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My Turn: Long after the ADA, ‘ableism’ is still with us

Last modified: 8/2/2013 10:27:02 AM
This summer we celebrate the 23rd 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.

A few days ago I had a conversation with a father of a daughter in her early 20s who recently acquired an apartment in the downtown area of a major New Hampshire 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.

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.”

And yet, to this day, 23 years after passage, we still have examples in which people with disabilities are vulnerable to a sub-standard education, diminished opportunities for employment, sexual and physical abuse, and – just as with racism – suspected of being a danger to others.

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.

I propose that we can honor the 23rd anniversary of the ADA by convening a series of national dialogues about ableism. I know, this is the same recommendation that followed the conclusion of the criminal trial following the tragic death of Trayvon Martin.

However, I propose that the broadening of such a conversation is warranted as the injustices toward historically marginalized groups is itself nondiscriminatory.

In an eloquent piece in the Washington Post, Eugene Robinson wrote: “Our society considers young black men to be dangerous, interchangeable, expendable, guilty until proven innocent.” Is this not also how the father of a young woman with disabilities felt when, based on no information other than that people with disabilities might be moving in, neighbors were fearful and said “No”?

Stigma and stereotypes run deep, and compassion is in order. But it is not tolerable to continue to discriminate and marginalize whole groups of people. We all suffer the consequences.

Let’s open these dialogues with open hearts. And let’s honor the work of those who created the ADA by working to realize their vision of a whole society.

(Roy Gerstenberger is executive director of Community Bridges.)


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