Disability History Matters

As we continue celebrations this month around the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), I find myself reflecting on how crucial this civil rights legislature is to the disability community, and indeed, to the American people at large. When I speak on disability rights, I sometimes call those outside of the disability community the ‘temporarily non-disabled.’ I do this because disability is something that can become a part of someone’s life at any time; it does not discriminate based on race, gender, religion or sexual orientation. Disability is a part of every group of people; with one in every four adults having a disability. Most people who don’t have a disability do have a close friend or relative who does have a disability. Whether it is a spouse with a mental health disability, a parent or sibling who is a cancer survivor, an aunt or uncle who uses a wheelchair, a child with autism; a friend who served in the military and has PTSD or a TBI; a neighbor who has a service animal; or a coworker who has diabetes or a heart condition one thing is certain; we want the best for those individuals. We want them to be able to pursue their dreams and reach personal success. We want for them the same thing that we people with disabilities want for ourselves – opportunity.

I strongly believe as a person with a disability it is important to know the history of our people; there is much the disability community of today can learn from the struggles and actions of those who have come before us to fight for true equality, just as there are lessons to be learned from those who stood in opposition of our goals. It is crucial for people without disabilities to learn this history as well. To identify for themselves how the bias and stigma of today is rooted in archaic beliefs and traditions of the past. The more we understand about the past, the more information we have in are arsenal to use toward changing mindsets and empowering others.

In the disability community we talk a lot about something called the ‘medical model’. While identifying scientific breakthroughs that improve the lives of people with disabilities is important; it does not mean that the lives we are living now do not matter. Attitudinal and environmental barriers often affect the quality of life of people with disabilities as much as or more than their actual disability. Isolation both physically and socially play a strong factor in how well a person is able to live the life they have. Just as anyone else, people with disabilities seek to find joy and purpose in their lives. Having a disability such as epilepsy, stuttering, or being deaf does not prevent us from reaching for and achieving these common human desires, but discrimination does, stigma does, and the belief that people with disabilities are feeble or less than does. This conversation has spanned centuries with laws, policies and people standing as a wall between people with disabilities and equality.

The history of how people with disabilities were treated in the United States is a gruesome and painful one. The knowledge that our people were institutionalized, forcibly sterilized, and hidden away as too ‘ugly’ to be seen or only acknowledged as ‘freaks’ and paraded before the non-disabled community as ‘oddities’ is difficult learn. We grow up being taught that the US stands for freedom and equality, promising a dream of prosperity to its citizens, but historically people with disabilities were not included in this promise. The ADA is so important to the disability community, because for the first time in this country, people with disabilities were made a promise that the American dream was something that they too have the right to aspire to. The ADA looks beyond the ‘medical model’ and changes the conversation to one of social justice, equality and opportunity. But the passing of the ADA was not easy and even now there are those who would weaken its power to help this country to fulfill its promise to the disability community. It is up to us, people with disabilities and those who support this community, to continue to ensure our voices are heard. The ADA is not the end. It is the beginning of a battle we must continue to fight every day through our actions, our words and our votes.

As a special gift, as we move toward ADA 30, and continue to advance the rights of people with disabilities, my partner Andy Houghton of No Barriers Media and I have developed a special gift through our iDisability product for our community. This gift is of a free module that provides a snapshot of crucial events and people in the history of the disability civil rights movement. It is our hope that you will share this with your students, employees, and friends and family to promote understanding of the disability civil rights history. Try our free eLearning module, Civil Rights of Americans with Disabilities: The Shameful Walls of Exclusion eLearning module.

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