address certain reactionary tendencies, such as anti-Blackness and settler-colonialism.

We can loosely define ableism as a hierarchical system that deems people deserving or undeserving of life and the rewards that make life “livable” under capitalism. On a practical level, ableism looks like capitalism assigning value to people based on how much they contribute to or preserve capitalist interests (i.e. profit and state power). But, because capitalism is also a product of white supremacy, ableism includes cultural notions such as desirability that place whiteness at the summit of its hierarchy. Ableism is one of many forms of prejudice that finds expression in leftist networks, including disability justice circles.

Both cost and cultural barriers make access to medical care, as it exists under capitalism, difficult or impossible. Successfully accessing care and resources in this context means navigating eugenicist obstacles such as unmasked hospital workers, anti-Blackness, hatred of queer and trans people, and other reactionary attitudes and belief systems from doctors, nurses, and staff alike. This is the reality in the imperial core, where medical infrastructure is expected to exist, contrasted with Palestine whose medical institutions are the target of israel’s ethnic cleansing campaign.

In the imperial core, however; those who are less able to have their disabilities and access needs recognized in any culturally legible or official capacity are excluded from resources and systems that would otherwise materially improve their living conditions. In this sense, disabilities or ailments that are more widely known and more frequently treated with care might be regarded as culturally legible. Likewise, being recognized in an official capacity is defined by doctor-issued diagnoses contrasted with self-diagnoses which are more widely ridiculed or seen as invalid.

In acknowledging these dynamics, it is also important to note that being recognized in this way does not automatically mean proper care will be received. For example, while cancer may be widely known as a life-threatening condition that greatly harms a patient’s immune system, this has not stopped many hospitals offering treatment to cancer patients from dropping their mask mandates and exposing patients to covid during critical periods of their recovery. These lethal failures present yet another hazard to Black people navigating the medical industrial complex which already systemically produces and reinforces anti-Blackness.

There are cultural barriers to care we see when Black children are more likely to be disciplined in schools for having unmet needs rather than provided appropriate support. Black adults also very frequently find their access to care restricted or withheld due to the anti-Black prejudices held by their care providers. During this ongoing pandemic, anti-Blackness is made more lethal as Black people face a greater risk of death from covid as schools and workplaces abstain from any transmission mitigating protocols. Each of these examples illustrates the ways that different systems of oppression interlock and inform each other. To neglect one kind of analysis is to neglect an entire set of unmet needs an individual has as they struggle to survive capitalism.

Disability justice circles that fail to incorporate an essential analysis of anti-Blackness have created some regionally distinct perceptions of disability justice as a type of advocacy that is not “for” Black people. Similarly, disability justice is perceived as a “middle-class” issue resulting from analyses of ableism that fail to confront classism and white supremacy. As a consequence, Black and disabled people and those who belong to both identity categories and live especially precarious lives under capitalism are erased by these misperceptions, eroding the efficacy of disability justice as a movement.

It can be said that these misperceptions are a product of co-optation and bad actors who engage in disability justice discourses as a means of veiling their own reactionary beliefs. While this is certainly a factor, the misperceptions are also a product of spaces that do not practice enough discernment about reactionary behaviors (i.e. behaviors that only exist for the benefit of oppressive systems). Not having a robust enough analysis of anti-Blackness means that much more anti-Blackness can go unchecked and unrecognized until the damage has already been done. Likewise, wealth distribution and mutual aid efforts have brought more marginalized folks in contact with more middle-class people than before in recent years. The absence of class analysis, class betrayers, or outspoken opposition to anti-Blackness and white supremacy sets the stage for increased conflict along the lines of these power dynamics.

Looking at our present-day conditions in year five of the pandemic during multiple concurrent genocides, many disabled people (some who were disabled before the pandemic and some who were disabled by this pandemic) are struggling with despair in the face of a majority of people refusing to help us survive this deeply fascist period. We have seen eugenicist normalcy placed far above the need to protect those who are most vulnerable to covid. This ableist attitude is especially insidious given that the ongoing pandemic poses a threat to everyone. And yet, by isolating immunocompromised people, capitalism uses the ableism it has instilled in its population to help further its goal of economic exploitation. Ableist apathy and resentment are such a predictable reaction from americans that capitalism has turned it into an incentive to build an ever more lethal normalcy, contributing to genocide at home and abroad. Ableism in this way is a reliable form of social control that capitalism has proven very capable of activating and exploiting to further its interests.

This is very similar to the way that capitalism plays off of the anti-Blackness and white supremacy it has instilled in the world. We see this in the increased likelihood of white americans dropping taking covid precautions after learning that Black and indigenous people and people of color face increased risks from covid transmissions. We see ableism, anti-Blackness, and classism all at play where self-proclaimed covid cautious groups present no resources or alternatives to Black people who must work public-facing jobs at workplaces that have dropped all precautions and offer no sick leave. Despite this clear coercion into laboring within life-threatening conditions, they are condemned as though they’re the very landlords, bosses, and the state who’re all actually the driving forces behind today’s eugenicist normalcy. Victim blaming might best describe this behavior some covid conscious circles demonstrate.

In this way, disability justice analyses that lack a substantive critique of anti-Blackness are similar to “covid conscious” networks that neglect the needs of Black people who are disproportionately harmed and killed by covid transmissions. Disidentification from both “covid conscious” and “disability justice” labels is a telling indictment of unchecked anti-Blackness and capitulation to fascism. Capitulating to fascism in this sense means bending to the demands of oppressive systems that produce fascism including but not limited to; upholding white supremacy and settler colonialism, participating in anti-Blackness, engaging in ableist resentment, using eugenicist logics or strategies, anti-survivorship, nationalism, or collaborating with the state.

Understanding why so many of those who claim to be fighting for liberation are so willing to aid the project of eugenics requires us to identify the ways that the lack or absence of analyses of ableism finds expression in subcultural tendencies. Returning to those “rewards that make life livable,” normalcy made possible by eugenics, genocide, settler colonialism, and chattel slavery is worth the price of admission for most americans. Still, of the various motivations there are for people to capitulate to fascism, there is one thing they all share in common: a belief that some oppressive divisions of labor are just and/or the desire to orchestrate and oversee those divisions.

Far more often than not, both ableism and anti-Blackness get expressed in people’s preconceived notions about why certain divisions of labor should be enforced and normalized. Anti-Blackness is the continuation of chattel slavery and the same pseudosciences and eugenicist logics that justified slavery as an institution also enforce ableism. Ableism in this sense is just another rubric for denying people the means of survival so that those at the top of a white supremacist hierarchy can enjoy a “livable life”. Put more simply, anti-Blackness produces the belief that Black people exist for the labor non-Black people do not wish to do.

Just as different forms of oppression overlap and reinforce each other, so too do combinations of reactionary divisions of labor develop and justify each other. We are familiar with the way that patriarchy assigns and enforces gendered divisions of labor, but these reactionary divisions of labor also find expression in groups and formations claiming to be fighting for liberation as well as informal queer and trans circles. Outside of openly reactionary organizations or groups that take no issue with being the stewards of capitalist systems, the desire to justify and/or orchestrate and oversee oppressive labor divisions is rarely if ever revealed so explicitly. Still, studying the relational dynamics of leftist groups and their respective ableist pitfalls reveals a clear picture of how labor is at the root of it all.

Central to our analysis of these dynamics is an acknowledgment of the way that capitalism informs all of our social interactions and daily lives. Capitalism primarily accomplishes this by violently enforcing scarcity and this scarcity serves as the foundation for essentially all decisions we make. Our decision to work for a wage. To pay rent. To pay taxes. To submit in a police kettle. Each decision reinforces how little we have access to and how much less we’ll have if we make the “wrong” choice. Even considering what might possibly be meant when we evoke “free will,” that notion under capitalism remains a product of violent coercion.

By design, american individualism seeks to make our individual agency so thoroughly diminished to the point that the state can write it off as unimportant and ineffective. This is why the state criminalizes liberation struggles while incentivizing behaviors that adhere to the american dream. Our isolation and lack of access to resources are intended consequences that necessarily impact how we seek to move towards a liberatory future despite being so positioned by the machinations of capitalism. Put another way, we are denied any tangible examples of how we might liberate ourselves in today’s circumstances until we seek out another way of being.

In this context, all of us who come into contact with any liberation struggles are being exposed to the possibility of freedom. For many of us living in the imperial core, collective spaces where people share a desire to get free and are taking steps towards actualizing that dream are our first experiences with networks of care that are seemingly not so thoroughly dominated by capitalism and its authority. These are networks where the state and capitalist institutions do not appear to be calling the shots and determining who is and is not deserving of care.

These collective spaces and relationships within are a response to capitalism’s manufactured scarcity that drives everyday life. But, because they are responses to normalized scarcity, these attempts to counter capitalism still exist in this context of scarcity. This is not to say that they have no worthwhile impact because they do not escape the reach of scarcity. The point is that efforts to lessen the damage that scarcity and precarity inflict on us will not make scarcity obsolete until capitalism as a whole is buried. Our liberatory aspirations won’t allow us to be content with just survival. In surviving within capitalism we also wish to become its gravediggers.

This is worth acknowledging because this scarcity sets the stage for ableism, anti-Blackness, and other prejudices working in tandem with their respective forms of systemic oppression that all help normalize capitalist violence. Sadly, leftist movements are not safe from the influence of these dynamics. Just as capitalism uses scarcity to determine how different forms of labor are arranged and conducted, liberatory efforts often seek to determine who does what kind of labor while referencing scarcity as a moral justification for those same divisions of labor.

Where capitalism justifies layoffs and low wages, leaders of leftist organizations might justify gendered divisions of labor on the grounds that urgency requires us to accept these conditions or else let the movement down. In both examples, the exact way that labor is coordinated is deceptively presented as the only possible way it could be conducted. In leftist movements, critiquing these divisions of labor is often viewed in bad faith as either irrational or hostile toward the project’s political objectives.

The question of who is most deserving of scarce resources is answered differently depending on the group of people asking. “Resources” in this sense can refer to networks of care, comradeship, wealth redistribution efforts, advocacy strategies, blocs, and more. For non-profits, staff and volunteers essentially pitch their answer to this question to a funding class of people who either affirm or reject it by providing funding or withholding it. Philanthropy organizations are run this way as well. For groups that do not have state-recognition however, answers to this question vary greatly and are primarily a product of the most commonly held ideological beliefs in the group or network.

It is important to reiterate that exploring how oppressive dynamics stem from scarcity does not mean working within scarcity automatically dooms us to reproduce that which we seek to dismantle. Ideological beliefs of political tendencies typically reflect how they utilize resources in the context of scarcity, emphasizing values each group deems the most actionable. The examples listed below are meant to demonstrate how ableism and divisions of labor damage movement work under the guise of adhering to certain ideological approaches to dealing with scarcity.

An abolitionist org might put its collective resources into policy advocacy and individual campaigns for incarcerated people. In pursuit of these well-intentioned goals, orgs like this may likely depend on volunteers heavily despite not investing time and effort into supporting said volunteers. Cadre, leadership, managers, or directors who are likely the only people who receive pay in these kinds of orgs compensate for waves of burnout by pushing recruitment efforts to replace lost members. Aside from burning out from the sheer volume of work, there are often also members who leave due to interpersonal conflict or organizational abuse, neither of which are usually met with the seriousness they deserve because they do not fall within the org’s ideologically justified uses of resources and labor. Dismantling the prison industrial complex does not necessarily require such oversights, but an oversimplified and reductive focus on this goal quickly leads to issues that threaten the efficacy of prison abolitionist organizations that make these kinds of ideological errors.

A militant formation seeking to become capable of endangering the state might abide by strictly gendered divisions of labor where militancy is viewed as separate from and more important than care labor. Marginalized genders may be assigned to laboring for and supporting the “actual” militants who oftentimes consist primarily of cis men. Such formations may go so far as to justify violence against those who fight against gendered violence and marginalization on the grounds that these dynamics are ideologically seen as being less important than direct confrontation with the state. In seeking to embody discipline for the sake of a romanticized understanding of revolt and insurrection, these tendencies create more oppressed and exploited communities in exchange for labor they then squander, failing to actualize their own goals as well as anyone whose goal it is to see the end of all forms of exploitation.

Direct service organizations may justify gendered divisions of labor with the need to provide marginalized people with services capitalism renders inaccessible for most. Those who either have the closest relationship to a funding class of people who provide resources are separate from and assign labor to those who do the actual work of redistribution. When these leadership bodies have their authority and influence challenged or exposed as harmful and/or abusive, we often see these divisions appear again in who is most often expected to intervene in interpersonal conflict as a mediator or on behalf of the parties involved. The act of making exceptions for who is and is not valued enough to get away with reactionary behavior inscribes yet another oppressive division of labor.

Among action organizers, there is a very common division of labor that tends to emerge. We see this in who is expected or organize jail support after the fact and who is permitted to engage in high-risk actions before the support networks have even been formed. Now during solidarity protests of genocides abroad, we see ableism openly and brazenly used to justify not only unmasked protests but also to denigrate those who have no choice but to stay home and continue taking covid precautions. In these instances, the people who care for and support the people who get covid from these actions are completely invisibilized, getting no acknowledgment from organizers. The potential media impact on genocide abroad is ideologically justified as having more importance than creating the ability to definitively end genocide both at home and abroad by preserving the health of protestors and others who are the primary targets of fascism.

In each of these cases, the answer to “who is most deserving” determines who contributes what to that particular group or project. Circumstances that prevent someone from getting involved (be it due to paid work, disability, trauma, or even abuse experienced in that very formation) are rarely if ever seen as shortcomings stemming from the way work is being done. Hand waving away people becoming uninvolved or people who never become involved is yet another way that ableism disguises itself. Rather than evaluating the accessibility of the work, the inaccessibility and/or unsustainability of the work is ideologically justified as necessary and unchangeable. This is contrasted with instances where separating people from the work is necessary, such as someone’s insistence on upholding reactionary power dynamics, collaborating with the state, or protecting the wealthy to name a few. Even here though, many groups refuse to address these situations with the seriousness they deserve, instead allowing abuse, exploitation, and state collaboration to continue. It is far more often the case that people’s disabilities and limited capacity are viewed as ideological failings rather than evidence of unaddressed and unconfronted oppressive dynamics in movement work that restrict the possibility of liberation.

Oftentimes, poor working class and disabled people simply must choose between surviving capitalism and contributing at the intensity a group or project demands. Indeed, this acknowledgment alone may have prompted you, dear reader, to conclude that the previous sentence is an attempt to justify inaction. And yet, this too reveals how commonplace ableism has become. There is an unwillingness to imagine, brainstorm, and act on more coordinated and accessible plans of action that make tangible steps toward liberation all the same. As many different solidarity strategies and discourses as we see now in the face of multiple concurrent genocides at home and abroad, there is the stubborn insistence that the work can only look one way. Nothing is lost in rejecting ableism at every level and scale of movement work except for ideological shortcomings that will not bury fascism in our lifetimes.

Ableism views people who will not ignore this pandemic just to resemble protests from past historical periods as less valuable and insufficiently radical. Sometimes those who do manage to contribute at inaccessible intensities belong to the same demographics that projects claim to serve while not receiving support themselves. In this unsustainable cycle, those who are burned out are usually replaced with younger and or wealthier people who can contribute either more labor or more wealth to these efforts.

Another way that ableism gets expressed as a division of labor is in the vilification of care and resources that disabled people need to survive. Rather than grappling with the ways that capitalism makes support inaccessible for most, the care and resources themselves are viewed as oppressive. During this ongoing pandemic, animosity toward masks and air filters is common. But there are also ideological condemnations of those who receive disability benefits. Some such condemnations go so far as to view humanitarian aid for Palestinians as a form of collaboration with the state that runs counter to liberation efforts. Here again, we see how ableism is seen as a justifiable prejudice in the name of grappling with scarcity. Understandable resentment of scarcity becomes warped into resentment of all who have not yet succumbed to scarcity, forming yet another reactionary tendency we must guard against as we seek to end fascism in our lifetimes.

While not exhaustively detailed here (lifetimes could be spent studying the unique and specific iterations of these phenomena) these manifestations of ableism as divisions of labor all reflect a wish for someone else to labor on our behalf. Indeed, living under capitalism where we are all made to work for another’s benefit, it isn’t surprising that an expectation of the same deference might creep into our own expectations. In an abstract sense, all the kinds of labor are divisions in and of themselves. But what makes oppressive divisions of labor oppressive is the fact that they contain within them permission to dismiss the needs of the laborer. They are a license to divest from and become unanswerable to the laborer. To be clear, this is not an appeal to marginalized and oppressed people to tend to settlers who look to alleviate their guilt by providing labor to others. Rather, the point is that tolerating certain prejudices and reactionary tendencies for the sake of preserving oppressive divisions of labor cannot be made liberatory through ideological justification.

Liberatory aspirations are made feasible when our collective capacity reflects how we accommodate those who can show up while earnestly taking into consideration why people might not be able to show up, all without capitulating to fascism or maintaining eugenicist normalcy. Our most ambitious goals for getting free cannot be meaningfully pursued when they require erasing the reality of other oppressed people’s struggles. We do not become more revolutionary by becoming closed off from those who face unique combinations of oppressive systems our analyses and behaviors have yet to account for. We make revolution by empowering each other to survive scarcity in tangible pursuit of its abolition. Just as we do not wish to peacefully co-exist with a system that kills us and our planet, we must not embrace that which would take the shovel out of our hands when we go to dig our oppressors’ graves.



Estelle Ellison

Time dissuades us from getting free... Black Trans Disabled Writer (She/They)