Marking International Day of People with Disabilities

Communist Party Chair Katjo Buissink, who is disabled, writes on the challenges disabled people face in New Zealand and the role of capitalism in disability

Today, December 3, is International Day of People with Disabilities and an important time to reflect and discuss the specific problems that disabled people face in Aotearoa New Zealand as a result of the capitalist system.

The most obvious discrimination disabled people face is the minimum wage exemption – where just under one thousand disabled people in New Zealand are legally able to be paid under the living wage. By the Government’s own admission, 70% of these workers earn under $5, roughly only 25% of the minimum wage able-bodied workers receive.

While the Government’s plan to create a permanent wage subsidy to replace this exception is a step forward for the reimbursement of disabled labour, it only covers up the problem of super-exploitation of disabled labour with transfer of public funds to the exploitative corporations.

A solution that neither rewards these employers nor abolishes the scheme entirely to leave disabled workers at the mercy of the labour market should be found as an alternative.

Many disabled people also have issues finding accessible housing, the limited percentage of dwellings that are suitable further exacerbating the pre-existing housing crisis. It is promising to see many leaders of the disabled community not just advocating for universal design principles in new social housing, but also for mass construction of state houses with a vast majority of these built with universal design principles. This would not only address the issues of disabled people, but working people as a whole.

General programmes of austerity also harm disabled people by underfunding health and social services that help disabled people improve their quality of life. I remember growing up as a disabled child in Ōtepoti Dunedin during the Key years, and having my DHB-funded therapy revoked after an interview with staff who needed to find ways to cut expenditure. More must be invested into creating a health system that is able to meet the needs of disabled people, including expanding support for at-birth disabilities to parity with those caused by accidents.

It should be clear from all three of these examples that the interests of disabled people and the interests of capital and private profit are fundamentally opposed. Marta Russell, prominent American disability activist wrote that

Marxian political economy tells us that disability oppression has less to do with prejudicial attitudes than with an accountant’s calculation of the present cost of production versus the potential benefits to the future rate of exploitation. Discrimination can be ameliorated, but not eliminated, by changing attitudes. Only a system of material production that takes into account the human consequences of its development can eliminate discrimination against disabled persons.

Marta Russel, Capitalism & Disability

Disabled people form a significant part of the working class and of Aotearoa New Zealand’s population as a whole. The Office for Disability Issues notes that 1 in 4 New Zealanders “are limited by a physical, sensory, learning, mental health or other impairment”. Any programme of reform, and even more so a programme leading the way to socialism, must address the socio-economic problems faced my the disabled community. Simultaneously, the root of the problems faced by disabled people can only be addressed by leading the way to socialism.

Before I became a Communist I was involved in disability advocacy, and plan to over the summer and going forwards, do more to ensure that the Communist Party, and indirectly, the workers’ movement as a whole, take a more active role standing up for disabled workers. It is very promising seeing some trade unions like the PSA’s Deaf and Disabled Network already taking a prominent public stand.


(I acknowledge that a variety of terms exist alongside “disabled people” including people with disabilities but have chosen the adjectival form because under the Marxist and social model of disability, it is an applied process. As Marta Russell noted to argue the same point, “Disabled is used to classify persons deemed less exploitable or not exploitable by the owning class who control the means of production in a capitalist economy.” )