Committed to a caring society

Keith Rosenthal pays tribute to a longtime disability rights activist and author.

Marta Russell (Keith Rosenthal | SW)Marta Russell (Keith Rosenthal | SW)

IT IS with a heavy heart that I write this in memory of a good friend and influential author, Marta Russell, who passed away in December 2013.

For those who are unfamiliar with Russell or her work, she was a longtime disability rights activist and leaves behind a tremendously significant body of work on disability, oppression and capitalism.

Truly, she blazed a trail in recent years in unflinchingly exposing the way that our society disables individuals with impaired bodies and/or minds. In the age of budget cuts, austerity and neoliberalism, she repeatedly and astutely indicted the simple, calculating callousness that rests at the heart of this system; that all those whose bodies are deemed to be non-profitable or "burdensome" are crushed under the weight of the capitalist imperatives of greed, competition, inequality and oppression.

As her colleague and co-author Ravi Malhotra wrote in an obituary for the New Socialist webzine:

...Marta was like a breath of fresh air, combining passionate advocacy with an understanding of political economy and how disabled people are systematically oppressed by capitalism. Marta was particularly unique in focusing on an anti-capitalist critique of disablement policy in the United States where postmodern analysis of the disabled body has predominated.

With Jean Stewart, she wrote a remarkably biting piece about prisons and disablement for Monthly Review. She was also not shy about criticizing misguided strategies by disability rights movements that she felt were too moderate or co-opted.

Now more than ever is the time to revisit her articles and books on this subject and spread their message, which remains all-too relevant. Here are just some of her powerful writings:

"Capitalism and Disability," Socialist Register
"Disablement, Oppression and the Political Economy," Journal of Disability Policy Studies
"Disablement, Prison and Historical Segregation," Monthly Review
Beyond Ramps: Disability at the End of the Social Contract, published by Common Courage Press, 2002

I also would like to share the following message that I posted to her Facebook wall, which has turned into a memorial space for friends and relatives:

Dear Marta, you will be missed dearly. Your writings and thoughts were, and continue to be, profoundly insightful and empowering. It was only a few months ago that you gave me incredibly helpful and supportive feedback on an article I wrote on disability activism in the 1930s. The brief correspondence that we were able to share recently about this and an array of other topics was very important to me.

I will always remember you as an incredibly thoughtful, kind, open, individual. You tolerated even my most rambling and convoluted of questions with patience and humor.

You had a keen mind and a wonderful heart. In your writings you courageously laid bare the injustices of this too-often wretched society in the hopes that a better, more caring, more inclusive, more just society could be wrought.

I will continue to carry a piece of you in everything that I do.