Disability Discrimination: Are You Woke?

The Rising Tide Car Wash in Parkland, FL employs a crew of professionals with autism, inspiring change in the community and empowering people with different needs.

President Donald Trump’s annual budget proposal is calling for significant modifications to Medicaid and Social Security along with heavy cuts to federal spending on many programs that benefit people with disabilities. Last week, the House passed legislation that amends the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) despite protests from disability rights advocates and Democratic leaders. ‘‘We know of no other law that outlaws discrimination but permits entities to discriminate with impunity until victims experience that discrimination and educate the entities perpetrating it about their obligations not to discriminate,’’ said a letter from the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities that was signed by more than 200 disability rights groups.

According to the US Census Bureau, one in five Americans will be affected by Trump’s proposed cuts and the pending changes to the ADA legislation. One in five? Yes. Believe it or not, there are more than 50 million Americans with disabilities and that number grows every day. Surprised you don’t see more people with disabilities in your community? In your workplace? There’s a reason for that. Deeply embedded, systemic discrimination.

Check out this timeline:

  • Prior to 1801, no one with a disability was publicly educated. In fact, most weren’t even allowed to be in public. The majority were institutionalized, abandoned, pushed out of their towns and villages, and often considered possessed by demons or the result of their parents’ witchcraft or sin. In 1614, the first so-called “ugly law” was passed in Massachusetts regarding “children, Idiots, and distracted people.”
  • Ugly laws remained a common form of legislative discrimination as late as 1974. The Chicago Municipal Code Sec. 36034 (which was eventually repealed) stated in part: “no person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed to be an unsightly or disgusting object or improper person to be allowed in or on the public ways or other public places in this city, or shall therein or thereon expose himself to public view.” These laws allowed police to arrest and jail individuals for no reason other than being disfigured or looking/acting “retarded.”
  • As late as the 1960s, mothers were believed to be the cause of a child’s autism and were often institutionalized along with their child.
  • The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not include people with disabilities.
  • Not until 1975 were children with disabilities given the right to a free and appropriate public education. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) gave children with disabilities a place in the classroom, but it did not address their civil rights or discrimination against adults with disabilities outside of a school setting.
  • In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was finally signed into law by President George H. W. Bush, and for the first time in American history, people with disabilities were at least promised equal rights.

But as we all know too well, being promised equal rights and actually having them are two very different things. Private and religious schools are still not required to admit students with physical or intellectual disabilities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 17.5 percent of adults with disabilities are employed. That’s nearly 83 percent of a population unable to find any kind of meaningful employment.

Disability affects every race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status, and it’s seen in both urban and rural communities as well as every nation on earth. In a way, disability is one trait that truly ties us all together. As does our indoctrinated fear of people with physical or intellectual challenges. Of course, children like little Lucas Warren are adorable, not frightening. He’s now our national representation of cuteness, which is wonderful. But what happens when Lucas grows up? Have you ever seen an adult with disabilities walking toward you on the sidewalk and crossed the street to avoid him? Do you assume that someone with severe cerebral palsy can’t understand you because they just don’t look like they can? Have you ever been uncomfortable by the sounds someone with a disability makes in a public space? Would you ever hire someone with Down syndrome, autism, or one of the myriad other intellectual disabilities?

If two seats on the train were available, one beside a typically developed person and one next to a woman with an intellectual disability, which seat would you choose?

People with physical differences and ability challenges have been historically forced out of society and required to live their lives in the shadows. They have only had legal civil rights for twenty-eight years and the majority are still excluded from everyday experiences. It’s no wonder so many of us still hold onto feelings of unease and ignorant ideas about what disability means. We have had so little exposure to those who develop differently from us, and, as the famous South Pacific song goes, we’ve been carefully taught to fear and hate.

Before my two children with disabilities were born, I was afraid too. It’s hard to write that being an advocate for disability rights, but it’s true. I was far from woke. Over the last sixteen years, I have experienced firsthand the level of discrimination against the disability community in our country. At first, I was embarrassed when people would stare or move away from my family in public. I wanted to hide my children away from the derogatory comments, the unfair judgments, the looks of fear.

Then I became angry. I was angry when the women at McDonald’s insisted my family should leave because my son was disturbing her. Angry when a doctor refused to treat my son with the same treatment he would prescribe to a typically developing child, “because even though this is the standard treatment for children, it would be ‘too difficult’ to treat your son.” Angry because discrimination against disability isn’t just about people feeling uncomfortable, it’s about inadequate medical care, subpar educational supports, endemic unemployment, exclusion from transportation, entertainment, and social interaction, and unlivable wages for special education teachers. Discrimination against people with physical and intellectual challenges is a constant, daily occurrence. Add race and poverty into the equation and the sum is catastrophic.

And now the government wants to remove the few supports this population has, as well as the very legislation that requires businesses to provide equal access and resources for all people.

For those of us who are woke, it is our responsibility to work every day to educate our communities about the societal value and importance of people with disabilities. For those of us who are not woke, it’s time to learn. Yes, I’m still angry. It still breaks my heart to hear of adults with disabilities living in their parents’ basements or being mistreated in public. But advocates are not superheroes; we can’t be everywhere at all times defending those who can’t defend themselves against discrimination. We must change the world through education.

First and foremost, we’re all human beings. We’re all equal, despite race, sex, gender, ability, sexual orientation, or appearance. We all have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which in the very least means opportunities for employment, appropriate healthcare, education, and being a seen, valued part of our society.

People with physical and intellectual challenges can be active, contributing members of our society and culture. Today’s technological advancements are proving daily that the individuals we have historically assumed were “retarded” are often highly intelligent minds who with the right support can become poets, musicians, philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists. Think about how it would feel to be capable of so much and allowed so little.

As Audre Lord so rightly said, it isn’t our differences that divide us. It’s our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.  We must reject systemic discrimination against any people and insist that Medicaid and Social Security supports be protected and that the ADA be prioritized. It’s time to recognize. Accept. Ask questions. Learn. Celebrate difference.