Ableism Is Still With Us Long After Passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act

This summer we celebrate the 26th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This landmark legislation opened the doors of opportunity to millions of people who have since demonstrated that they are ready, willing and able to contribute in so many ways to enriching our society. We have all reaped the benefits of this legislation and discovered that our communities are stronger when everyone is given the chance to participate.

We won’t be truly honoring this anniversary, though, if we only look back at what has been accomplished without also taking into consideration what is yet to be overcome.

Unemployment and poverty rates are still unacceptably high for citizens with disabilities. And there continue to be disturbing incidents of discrimination against people with disabilities both in popular culture and in daily life.

I had a conversation once with a father of a daughter in her early 20s who recently acquired an apartment in the downtown area of a major city. He told me that when word got out that it might be a location where other people with disabilities might choose to live, neighbors reacted and organized, declaring that they “didn’t want psychotic people walking around the neighborhood.”

This was said without any knowledge of who these prospective neighbors might be as individuals, only who they were as a category – the category of “disabled.” Numerous parents whose children have disabilities have told me of similar experiences. They have come to learn that their son or daughter is susceptible to being “profiled” in this way.

This is called “ableism,” and it is not tolerable.

It means that simply by being born into this category that we call “disabled,” even total strangers feel that they have permission to make declarations about where you might live. Laura Marshak, Claire Dandeneau, Fran Prezant and Nadene L’Amoreaux wrote in a publication called “The School Counselor’s Guide to Helping Students with Disabilities” that “(s)imilar to many of the assumptions underlying the medical model of disability amongst many clinicians, the “ableist” societal world-view is that the able-bodied are the norm in society, and that people who have disabilities must either strive to become that norm or should keep their distance from able-bodied people. A disability is thus, inherently, a “bad” thing that must be overcome. The ableist worldview holds that disability is an error, a mistake, or a failing, rather than a simple consequence of human diversity, akin to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender”.

This phenomenon of one group of people feeling empowered to determine the fate of another group of people is precisely what the framers of the ADA were cognizant of when they stated that “disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to live independently, enjoy self-determination, make choices, contribute to society, pursue meaningful careers, and enjoy full inclusion and integration in the economic, political, social, cultural, and educational mainstream of American society.”

The good news is that there are actions we can take to mitigate these dangerous attitudes. We can create positive change and eliminate stereotypes by phasing out segregated classrooms and sheltered work and congregate activities that reinforce popular stereotypes. Professionals encourage and support people with disabilities to exercise their own voice and declare their constitutional rights to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

People with disabilities and their families can make the decision to choose inclusion – every person is born included – and take their rightful places as participating, contributing members of their communities. Retreating into so-called “intentional communities” cannot be the answer. While they are often designed with a view to safety they actually reinforce concepts of “the other” that are the foundation of ableism and thus magnify the dangers to us all. And the evidence of that danger surrounds us. We live in a time when a major party candidate can mimic a reporter with disabilities and receive roaring approval from a stadium crowd; a time when, in this ADA anniversary month a Vermont man is given a 3-month prison sentence for poisoning a child with disabilities by pouring vodka into his feeding tube; when a man goes on a rampage in Tokyo, Japan stabbing 19 people to death saying later “It’s better that the disabled disappear”.

Wolf Wolfensberger saw these phenomena as interconnected and gave it the name “deathmaking”.

Stigma and stereotypes run deep. It is not tolerable to continue to discriminate and marginalize whole groups of people. We all suffer the consequences. Let’s speak bravely and truthfully about this aspect of our society. Acknowledging the existence of ableism in all of its ugly incarnations is the beginning of the change that is needed. Let’s honor the work of those who created the ADA by working to realize their vision of a whole society.


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