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Postsocialist disability matrix


Teodor Mladenov

Centre for Public Policy Research, King’s College London, London, UK, GB
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This paper explores injustices experienced by disabled people in the postsocialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Drawing on Nancy Fraser’s theory of social justice, the analysis proposes a ‘matrix’ that reveals the negative impact of two factors – state socialist legacy and postsocialist neoliberalization – on disabled people’s parity of participation in three dimensions of justice – economic redistribution, cultural recognition, and political representation. The legacy of state socialism has underpinned: segregated service provision; medical-productivist understanding of disability for assessment purposes; denial of disability on everyday level; and weak disability organizing. Neoliberal restructuring has resulted in: retrenchment of disability support through decentralization, austerity, and workfare; stigmatization of ‘dependency’ through the discourse of ‘welfare dependency’; responsibilization of disabled people; and depoliticization of disability organizations by restricting their activities to service provision and incorporating them in structures of tokenistic participation. The analysis is informed by reports and academic studies of disability in the postsocialist region.
How to Cite: Mladenov, T., 2017. Postsocialist disability matrix. Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research, 19(2), pp.104–117. DOI:
  Published on 02 Jul 2017
 Accepted on 7 Jun 2016            Submitted on 17 Mar 2015


The treatment of disabled people in the state socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) was characterized by segregation and stigmatization (Rasell and Iarskaia-Smirnova 2014). Replicating the Soviet model of managing disability by way of coercion and confinement (Phillips 2009), many members of the Eastern Bloc routinely placed disabled people in sheltered workshops and residential institutions. Disability was reduced to inability to work and its assessment was heavily medicalized. Disabled people’s organizations were either eliminated or (re)constituted as extensions of the state. The state socialist system disintegrated at the end of the 1980s, but disabled people in the postsocialist countries of CEE continued to be systematically subjected to economic deprivation, cultural devaluation, and political disempowerment, as a number of recent reports have pointed out (e.g. Holland 2008; International Disability Network 2007; Mladenov 2015c; Zaviršek 2014).

The present paper adds to this growing body of work by identifying two major factors that have contributed to the continuation of disability-related injustices after 1989. The first is state socialist legacy that is still conditioning the understanding of disability and guiding disability policy in postsocialist countries – as pointed out by Phillips (2009, n.p.) with regard to the countries of the former Soviet Union, the ‘Soviet chapter in the new disability history has not quite concluded, since institutional structures, discourses and attitudes, and other legacies of the past continue to shape disability policies and experiences in the region today.’ The second factor is postsocialist neoliberalization that has transformed some of the institutions, discourses, and practices inherited from the state socialist past. Rasell and Iarskaia-Smirnova (2014, 4) have argued that ‘certain trends in the region reflect global dynamics beyond (post) socialism, for example neoliberal retrenchment and discourses about human rights’. In my view, human rights campaigns, although influential, have been of secondary importance and, furthermore, have sometimes converged with processes of neoliberalization (Mladenov 2015c) – a point to which I will return in the conclusion.

As defined by Lane (1996), state socialism originated in Russia, where its rise was initiated by the October Revolution of 1917. This distinctive form of socialism was characterized by ‘a state-owned, more or less centrally administered economy, controlled by a dominant communist party which seeks, on the basis of Marxism–Leninism and through the agency of the state, to mobilize the population to reach a classless society’ (Lane 1996, 5). In the aftermath of the Second World War, the new regime, conceived as a major alternative to capitalism, spread throughout CEE. Its decline began in the 1970s (Dale 2011, 2–8) and accelerated in the 1980s. Eventually, state socialism collapsed in a wave of mostly peaceful reforms that quickly unfolded between 1989 and 1991. The erosion of the post-war welfarist consensus in the West that gained momentum in the 1980s with the ascendance of the neoliberal doctrine (Harvey 2005), as well as the concomitant rise of the New Right in the US and the UK meant that after the collapse of state socialism in the East, the promotion of a social democratic alternative faced strong external resistance (Sachs 1991). The latter was complemented by equally strong internal pressures for neoliberal reforms (Bockman and Eyal 2002). In many areas of postsocialist life, including social policy (Ferge 1997), this meant imposition of market mechanisms led by privatization, deregulation, decentralization, promotion of individualism, and fiscal austerity.

I opt for the term ‘neoliberalization’ (Springer 2013) instead of the more common ‘neoliberalism’ in order to emphasize that what is at stake are flexible global processes that constantly mutate by accommodating and appropriating local idiosyncrasies, agencies, and resistances – rather than a rigid global framework that is imposed, from the outside, on a passive, docile economic, and socio-political local reality. Scholars of postsocialism have explored the impact of neoliberalization on two distinct albeit interrelated levels – the macro-level, exemplified by analyses of neoliberal social policy restructuring (e.g. Ferge 1997), and the micro-level, covered by Foucault-inspired research on neoliberal identity construction or ‘technologies of the self’ (e.g. Matza 2009). Although the emphasis in this paper is on macro-level effects of neoliberalization (e.g. welfare-state retrenchment, deregulation, depoliticization), I will also consider some of its micro-level effects (e.g. responsibilization, overvaluation of self-sufficiency). CEE societies have been undergoing processes of neoliberalization driven from ‘within’ even before the fall of the state socialist regime (Bockman and Eyal 2002). Furthermore, postsocialist neoliberalization has constantly been modified (and sometimes constrained) by the state socialist legacy that has continued to shape institutions, discourses, and practices long after the fall (Hemment 2009). It is the aim of this paper to explore the interrelated effects of these two factors – state socialist legacy, on the one hand, and postsocialist neoliberalization, on the other – on disabled people in postsocialist societies.

Surely, there have been local variations. After 1989, different postsocialist countries have processed their state socialist legacy differently; similarly, neoliberalization has proceeded idiosyncratically and to varying degrees in the former members of the Eastern Bloc (Bohle and Greskovits 2007). The effects of ‘transition’ on local disability policies and practices have also been diverse. I will return to this point in the conclusion – for now it suffices to say that the present analysis highlights general tendencies, while acknowledging plurality and contingency. The study builds on a wealth of reports detailing the concrete realities of state socialist and postsocialist societies. On this basis, it aims to produce a general framework for analysis. It is impossible to engage in methodologically holist (as opposed to methodologically individualist), macro-level (as opposed to micro-level) and critical (as opposed to normatively neutral) thinking without some degree of abstracting from local idiosyncrasies. That said, it is hoped that the proposed framework will invite further empirical refinements, conceptual remakes, or indeed refutations grounded in detailed micro-level studies and specific cases.

On the following pages, the effects of the state socialist legacy and postsocialist neoliberalization on disability-related institutions, discourses, and practices in postsocialist countries will be analysed by looking at three distinct dimensions of justice conceptualized by Fraser (1996, 2013) – economic redistribution, cultural recognition, and political representation. This conceptual framework will be introduced in the next section. Afterwards, I will explore the negative impact on the social participation of disabled people, produced by the state socialist legacy and postsocialist neoliberalization in each of Fraser’s three dimensions. The conclusion will summarize the discussion in a ‘postsocialist disability matrix’ and will revisit the question about the limitations of this type of analysis.

Three dimensions of justice

Fraser (1996, 2013) conceptualizes social justice as ‘parity of participation’. From such a radically democratic perspective, ‘justice requires social arrangements that permit all (adult) members of society to interact with one another as peers’ (Fraser 2013, 164, emphasis in the original). This is an inclusive conception – one that encompasses both the more traditional, Marxist and liberal-egalitarian concerns with distributive justice that focus on economic issues like poverty, exploitation, and inequality; and the newer, neo-Marxist and multiculturalist concerns with recognitive justice that focus on cultural issues like disrespect and devaluation of difference. Fraser originally developed her theory of justice in the 1990s (Fraser 1995, subsequently expanded in Fraser 1996). In the 2000s, Fraser (2013, Chap. 8) added representative justice to the redistribution-and-recognition mix in order to account for political issues like democratic deficiencies of public decision-making within and across nation-states produced and/or highlighted by globalization. Thus, she transformed her initial two-dimensional conception (Fraser 1995, 1996) into a three-dimensional one (Fraser 2013, 193–200). Although developed with analysis and critique of gender, class, ‘race’ and sexuality (in)justice in mind, this framework is useful for studying disability (in)justice as well, considering that parity of participation has been a central concern of the disabled people’s movement since its inception (UPIAS 1976). In her own work, Fraser does not consider disability (with rare exceptions, e.g. Fraser and Honneth 2003, 220–221), notwithstanding her extensive discussions of gender, class, ‘race’ and sexuality. Putting Fraser’s theory of justice in contact with disability studies will fill this gap, open up new avenues for intersectional analysis, and prevent potential ableist slippages that threaten disability-evading critiques of injustice, for ‘disability issues are – or should be – central to theories of social justice’ (Bérubé 2003, n.p.). Below, I will briefly present each of the three dimensions of justice as conceptualized by Fraser, before proceeding to apply her theory to disability issues in postsocialist societies (for an earlier application of Fraser’s work to disability in postsocialism, see Hartblay 2014).

First, parity of participation requires such redistribution of material resources that provides people with the means to interact with others on equal terms. Fraser (2013, 164) points out that proper redistribution (which includes both surface reallocations of economic outputs and deep-level economic restructuring) enables the participants to be independent and have a ‘voice’. It is a necessary although not a sufficient condition for the realization of parity of participation; and it is regarded as an ‘objective’ condition by Fraser, in the sense that it concerns socioeconomic structures that generate or deny material support such as income, social security, and public services. Only when people are provided with the material resources needed for participating in social life as peers, can the redistributive requirement of justice be fulfilled. Accordingly, structures of maldistribution that deny material resources ensuring full participation are unjust. Such arrangements institutionalize deprivation, exploitation, and disabling inequalities of wealth, income, and leisure time.

Second, parity of participation requires the recognition of the value of people in order for them to be able to attain equal status in social encounters. Proper recognition ensures respect for difference and provides equal opportunities for ‘achieving social esteem’ (Fraser 2013, 164). Like the redistributive dimension of justice, the recognitive one is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for participatory party; and it is regarded as an ‘intersubjective’ condition by Fraser, in the sense that it concerns cultural entities such as categories and interpretations that are produced, reproduced, and exchanged in communication. Only when people are culturally valued as full participants in social life, can the recognitive requirement of justice be satisfied. Accordingly, mechanisms of misrecognition that systemically devalue certain categories of people and their qualities, denying them the status of equal partners in interaction, are unjust. Such mechanisms have a negative impact on people by attributing to them too much difference or, alternatively, disregarding their distinctiveness.

Third, parity of participation requires such political representation of the participants that provides them with equal opportunities to have a say in the making of policies that concern them. Proper representation ensures that all those affected by a policy have a chance to influence it by participating as equals in ‘public processes of contestation’ (Fraser 2013, 195). Again, it is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for participatory parity; and it is regarded as a ‘procedural’ condition by Fraser (2013, 208) in the sense that it concerns processes of deliberation through which questions of redistribution and recognition are addressed. Only when all those affected are included in public decision-making about redistribution and recognition, and only when they are able to participate fully in these deliberative processes, can the representative requirement of justice be fulfilled. Accordingly, structures of misrepresentation that exclude certain categories of affected people from public deliberation or impair their participation are unjust. Such arrangements institutionalize democratic deficits.1

Redistribution, recognition, and representation are distinct dimensions of justice, irreducible to one another, but they are also interrelated in complex ways. Accordingly, struggles for social change need to address issues of maldistribution, misrecognition, and misrepresentation simultaneously – otherwise, a gain in one dimension risks producing negative effects in the other(s). For instance, some culturally insensitive redistributive policies could impair recognition – Fraser (2013, 171) provides the example of public assistance for single mothers in the US that has stigmatized them as ‘sexually irresponsible scroungers’. Similarly, some materially insensitive recognitive policies could have a negative impact on redistribution – for example, campaigns against prostitution and pornography could harm sex workers economically (Fraser 2013, 172). In addition, making claims for redistribution and recognition depends on political representation as much as having a political voice depends on access to material resources and on being culturally recognized as a full participant in the policy-making process. Otherwise, a vicious cycle ensues: ‘Lacking political voice, [people] are unable to articulate and defend their interests with respect to distribution and recognition, which in turn exacerbates their misrepresentation’ (Fraser 2013, 199, n. 19). Fraser (2013, 197) also points out that those completely excluded from the opportunity to participate in the political process (voting, deliberation, decision-making) are ‘politically dead’ – they ‘may become objects of charity or benevolence. But deprived of the possibility of authoring first-order claims [about redistribution and recognition], they become non-persons with respect to justice’.

Fraser’s tri-dimensional analysis of injustice has strong resonance with the current political, economic, and cultural situation of disabled people. The next three sections will apply this framework to disability-related institutions, discourses, and practices in postsocialist countries. Each section will highlight some of the effects on disabled people, produced in the respective dimension by state socialist legacy and postsocialist neoliberalization.

Economic redistribution

The heyday of industrial capitalism in the nineteenth century brought about systematic impoverishment and marginalization of disabled people. Mechanized, factory-based production required standard workers, thus excluding people with physical or mental differences from wage labour, while industrial accidents increased the number of impairments (Abberley 1987; Oliver and Barnes 2012, Chap. 3). Although presented as a radical alternative to capitalism (a claim that has been strongly contested by Marxist scholars such as Tamás 2011), twentieth-century state socialism did not alleviate this material deprivation of disabled people. The accelerated industrialization sought by the new regime (Dale 2011, 3) replicated the negative effects of capitalist industrialization on disabled people (Rasell and Iarskaia-Smirnova 2014, 5). At the same time, the redistributive measures targeted at this category of citizens that could potentially offset the ‘social costs’ of industrialization (Titmuss 1974, 78) were focused on creating an extensive infrastructure of publicly funded sheltered enterprises and residential ‘care’ facilities. Again, rather than offering an alternative to capitalist disability policy of the time, such measures merely replicated its segregated solutions. Instead of improving disabled people’s parity of participation, this approach actually prevented them from getting access to the material resources needed for interacting with others as peers.

The main way to deal with distributive issues such as economic deprivation faced by disabled people during state socialism was through work placement. Some commentators of the time even referred to the latter as ‘[t]he basic form of social assistance in all socialist countries’ (Golemanov and Popov 1976, 29, emphasis added). This sweeping generalization reflects the prominence of sheltered workshops that proliferated in many Soviet-style societies. For example, between 1955 and 1974, the number of special enterprises in Bulgaria increased from 9 to 64 and the number of disabled people employed there – from 372 to over 20,000 (Golemanov and Popov 1976, 29). Many such workshops survived the demise of the regime and continue to be a major source of employment for disabled people in postsocialist countries – besides Bulgaria (Panayotova and Todorov 2007, 21), examples include Slovenia, Poland, Hungary (Zaviršek 2014, 194–197) and Slovakia (Gould and Harris 2012). Yet segregated employment in sheltered workplaces has not solved the problem of disability-related maldistribution because it has been low-paid and exploitative: ‘People with disabilities … make below the standard living wage in sheltered workshop facilities, which in part, creates a cycle of poverty’ (Gould and Harris 2012, n.p.) Reporting similar observations, Zaviršek (2014, 197) points out that postsocialist inclusion of disabled people in ‘welfare jobs’ has resulted in disabled people being ‘isolated from society and excluded from socially valued statuses’.

Besides segregated employment, the other major mechanism of disability-related maldistribution inherited from state socialism has been placement in residential institutions. Since disability was regarded by the state socialist regime exclusively as individual and medical problem rather than a social one (a point to which I will return in the next section), scarcely any funds were invested in overcoming environmental barriers to participation – public spaces, buildings, and transportation remained inaccessible, and the paternalist approach to support precluded investment in personal assistance services as well. Coupled with segregated, low-paid employment and meagre benefits (Phillips 2009), this lack of material support for independent living meant that disabled people were confined either to their homes or to residential institutions for ‘social care’. The latter was seen as preferable because caring for a disabled member of the household at home was perceived as ‘los[ing] a work force unit that could be put to more appropriate use’ (Golemanov and Popov 1976, 32). Accordingly, ‘health, education and welfare professionals [were] trained to recommend residential care as the most appropriate form of support for disabled adults and children’ (Rasell and Iarskaia-Smirnova 2014, 6). The result was the multiplication of residential facilities for ‘social care’, many of which survived the demise of state socialism:

people with disabilities in the post-communist countries of CEE are in the difficult situation of (1) having been born into sociopolitical contexts that were wealthy enough to construct massive institutional infrastructures prepared to house them indefinitely and (2) infrastructures that then ossified under communism. (Holland 2008, 545)

The neoliberalization of postsocialist social policy in the aftermath of 1989 (Ferge 1997) was strongly associated with critiques of the so-called nanny state and efforts to reduce centrally administered and funded structures of welfare support. The strategy involved decentralization of service provision by way of delegating it to local authorities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) (a trend further discussed in the section on political representation). But these efforts rarely produced viable community-based alternatives to the segregated services inherited from state socialism. Even the much-lauded processes of ‘deinstitutionalization’ promoted by the EU (see have sometimes ended up with dubious, ‘re-institutionalizing’ solutions (e.g. CIL 2013). Furthermore, decentralization has brought about unequal geographical distribution of provision and unsustainable funding (Mladenov 2015c).

Postsocialist neoliberalization also amounted to retrenchment of resources for social security and social services that enhanced the material deprivation of disabled people inherited from state socialism. Thus, maldistribution through austerity has been superimposed upon maldistribution through segregation. In some cases, the already meagre benefits were cut directly (Mladenov 2015c). In others, neoliberalization brought about an indirect strategy for retrenchment of social support through workfare. Workfare programmes are considered to be a form of social policy ‘activation’ or ‘active labour market policy’ (Lødemel and Trickey 2001, 13–14) in which the receipt of support is made conditional on preparation for or participation in paid employment. The aim is to make individuals economically self-sufficient and, therefore, individually responsible for their own wellbeing. The recognitive impact of such ‘responsibilization’ on disabled people will be discussed in the next section. In terms of material redistribution, workfare has not only retrenched benefits through conditionality, but also reduced the efforts to remove the structural barriers to employment faced by disabled people. Proceeding from the presumption that ‘what needs to be reformed is people’s behaviour rather than the institutions supposed to serve them’ (Standing 1990, 685), workfare programmes have focused on punishing disabled individuals for not working through sanctions and/or improving their vocational skills, qualifications, and work attitude in order to make them employable (Grover and Soldatic 2013).

An example of the negative impact of postsocialist workfare on disabled people is provided by Gould and Harris (2012), who look at Slovakia for making their case. ‘Activation’ policies have been promoted by the European Union (EU) since the second half of 1990s (Lødemel and Trickey 2001, 14) and CEE countries pursuing EU membership were pressurized to replicate this approach ‘out of necessity to be seen as legitimate competitors in global trade in progress to joining the EU’ (Gould and Harris 2012, n.p.). Following the trend, Slovakia has been introducing workfare programmes since the beginning of the 2000s, seeking ‘to reduce its spending on welfare by requiring an individual to participate in the labor market in order to receive welfare benefits’ (Gould and Harris 2012, n.p.). Gould and Harris point out that the main thrust of the Slovak ‘2004–2006 National Action Plan on Social Inclusion’ was to make social security recipients economically self-sufficient through re-insertion in paid employment. Workfare has disadvantaged able-bodied recipients of assistance as well (Standing 1990), but disabled people have been hit particularly hard by such measures because they have been prevented from participating in the open labour market by material and cultural barriers in addition to unfavourable conditions of employment.

Cultural recognition

Cultural recognition means respect for difference and provision of equal opportunities for achieving esteem. Respect and esteem are systematically denied by institutionalized patterns of interpretation and communication that generate injustices like cultural domination, nonrecognition and disrespect (Fraser 1996, 7). With regard to gender, such patterns have been criticized under the general heading of ‘androcentrism’ (Fraser 2013, 162); with regard to disability, patterns of misrecognition have been critically approached by using the category of ‘ableism’ (Campbell 2009). An ableist society privileges individual features associated with able-bodiedness. Historically, ableist misrecognition has meant systematic denial of respect and esteem to disabled people on the grounds of perceived bodily, psycho-emotional, or cognitive ‘flaws’.2 Capitalism institutionalized ableist patterns of interpretation and communication by establishing systems for medical-productivist assessment of disability – for social policy purposes, the capitalist welfare state reduced disability to a medically identifiable condition that decreases one’s ability to engage in productive labour (Stone 1984). This medical-productivist understanding of disability inflected representations of disability in the media and on the level of everyday life by subjecting personal experiences of disabled people to externally imposed and alienating interpretations and by enhancing stereotypical representations of disabled people as incapable and inferior. It was resolutely challenged in the 1970s with the emergence of the disabled people’s movement in ‘advanced’ capitalist societies such as the US and the UK. Ever since, the movement has been promoting the social model of disability and the Independent Living philosophy as alternatives to discourses and practices that individualize and medicalize disability (Oliver and Barnes 2012, Chap. 8).

Similar to their capitalist rivals, Soviet-style societies privileged those individual bodily and mental features that were associated with the ability of people to participate in industrial production (Hartblay 2014). As already pointed out in the preceding section, both capitalist and socialist industrialization required standardized labour, which left little room for tolerating difference (Rasell and Iarskaia-Smirnova 2014, 5). In her historical overview of disability in the Soviet Union, Phillips (2009, n.p.) emphasizes that in the Soviet society, the ‘citizen’s social utility was measured in terms of one’s potential role in production’ – accordingly, Soviet social policy defined disability as ‘loss of labor capacity’. Replicating this approach in the early stages of their institution-building, many state socialist countries created centralized systems for disability assessment that rendered disability exclusively in terms of inability to work due to medically certified individual ‘deficiencies’. These systems were heavily informed by the regime’s ‘rationalistic philosophy’ and ‘cult of science’ (Tamás 2011, 33). Disabled people seeking social support were required to attend medical commissions comprising physicians who evaluated the claimant’s capacity to engage in wage labour on the basis of purely medical criteria (Mladenov 2011; Phillips 2009). The resultant disability certification regime regulated the access of disabled people to public support in cash and in kind.

The suppression of civil society and dissent by state socialism (discussed in the next section) meant that challenges to this institutionalized misrecognition of disabled people, comparable to the ones that have been voiced by the disabled people’s movement in the West since the 1970s, emerged only after the fall of the regime. Such challenges notwithstanding, the medical-productivist system of classifying and assessing disability has proved as resistant to change after 1989 as segregated service provision. The system survived almost intact the demise of state socialism and has continued to dominate disability policy in a number of postsocialist countries including Armenia, Bulgaria, Estonia, Russia, and Ukraine (International Disability Network 2007; Mladenov 2011; Phillips 2009). There, disability is still assessed by medical professionals, in medical settings and according to medical criteria, while the outcome of the assessment is rendered in strictly productivist terms, as inability (or decreased ability) to work. Reflecting on this state of affairs, Rasell and Iarskaia-Smirnova (2014, 6–7) recently pointed out that ‘[i]ndividualistic medical approaches to disability are still widespread in the region and the pressure of stigma weighs on disabled people, their relatives and friends’.

On the everyday level, the state socialist ‘championing and near fetishization of bodily strength, functioning and ability’ (Rasell and Iarskaia-Smirnova 2014, 5) manifested itself as denial of disability. A Soviet official (in)famously declared in 1980: ‘There are no invalids in the USSR!’ (Fefelov 1986, quoted in Phillips 2009) Segregated provision, inaccessible built environment and the absence of personal assistance services contributed to hiding disabled people from the public view by keeping them confined to residential institutions or to their homes. Thus, maldistribution conspired with misrecognition to produce exclusion from social life – materially conditioned invisibility facilitated and was legitimized by ableist denial. As a result, disabled people were virtually forgotten by their societies (Phillips 2009). That said, the hiding of disability from the public view was by no means specific to state socialism – to provide an extreme example, until the beginning of 1970s the appearance in public of disabled people considered to be visually ‘disturbing’ was officially forbidden in several US cities through local ordinances or so-called ‘ugly laws’ (Schweik 2009). As with medical-productivist assessment, state socialist denial of disability merely devised a version of capitalist misrecognition of disabled people.

The neoliberalization of society during the postsocialist ‘transition’ added other mechanisms of ableist misrecognition to this legacy of productivism, medicalization and denial. Soviet-style productivism had already stigmatized social assistance (Hartblay 2014) – an attitude neatly captured in the popular slogan: ‘Those who do not work shall not eat!’ (Zaviršek 2014; see also Rasell 2014) Postsocialist neoliberalization built on this legacy by incorporating the notion of ‘welfare dependency’ in social policy discourse. The neoliberal and neoconservative genealogy of this notion is well known (Roulstone and Prideaux 2012, 81). In a nutshell, it assumes that the receipt of benefits, especially if prolonged, entraps the recipients in a ‘dependency culture’ that makes them increasingly passive and unwilling to engage in wage labour (for a critique of this argument, see Standing 1990, 682). A key corollary is that people receiving assistance need to be (re)inserted into the labour market, which legitimizes workfare programmes (already discussed in the previous section). An example of the use of the ‘dependency’ concept in relation to social assistance for disabled people in a postsocialist context is provided by Mladenov (2015c).

The stigmatization of social assistance brought about by the discourse of ‘welfare dependency’ has impaired the cultural recognition of disabled people in postsocialist countries. Disabled people in the region have been ‘disproportionally represented among those living in extreme and chronic deprivation’ (Zaviršek 2014, 184) – accordingly, they have been heavily reliant on social assistance. On a deeper level, disabled people’s lives tend to illuminate the fundamental interdependency of the human way of being and therefore call for its positive valuation (Mladenov 2015a). And yet, postsocialist neoliberalization has promoted self-sufficiency rather than interdependency as a positive alternative to dependency. Besides benefit sanctions and stigmatization of social assistance, this has entailed responsibilization – a neoliberal strategy of regulating conduct by making people individually responsible for coping with social risks such as poverty and unemployment (Lemke 2002, 58; see also Rose 1996). Shaping subjects as self-reliant, self-governing, enterprising market agents has been a key function of postsocialist publics and policies (Matza 2009). As an example, a municipal programme for personal assistance for disabled people in Bulgaria has recently made the provision of assistance conditional on the participation of the users, prior to application, in paid employment and/or formal education (Mladenov 2016). Other examples of neoliberal responsibilization can be found in the analyses of postsocialist workfare provided by Gould and Harris (2012) and Zaviršek (2014). Similarly to stigmatization of social assistance, neoliberal responsibilization has enhanced the ableist misrecognition of disability inherited from state socialism by devaluing the lives of those whose needs for support have been most conspicuous.

Political representation

Even when taking into account the democratic flaws of their capitalist rivals, state socialist societies stood out as conspicuously undemocratic in comparison. Early on, they instituted one-party political systems that destroyed parliamentary pluralism and practically eliminated conventional party-political representation. The dictatorial structure of the regime came about through a chain of substitutions – ‘the proletariat substitute[d] itself for the liberated community, the party for the proletariat, the Central Committee for the party, the dictator for the Central Committee’ (Tamás 2011, 27–28). But together with undermining the institutions of party-political representation, state socialism also suppressed political deliberation and contestation within wider civil society (Lane 1996, 137), which is the domain on which I am focusing in this section. Following Fraser (1990, 67), I consider the thriving of ‘subaltern counterpublics’ in civil society – defined as ‘parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses, which in turn permit them to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs’ – as key for democracy. Therefore, looking at civil society organizations, informal groups and social movements can tell us more about actual political representation – or actually existing democracy – than looking at electoral systems and parliaments, no matter whether party-political representation is a straightforward lie, as it was in state socialist countries, or a half-truth, as it has been in liberal democracies.

Being a traditionally marginalized and disempowered group, disabled people and their civil society organizations were virtually excluded from public decision-making in state socialist societies:

The tight regulation of politics, culture and society – especially in the USSR, Romania, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic – silenced alternative viewpoints and largely curtailed any disability politics or activism (White 1999). Independent organisations of disabled people were not permitted, even for welfare purposes, and press censorship prevented open discussions of conditions in residential institutions and failures in state disability provision. (Rasell and Iarskaia-Smirnova 2014, 6)

Although large impairment-based organizations did exist in many state socialist countries, their independence was heavily circumscribed by centralized sponsorship and control. Grassroots disability activism was systematically suppressed – for example, ‘[b]ecause they had been so insulated, it was not until the late 1980s and early 1990s that disability rights activists in the (former) Soviet Union were able to tap into international advocacy discourse and rights movements’ (Phillips 2009, n.p.). The exclusion of disabled people’s groups and organizations from public deliberation and contestation blocked attempts to reform the state socialist institutions, practices, and discourses of maldistribution and misrecognition outlined in the preceding two sections. The postsocialist ‘transition’ restored party pluralism and representative democracy, but civil society remained weak (Howard 2003). Indeed, after the fall of the state socialist regime the role of third-sector organizations increased, but mostly with regard to provision of social services and other kinds of material assistance. In 1997, Ferge (1997, 28) intimated that, in accord with the depoliticization agenda of neoliberalism, postsocialist civil society ‘may become much more important as service deliverer, whilst its political function – that of giving voice to the claims of civil movements – may weaken’. Ten years later, in his analysis of disability activism in Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary (the Visegrád countries), Holland (2008, 544) confirmed this trend: ‘most disability activists and NGO leaders in CEE are currently focused more on service provision than advocacy or implementation of disability rights’.

As already pointed out in the section on economic redistribution, postsocialist neoliberalization promoted decentralization of service provision. NGOs became key agents of these efforts to reform the over-centralized and over-bureaucratized system of provision inherited from state socialism, but the campaign for decentralization came with a price – provision became unsustainable and geographically unequal, while its success in terms of promoting alternatives to segregated services along the lines of the social model of disability and the Independent Living philosophy has also been piecemeal and shaky (for a Bulgarian example see Mladenov 2015c). While acknowledging the struggles of many grassroots disability groups and NGOs during the postsocialist period (see the concluding section of this paper), it is also imperative to highlight the structural obstacles that have consistently undermined their efforts to bring about systemic change. Most importantly from the perspective of political representation, the pressure on disability NGOs to restrict their activities to service provision has depoliticized them and has reduced the possibilities of disabled people to participate in public decision-making (which could also explain the continuing reproduction of segregated and medicalized solutions, despite decentralization). Notably, similar processes have depoliticized third-sector organizations in ‘advanced’ capitalist countries as well: ‘being forced into service provision within the realm of work has disempowered many disabled people’s collectives’ (Soldatic and Meekosha 2012, 197; see also Aiken 2014).

Besides reducing civil society organizations to service providers, postsocialist neoliberalization further impaired disabled people’s political representation by encouraging token participation. The model was tripartism – a contemporary form of corporatism where representatives of the government, employers, and workers negotiate the terms of economic policy. Corporatism is a doctrine associated with structural functionalism in sociology and social democracy in politics (Ost 2000). It stipulates that in its administration of society, the government should consult the representatives of major interest groups, the aim being to resolve conflicts and mediate competing interests in an orderly way, avoiding social instability. Tripartite (neo)corporatist bodies emerged in most postsocialist countries very soon after the fall of state socialism. Ost (2000) has argued that such arrangements in Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland have been tokenistic and have served the purpose of minimizing workers’ dissent for the advancement of neoliberal reforms. According to Ost (2000, 508), ‘East European tripartism has legitimized the marginalization of labor and the decline of wages and benefits.’

In analogy to tripartite institutions, postsocialist governments set up national bodies to ostensibly consult disability organizations on disability policy. An example is the Bulgarian National Council for Integration of People with Disabilities, which consists of representatives of the government, organizations of and for disabled people, employers, and trade unions (Mladenov 2009). Similarly to tripartite bodies, the quasi-corporatist National Council has legitimized decisions taken elsewhere; the participants have often just been informed about plans devised by the administration; the discussions have been formal and superficial; and the proposals have routinely been voted unanimously, as in state socialist times (Mladenov 2009). What is more, the disability organizations (‘of’ and ‘for’) within the National Council have received annual subsidies from the government, which has cemented their acquiescence (Panayotova and Todorov 2007). Holland (2008, 552) has reported similar patterns in Visegrád countries: ‘It was noted by many of the activists interviewed that NGOs receiving support primarily from the government … become de facto extensions of the government and its priorities regarding disability issues.’ In such a context of institutionalized misrepresentation, external funding on behalf of foreign donors has been regarded as ‘a major advantage in achieving an independent role in civil society’ (Holland 2008, 552; see also Mladenov 2009, 33).

Misrepresentation has a negative impact on disabled people by denying them the opportunity to have a say in policies that concern them – it is a negation of the slogan ‘Nothing about us without us!’ Complementing the state socialist legacy of weakened civil society, postsocialist neoliberalization further depoliticized disabled people’s organizations by reducing their role to service providers and by incorporating them in structures of tokenistic (quasi-corporatist) policy-making. This has provided a serious political obstacle before postsocialist efforts to challenge the continuing (a) maldistribution experienced by disabled people in the form of segregated service provision, retrenchment of social assistance, and multiplication of workfare programmes and (b) misrecognition experienced in the form of medical-productivist devaluation, stigmatization of social assistance, and responsibilization.

Conclusion: the postsocialist disability matrix

The aforementioned effects on disability-related institutions, discourses, and practices in the postsocialist region of CEE, produced by the state socialist legacy and postsocialist neoliberalization in each of Fraser’s three dimensions of justice can be summarized in a table that I will title ‘postsocialist disability matrix’ (see Table 1).

Table 1.

Postsocialist disability matrix.

  State socialist legacy Postsocialist neoliberalization
Economic redistribution Segregated service provision:
• Sheltered workshops
• Residential institutions
Restructuring and reducing social support:
• Decentralization
• Benefit cuts
• Workfare
Cultural recognition • Medical-productivist understanding of disability (codified in disability assessment systems)
• Denial of disability (on the everyday level)
• Stigmatization of social assistance and ‘dependency’, accompanied by promotion of self-sufficiency
• Responsibilization
Political representation Weak civil society – suppression of counterpublics and counterdiscourses Depoliticization through:
• Restriction of civil society to service provision
• Token (quasi-corporatist) participation

In the original formulation of her theory of social justice, Fraser (1995) herself proposed a ‘matrix’ that conceptualized the relationships between recognition and redistribution, on the one hand, and transformative and affirmative remedies to injustice, on the other. The matrix that I propose here is different, since it explores the relationships between recognition, redistribution and representation, on the one hand, and state-socialist legacy and postsocialist neoliberalization, on the other. So whereas Fraser’s matrix was programmatic and global, mine is diagnostic and regional – Fraser highlighted the best approaches for fighting social injustice in the context of a global ‘postsocialist condition’, whereas I explore the mechanisms that generate disability-related injustice in the regional context of Eastern European postsocialism.3 Nevertheless, my analysis complements Fraser’s because both Eastern European postsocialism and disability provide powerful lenses through which to explore and challenge neoliberal globalization.

The postsocialist disability matrix is a theoretical abstraction – a heuristic tool devised to aid critical analyses of disability in the postsocialist region, to provide a way to speak and think about general forces. Other conceptual instruments might prove to be more appropriate for the purpose, but the forces in question are regarded as real – or, to be more precise, their deconstruction is bracketed for the time being in order to open up a space for critical thinking and normative evaluation. Indeed, local articulations of postsocialist neoliberalization have been diverse (Bohle and Greskovits 2007), as have been local articulations of the state socialist legacy (Outhwaite 2011). Still, a common denominator is presupposed, otherwise the possibility of critical analysis gets undermined. The same holds for the category of ‘disability’ itself, which certainly does not denote a homogeneous group. Yet although people with different impairments (physical, sensory, mental, psycho-social) encounter and experience impediments to parity of participation differently, the entries in the ‘matrix’ nevertheless emphasize commonalities. For no matter whether one is a wheelchair user, a blind person or a psychiatric survivor, one is likely to be denied the status of full participant in social interaction as a disabled person by mechanisms such as institutionalization or retrenchment of disability support, medicalization of disability or responsibilization of service users, suppression of disability-based counterpublics or depoliticization of disabled people’s self-organizing.

Besides disability, the ‘matrix’ could be applied to analyses of social (in)justice concerning other axes of difference in the postsocialist region, for example gender, class, ‘race’/ethnicity, or sexuality. What makes it a specifically disability matrix are the entries in the cells, although each of the cells could be filled in with different content to the one provided here. Nevertheless, I believe that the specific entries discussed in this analysis are general enough to merit attention – they cut across local idiosyncrasies and various axes of difference (although they are certainly not universal). Disability provides a unique perspective on the relationship between body/mind and society that throws new light on issues of (de)differentiation and (inter)dependency, but the latter are of major concern to people who encounter injustices along other axes of difference as well. In this regard, a potential avenue for future investigations is intersectionality – for example, considering that the efforts of state socialism to create a socially homogeneous or ‘de-differentiated’ society (Lane 1996, 137) motivated denial of difference, it is likely that the cultural recognition of disabled people from ethnic minority groups has been doubly impaired by the state socialist legacy; similarly, the neoliberal devaluation of ‘dependency’ and the attendant overvaluation of self-sufficiency has in all probability had a doubly negative impact on disabled women, given the historical association between ‘dependency’ and femininity (Fraser 2013, Chap. 3).

Since the 1990s, the postsocialist region has witnessed the emergence of disabled people’s groups, organizations, and individuals that have resolutely challenged disability-related injustices by making recourse to human rights discourses (Holland 2008; Mladenov 2015a; Rasell and Iarskaia-Smirnova 2014). Their advocacy has been vocal and persistent. It has espoused the principles and values of the social model of disability and the Independent Living philosophy, demanding deinstitutionalization, inclusive education, accessible environment, user-led personal assistance (direct payments), and demedicalization of disability. Parity of participation has been the overarching aim. There have been numerous successes, but most of them have remained patchy and of limited reach – new human rights legislation has lacked proper enforcement, while alternative services have been provided on a short-term, local, and donor-funded basis. Furthermore, some of the demands of the advocates have (wittingly or unwittingly) converged with neoliberalization – for example, the advocacy for personal assistance (direct payments) has promoted market-based regulation of provision through decentralization and competition as an alternative to the state-based regulation through paternalistic, top-down control (Mladenov 2015c); and the advocacy for the ‘right to work’ has served to legitimize the proliferation of workfare programmes (Zaviršek 2014). In addition, disability activists campaigning for systemic changes have been marginalized and their voices have been silenced by structures of political misrepresentation.

The postsocialist disability matrix suggests that in order to be successful, the attempts at righting postsocialist wrongs imposed upon disabled people need to address simultaneously maldistribution, misrecognition, and misrepresentation – rather than target just one of these dimensions, in isolation from the others. In the postsocialist context, this entails confronting not only the socialist legacy, but also postsocialist neoliberalization. The task is immense, for it presupposes responding to (seemingly) contradictory demands: defending the welfare state while criticizing the state-sponsored system of segregated service provision; promoting self-determination (Independent Living) while criticizing self-sufficiency and responsibilization; and gaining a political voice and representation while keeping a distance from the official structures of token participation. Engaging in ‘practices of resistance via the international realm’ (Soldatic and Meekosha 2012, 197) by, for example, making use of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities could provide additional leverage in this struggle. Nevertheless, the advocacy for legal recognition should be incorporated in wider strategies for enhancing disability-related redistribution, recognition, and representation – for example, by ensuring public provision of user-led support, by circulating anti-ableist counterdiscourses and by strengthening disability counterpublics – in order to achieve parity of participation for disabled people in the postsocialist region.


1. Fraser’s (2013, Chap. 8) conception of representative justice is more complex than this summary suggests, but for my present purposes, it would suffice. Furthermore, she added the political dimension in order to accommodate her initially two-dimensional framework to a globalized, post-nation-state world, while I am interested in apply it to postsocialism. According to Fraser (2013, 191), globalization enhances critical awareness of injustice generated by conventional democratic decision-making because globalization contests previously taken-for-granted frames of political participation. I argue that postsocialism has given rise to a similar experience of incredulity towards conventional procedures of democratic deliberation. Such procedures could hardly be taken for granted during state socialism for the obvious reason that its one-party rule was predicated on curtailment of democratic structures and processes, notwithstanding official appearances and assertions (Tamás 2011). The building of democratic institutions and procedures during the subsequent postsocialist phase has been seriously impeded by this undemocratic legacy, but also by neoliberalization of postsocialist societies that additionally curtailed democratic values, institutions, and practices (for a nuanced discussion, see Outhwaite 2011). This also suggests that, by including processes of neoliberalization in my analysis, I indirectly address the question of globalization because such processes are global in their character (Springer 2013). 

2. Notably, ableism and androcentrism intersect to enhance misrecognition of disabled women – for a discussion of this issue in a postsocialist context, see Mladenov (2015a, 163–166). 

3. In order to establish the extent of the regional specificity of the postsocialist disability matrix, one will need to explore in depth the similarities and differences between: (a) state socialist social policy and the welfarist social policy of the post-war, state-managed capitalism and (b) Eastern European postsocialist neoliberalization and Western post-welfarist neoliberalization. In addition, one will need to develop an account of the distinctive ‘social policy models’ (Titmuss 1974) that have cut across the East–West divide. Some preliminary suggestions on how to take this complexity on board in discussions of disability could be found in Mladenov (2015b). 


I would like to thank the referees of the journal for their perceptive comments that helped me to improve the article.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.


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