How Contradictions in American Disability Policy Produce Disabled Workers as a Reserve Army of Labor

Emily Ruppel, University of California, Berkeley

Since the late 1980s, the United States has passed much legislation to promote the employment of people with disabilities and reduce their reliance on government benefits. However, over this same period, employment rates among people with disabilities have fallen while rates of disability benefits receipt have risen. This paper investigates this contradiction between the stated goals of the United States legislative agenda on the employment of disabled people and the apparent effects of this agenda. I conducted primary and secondary historical research on two sites of contradiction in the state treatment of disability: 1) antidiscrimination legislation and 2) policies related to Supplemental Security Income and Social Security Disability Insurance. I show that the stated goals of antidiscrimination legislation were persistently undercut by the interpretation of this legislation in state and federal courts, with this legislative program ultimately negatively affecting the position of people with disabilities in many industries. Furthermore, I show that cyclical backlash against disability benefits undercut the livability of disability benefits over time, leading to the integration of recipients into the labor force primarily through low-wage, temporary, and informal work and thus inhibiting permanent cessation of benefits. These findings demonstrate that the legislative push for the labor market inclusion of disabled people, undertaken in concert with ongoing labor market exclusion with roots in the very same legislative program, led to the incorporation of disabled people into the labor market on highly contingent terms. Contradictions in disability employment policy have thus constituted people with disabilities as a labor force suited to the low-wage and highly precarious positions characteristic of economic restructuring. Ultimately, I theorize the contradictory labor market position of disabled workers as an aspect of neoliberalism. This argument develops Marxist theories of disability, conceptualizing disabled people as a reserve army of labor malleable to the needs of capital.

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 Presented in Session 77. Carework, Health, and Labor