Honoring Marta Russell (1951-2013)

— Ravi Malhotra

DISABILITY RIGHTS ADVOCATE Marta Russell died in mid-December 2013 in Los Angeles, a few days short of her 62nd birthday. A working-class journalist and frequent commentator about issues affecting disabled people as well as a film industry worker for many years, Russell was best known for her landmark and pioneering 1998 book, Beyond Ramps: Disability at the end of the Social Contract (Common Courage Press), which was reissued in 2002.

She was also a frequent contributor to both the left press (Monthly Review, Counterpunch) and the too often ignored publications of the disability rights movement such as Ragged Edge and Mouth magazines. Her “Disablement, Oppression and the Political Economy,” in the Journal of Disability Policy Studies sets an example in straddling the very different and sadly sometimes conflicting worlds of the political left and the disability rights movement. In that regard Marta was all too rare.

Disabled since birth, Marta grew up in the Mississippi Delta and attended the Memphis College of Art where she participated in the burgeoning civil rights movement. Frustrated with the conservative culture of the South, Marta moved to California in her 20s where she worked for a number of film companies, producing visual effects for commercials in the 1970s and 1980s.

One highlight from this period was her little-known work on the 1982 science fiction feature film “Tron.” Receiving mixed reviews at the time, “Tron,” about a computer programmer who must play video games to stop an artificial intelligence who endangers the world, has become a cult classic and was an early example of computer generated images in film.

Marta was also active in the Rainbow Coalition at this time and was inspired by Angela Davis whose writings and activism she followed. Her work as a documentary producer bore fruit through the release of “Disabled and the Cost of Saying I Do,” a film highlighting the restrictive rules that frequently prevent people on disability benefits from legally getting married.

Clear-headed and Critical

Unlike many authors writing about disability, especially in the United States where postmodern theories of the disabled body have long been fashionable and dominated the field, Russell set herself apart by her clear-headed perspective about how the capitalist system works to marginalize and systematically oppress disabled people.

She was distinctive in developing critical analysis of disability benefit systems such as SSI and the byzantine rules of Medicaid that too often keep disabled people from participation in the labor market.

Reading Beyond Ramps many years ago as a young disability rights advocate, I found Marta’#8221;s perspective a breath of fresh air, combining passionate and principled advocacy with a rich understanding of political economy and a vivid account of how disabled people are oppressed by a capitalist system that requires bodies that conform to the imperative need of profit maximization.

Disabled people who could not produce goods at the pace that factories required were simply excluded from the labor market after the Industrial Revolution. She is also unrelenting in her commentary on eugenics, the Nazi extermination of disabled people and its enormous impact on disabled people.

She is particularly unwavering in her assertion that the Americans with Disabilities Act, enacted in 1990 by a bipartisan consensus, could not on its own lead to economic justice for disabled people. Where many liberal disability advocates have mostly emphasized the very real backlash by conservative lobbyists and the courts against the ADA, Marta insists that the structural nature of capitalism, and the organization of work in a manner that placed profit at its center, largely excluded disabled people from the workplace, something no law reform project could fix.

In elaborating the limits of legislation as a tool of social transformation, she cogently articulated Marx’#8221;s theory of the reserve army of labor, and fruitfully showed how this well this fit the situation of disabled people.

A large reserve army of labor, with mass exclusion of disabled people from the labor market, helps to keep wages down and competition for jobs intense. In this sense, the dire economic situation of disabled people is a precursor to the fate that awaits large sections of the working class as the cutbacks and neoliberal austerity continue unabated.

A comprehensive socialist theory of disablement, one that will likely focus on decommodifying labor so that disabled people outside the labor market are no longer stigmatized as well as identifying and rectifying the structural barriers that handicap disabled people, is yet to be written, but Marta’#8221;s body of work will provide the indispensable foundation blocks. (A valuable contribution in that direction is undoubtedly Sunny Taylor’#8221;s 2004 piece in Monthly Review, “Right Not to Work: Power and Disability.”)

Exposing Prison Abuse

With Jean Stewart, Marta also wrote a remarkably biting piece, “Disablement, Prison and Historical Segregation,” for Monthly Review in 2001. They demonstrated how people with learning disabilities and psychiatric conditions are disproportionately represented in the U.S. prison population.

Tellingly, they also draw a comparison between disabled prisoners and those in other institutional settings such as segregated schools and nursing homes where disabled people frequently have suffered physical and psychological abuse as well as degrading and unsafe conditions

Marta was not shy about criticizing misguided strategies by disability rights movements that she felt were too moderate or co-opted even as she worked with rank and file disability rights organizations such as ADAPT.

ADAPT played a tremendous role in the 1980s in making intercity bus transportation wheelchair accessible, using highly creative tactics of civil disobedience combined with effective strategic lobbying. Yet knowing that the cost of losing political independence was too high, she admonished disability organizations that used their close ties to establishment politicians, whether Republican or Democrat, for specific favors.

In 1994, the City of Los Angeles Com­mission on Disabilities honored Marta for her work for disabled people. Tragically, her political legacy remains largely unknown, even on the left.

She leaves behind a daughter, Georgia Scheele, her partner Steve Weiss, and countless disabled people she radicalized around the world. Advocates of socialism from below would do well to revisit her rich body of work on this too often ignored topic.

March/April 2014, ATC 169