Eugenic methods, institutionalization, electroshock therapy: less than 100 years ago, all of these horrific practices were weaponized against people with disabilities in the United States. Over one-fourth of all Americans—61 million—have a disability. Even further, with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this number is likely to increase. Those that suffer from the disease are likely to face long-lasting effects that include high rates of blood clotting, heart damage, lung damage, and impairments of the central nervous system, all of which can be considered physical disabilities. Despite this seemingly massive and increasing number of the population sharing this experience, people with disabilities in the United States were subject to countless forms of abuse throughout the history of the nation. As a response to these injustices, the Disability Rights Movement set out to ignite change and influenced a massive amount of legislation, most notably the Americans with Disabilities Act.

This year, the United States celebrates the 30th anniversary of the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which marked the nation as the first to enact a comprehensive civil rights law for disabled people. Before its passage, there were very few legal protections that applied to the community. By consequence, they were often denied the full rights of citizenship and subjected to abuse because of their status as second-class citizens. However, because of the grassroots movements fueled by the work of thousands of individuals, the ADA was successfully passed in 1990, guaranteeing both equal rights and opportunities for people with disabilities. While it is important to commemorate this landmark achievement, we must evaluate the issues that have not yet been addressed to ensure true equality, not just the illusion of it.

With the COVID-19-induced economic challenges, job insecurity is a continual setback in the lives of many around the world. However, this is a hardship that disabled people have always had to face. According to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor in 2019, only 19.3 percent of Americans with disabilities are employed, relative to 66.3 percent of individuals without disabilities. When applying for a job, people with disabilities face many challenges. Inaccessible websites can unintentionally screen out candidates before they even apply. Employers that are not trained in disability awareness may lack the knowledge needed to interview equitably. Additionally, many jobs list requirements such as standing for hours, being able to carry a certain amount of weight, and running, even if the position’s expectations could be met without any of those standards. In an interview with The Politic, Charles-Edouard Catherine, Special Assistant to the President at the National Organization on Disability, mentioned that, “Discrimination, lack of awareness, and lack of infrastructure to help people self-identify create conditions [that result in] a very small number of people with disabilities actually being hired.”

These challenges extend to the workplace when hired, where expectations such as mandatory socialization and comfort with inaccessible software may impact a person’s ability to fulfill job expectations. Catherine continued, “it is up to the person [with disabilities] to advocate for themselves, and that’s exhausting.” The COVID-19 pandemic has made this issue even more prevalent. With the unemployment rate soaring, those with disabilities are often the first to be let go from their jobs, though a workplace that excludes people with disabilities can never call itself truly inclusive. 

Seeking and gaining employment is a continual challenge for members of the disability community, and is exacerbated when there is a criminal record involved. Though the bipartisan conversation surrounding criminal justice reform has been fervently growing in the United States, people with disabilities are often denied a seat at the table. One study by the Ruderman Foundation shows that between one-third and one-half of all people shot by police either have a disability, and that the disability of the victim is often discarded in media coverage. These statistics are even more extreme for people of color, who are at the highest risk for severe mental illness without treatment. 

In an interview with The Politic, Lydia X. Z. Brown, a disability justice advocate, organizer, attorney, educator strategist, and writer, stated that, “Ableism and white supremacy have always operated in tandem. When we hear stories about police violence, we often are hearing about the stories of black and brown people who are also disabled, and whose deaths are caused by state violence acting in reliance on both racism and ableism.” The intersection between race and disability has proven to be dangerous for those in its midst.

Some of these issues arise with the police-driven “compliance culture” that encompasses modern-day law enforcement. Those who do not obey officers’ orders are often subject to force. This approach does not work when police officers are interacting with someone that does not react familiarly, which is frequently considering the lack of training officers are given regarding people with disabilities. One study done by the Bureau of Justice Statistics puts this into perspective. An average of 168 hours of police training is spent on firearms, self-defense, and use of force, as compared to a mere 10 hours spent on mental illness. Additionally, education regarding people with intellectual and developmental disabilities is not a key part of the training, even though they comprise a significant portion of police brutality victims. Law enforcement is ill-equipped to properly address these situations. For people with disabilities, complying can often be difficult, or even impossible. Therefore, this lack of training is extremely life-threatening, especially when considering the presence of firearms. 

Disability rights activists have played a major role in recent conversations regarding defunding the police. In an interview with Time, Carla Rabinowitz, advocacy coordinator for the mental health nonprofit Community Access, said, “A police response is not the kind of response you want when people are in a mental health crisis…. It’s much better to have a peer and an EMT who can talk to the person, figure out what is going on in the person’s life, offer them resources.”

Going even further, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that people imprisoned in state and federal prisons are nearly three times as likely to report having a disability compared to the general population, while those in jails are more than four times as likely. While behind bars, disabled people are often denied access to basic essential resources such as medical care, mental health services, and accommodations. This not only leads to heightened preexisting conditions but also causes new physical and mental conditions. Upon release, rehabilitation and reentry programs for previously-incarcerated individuals often lack basic accessibility and accommodations for people with disabilities, leaving them with job instability and economic insecurity.

Disabled youth are especially at risk of incarceration due to a school-to-prison pipeline that works directly against them. Up to 85 percent of all youth in juvenile corrections facilities have a disability. The nature of “invisible” disabilities such as autism, ADHD, or Crohn’s Disease makes these students highly susceptible to being labeled a “problem student” instead of receiving necessary accommodations for their disabilities. This, in combination with zero-tolerance policies in schools, results in students in special education classrooms being twice as likely to be suspended as compared to their general education peers, greatly heightening the risk of incarceration. 

Though legal protections regarding education for the disabled regarding education are vast, they have not been fully realized, especially for those who are multiply-marginalized. Many students with disabilities are pushed away from a high school diploma and onto a certificate track, despite capabilities to complete the diploma track. This certificate often cannot be used to obtain a collegiate education or, in many cases, a job, limiting options for the future. This upcoming fall, many students will be pursuing an online education due to COVID-19, which is likely to expose a digital divide that students with disabilities face. A study done by SHADAC revealed that households including someone with a disability were 14 percent less likely to have broadband internet than those without, specifically those in rural, low-income communities of color. These students will be substantially less likely to gain access to needed educational resources and accommodations. For students with internet access, lack of online accessibility could still pose a massive issue to learning, as has already been revealed in other instances where services transition to a remote system. The lower quality of special education learning will have a massive impact on the already existing educational inequities by widening the achievement gap between people with disabilities and people without. 

Disability rights are human and civil rights deeply intertwined with nearly every aspect of society. Even with 30 years of the ADA, those with disabilities often are denied and deprived of the access, rights, and freedoms that they have been promised. Inaction is a threat to all; we must not let the next 30 years be a repeat of the past, progress needs to be made. It is necessary to transform both our societal and cultural values to counteract the effects of ableism. We need to not only include disabled people, but amplify their voices, whether it be in business, politics, media, or any other institution lacking adequate representation. After all, with 61 million of us sharing this experience, it is the responsibility of all to protect current rights, further the journey to equality, and valorize diversity and an equitable future for all.

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