In this commentary, disabled labor journalist Kim Kelly shines a spotlight on the inextricable links between disability rights and workers’ rights.
This commentary is part of the Voices of Disability Economic Justice Project, a partnership with TCF’s Disability Economic Justice Collaborative. Voices of Disability Economic Justice showcases disabled writers’ first-person perspectives on the economic issues that matter most to them.
When I first sat down to write my book, FIGHT LIKE HELL: The Untold History of American Labor, I wasn’t sure how to include disabled folks. In the book, I cover how the rights the American worker has today—the forty-hour workweek, workplace-safety standards, restrictions on child labor, protection from harassment and discrimination on the job—were earned with literal blood, sweat, and tears. I knew a little bit about disability history, and a lot about U.S. labor history, but found that I knew next to nothing about the places where they met, or about how disabled people have been essential to the fight for workers’ rights. As a disabled labor journalist, this was a bit unsettling for me, so I started connecting dots.
The end result is a slightly unorthodox melange of disability history and labor history. Academic, it is not; there are innumerable brilliant researchers who have studied these histories, and I always urge people who find their interest piqued by my version to seek out those academic works and learn more. I approached this project not only as a journalist, but as a self-taught labor history buff who chanced upon a union drive at my last workplace and fell head-first into the labor movement.
My goal was to find explicit examples of how the disability rights movement has intersected with organized labor, including the stories of individual disabled workers and complicated workplaces like sheltered workshops and sideshows. Disabled workers have historically been offered the short end of the stick when it comes to employment, and that situation has hardly changed over the past century. For example, as I recently wrote for Teen Vogue, the subminimum wage continues to financially oppress disabled workers, and our past is really not that far in the rearview mirror.
My focus on sideshows was a bit self-indulgent, because while that era is a crucial part of disabled labor history, my personal relationship with the sideshow fueled my desire to make sure it found a place in the book. Coney Island—the site of the last permanently housed sideshow in America—is where I finally broke through my grudging acceptance of my disability, and found pride in it. That experience helped me connect more deeply with disability history, and to see my own place within it as an observer, a storyteller, and a participant.
As a student at the now-defunct Coney Island Sideshow School, I learned how to eat fire and hammer nails into my face, but also soaked up a deluge of sideshow history and culture. Here was a place in which people like me—those who were “born different,” in sideshow parlance—were revered, venerated, special. I was born with ectrodactyly, a congenital limb difference that is very rare in the general population but has a long history within the sideshow. The “freaks” of yore had much more complex (and often heartbreaking) experiences onstage and off, but in 2020, performing as a Lobster Girl made me sideshow royalty. The contrast between my experience and the stories of nineteenth century performers of color like Julia Pastrana, William Henry Johnson, and Joice Heth—who were mistreated, abused, and dehumanized throughout their careers—was stark, and when I saw an opening to bring their stories into my compendium of workers’ struggles, I grabbed hold of it with all eight of my fingers.
We all deserve to have our lives and labor respected, protected, and valued no matter where we are on our life’s journey. One of the major takeaways I hope my book will leave people with is that disability rights are workers rights, and it is impossible to pry the two asunder.
Powerful corporations and politicians work to divide us by trying to silo off our movements into individual concerns, preventing us from finding our collective strength, organizing for our common good, and throwing off the economic and political shackles they’ve forged around our limbs. That’s something I strove to show in FIGHT LIKE HELL, like during the 1977 Section 504 protest, when a group of disabled activists led by queer women and Black folks and supported by the Black Panthers and the machinists’ union led the longest peaceful occupation of a federal building in U.S. history.
As iconic disability rights activist and Section 504 protest leader Judy Heumann stated in her autobiography, Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of Disability Rights Activist, “When other people see you as a third-class citizen, the first thing you need is a belief in yourself and the knowledge that you have rights. The next thing you need is a group of friends to fight back with.” We are so much stronger together, and part of building that strength is recognizing the marginalized people who have shown up—and have been showing up for centuries—to keep pushing for something better for us all.