In 1990, President George H. W. Bush passed the Americans with Disabilities Act that sought to bring to people with disabilities what the Civil Rights Act brought to minorities. It gave people with disabilities a legal footing to demand equal treatment. Since then, good steps have been taken to integrate people with disabilities, such as accommodating students with disabilities, making walkways and buildings accessible, and making a special effort to help the disabled find work. Despite the positive steps, though, much work remains to be done. people with disabilities still occupy an inferior position in society through no fault of their own. They still battle public perception that makes assumptions about them that may not be true, simply as a consequence of their disabilities. Their struggles are numerous, but here are 10 of the most significant.
Working arrangements, and many working environments, are designed for people without disabilities. Although it’s illegal to discriminate against someone for a disability, it’s common knowledge that it happens often. What’s worse, people with disabilities may discriminate against themselves by assuming that they won’t be able to find work. There’s a pervasive assumption that just because people aren’t “abled,” then they must not be capable.
The truth is there’s plenty of work that people with all sorts of disabilities could perform. Some states have made a special point of promoting employment for disabled residents. Work has such a central role in our lives, that when people are effectively barred from working for reasons out of their control, people can feel like second class citizens.
- Cost of Care
The costs of care for people with disabilities can be extraordinary. The government helps families in most cases, but may not help enough. Certain physical disabilities require tremendous healthcare, and it’s widely known how expensive healthcare is in this country. In addition, people with both physical and mental disabilities may require aides living with them.
This struggle more often than not affects the family, but when people with disabilities have no family to rely on, they must shoulder the burden of the cost. The cost can quickly become too much to bear when finding employment is difficult. It essentially forces people with disabilities to become “wards” of the state, depending on the government for handouts to pay bills and live. It’s a degrading position to be in, and one that surely many people with disabilities would gladly get rid of.
Vehicles can be modified to accommodate those with physical disabilities, but the cost can be prohibitive. Public transportation companies have made great leaps to incorporate mechanisms that can accommodate the disabled. The accommodations are not universal, though, and the disabled still run into problems finding suitable transportation. Even when reasonable accommodations are available, public transportation is open to everyone, and sometimes the open spots for the handicapped are occupied by the able-bodied. It can be humiliating for a disabled person to make someone else move to open up a seat.
Some transportation companies have introduced vehicles specifically designed and reserved for people with disabilities, which is helpful, although it doesn’t do much to encourage integration. At the very least, though, it allows people with disabilities to find adequate transportation and not have to worry about making a public scene just to find a seat.
Some things are easily taken for granted by people without disabilities. Actions as simple as stepping up a curb or opening a door can be an insurmountable barrier to those who have physical disabilities. Granted, some communities have been reconstructing curbs at the corners to make them wheelchair accessible, but it’s still all too common to see curbs that no one in a wheelchair could ascend. The same difficulty persists with businesses. More buildings are coming equipped with push buttons to automatically open doors, but they are few and far between.
The lack of accessibility limits what people with physical disabilities can do. They may be effectively barred from certain parts of their communities, including parks and walkways. Apart from entrances, some retail stores place their merchandise to close together that even someone walking can have trouble maneuvering through the store. There’s no chance that someone with a wheelchair or any kind of mobility device can move through.
- Educational Accommodations
This is one struggle that many schools have addressed. Most public schools offer special education to attend to the needs of the mentally disabled. The physically disabled can still have trouble with a traditional classroom, though, and may be too advanced for special education. On top of that, some disabilities, such as blindness or deafness, would require specialized education that may not be readily accessible to some families.
In the realm of private education, accommodations may be harder to find. Some colleges are committed to accommodating students with disabilities, and the syllabus for every course includes a boilerplate provision that permits disabled students to request special accommodations. Not every educational institution has made the commitment, though. people with disabilities deserve the same chance at an education as anyone else, and until all schools are ready and willing to make all necessary accommodations, people with disabilities will be unfairly limited.
Romantic relationships are a major stumbling block for people with disabilities. Obviously they don’t have a monopoly on relationship problems, but disabled people in large numbers struggle to find partners, and in most cases the disability itself is the likely culprit. Regardless of whether the disability is physical or mental, people with disabilities suffer – much like overweight people – under society’s definition of attractiveness.
People with disabilities must fight not only against the public perception of being unattractive, but also against the biological preference for strong, healthy bodies. Whereas some can change their appearance, if they want, people with disabilities cannot just decide to stop being disabled. For many people with disabilities, it’s a long effort to accept their disabilities as part of their identities. It’s not fair to them for anyone to ask that they try to hide or deny their disabilities for the sake of finding love, but in a way, that’s what society asks of them. It’s a constant struggle, and one that will require a major cultural shift to correct.
The plight of mentally people with disabilities who want to be parents was famously depicted in the film I Am Sam. In the movie, a mentally disabled man fathers a child with a woman who leaves as soon as the baby is born, giving full custody to the father by default. As the father struggles to learn how to be a father, the state steps in to remove the child from his custody, claiming that he is unfit to be a parent. The state’s concern, and the concern that many people share, is that the man’s diminished mental development would quickly be outdone by his daughter by the time she reached the end of her primary education.
The movie raises serious questions about what it means to be a parent. Does it mean having the capacity to help with homework, or does it mean providing support and love unconditionally? In the film, we see the child wanting to be with her father, and we see the child’s eventual foster parents wanting the child to have what she wants. The film doesn’t overtly argue that the man should have full custody of his daughter, but it leads us to accept that mentally people with disabilities can, indeed, be successful parents.
Although the film makes for good cinema, it’s ending is not reflective of our society. Our culture still questions how well a person with mental disabilities can effectively parent a child. There’s also the perception that someone with any kind of disability will pass it along to a child. We believe that having a disability is bad, and people with disabilities should not procreate and risk bringing more disability into society.
- Being Heard or Having a Public Voice
people with disabilities struggle to find a public voice. With so much of society putting them in a position of being outliers who need special accommodations, people with disabilities tend to be taken less seriously or ignored. Able-bodied legislators may think that passing a law or requiring accommodations is all they need to do, that their job ends at that point. But people with disabilities want to be thought of and treated the same as anyone else. To give special treatment and make a big deal of providing special treatment is to act in a condescending manner, as if people with disabilities should be thankful that the able-bodied are so kind.
We often talk about the need for a representative number of women or minorities in government positions. The same applies to disabilities. People without disabilities cannot fully appreciate the struggles of people with disabilities, and without sufficient advocacy, their place in society will always be a little less. Unfortunately, the social stigma against people with disabilities will likely make it difficult to obtain positions of official power.
- Social Stigma
Perhaps the most difficult battle people with disabilities face is public perception that they are somehow less than full citizens. They are perceived as less attractive or less capable of work. Sometimes, one disability leads to the assumption of other disabilities. Someone with a speech impediment, for instance, may be perceived as less intelligent, even though the individual may be highly intelligent.
Disabilities have a way of making people uncomfortable, as if it’s a contagious disease. On the other hand, disabilities can also make people overcompensate and treat a disabled person with special favor, when all the person may want is to be treated as anyone else.
People with disabilities are constantly reminded of society’s preference for people without disabilities. Some businesses balk at accessibility because it costs too much, which implies that concern for the bottom line trumps concern for treating people fairly. As mentioned elsewhere on this list, correcting social stigma requires a full cultural shift. Changes are happening, but they happen slowly.
People with disabilities struggle to find a place in society. Due to the stain of social stigma, the lack of accessibility and necessary accommodations, and the tendency to make policies and designs for use by able-bodied people, people with disabilities find themselves left in the lurch. The Americans with Disabilities Act was a big step in the right direction, and society is slowly shifting toward integration, but full integration may always be elusive.
The Civil Rights Act was passed nearly 29 years ago, and full racial integration is still on shaky ground. Public schools are racially segregated, and neighborhoods are often still segregated by choice (or economics). Legislation was a step, but it didn’t alter the fabric of our culture.
We could perhaps expect the same for people with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act was only passed in 1990, so quite possibly full integration could be a few decades away. Legislation doesn’t force shifts in cultural mores, and until society accepts that people with disabilities are as much citizens as able-bodied people, the stigma and alienation will continue.