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Disability Rights: A Forgotten Social Justice Issue

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) was a groundbreaking win for disability rights.  However, the ADA was just the first step.  Progress in disability rights has since fallen by the wayside, and there continues to be a profound misunderstanding of disability identity and social justice issues.  It is time to talk about the necessary work ahead and to take action.

The Meaning of “Disability” in America

The definition of “disability” differs based on the context and source.  According to the ADA, a disability is, with respect to an individual, “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual; a record of such an impairment; or being regarded as having such an impairment.”  The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a slightly vaguer definition of disability, stating it as “any condition of the body or mind (impairment) that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities (activity limitation) and interact with the world around them (participation restrictions)”. 

Capitol Crawl 1990
The Capitol Crawl of 1990, a large protest organized by disability rights activists on the steps of the United States Capitol building in Washington DC catalyzed the fight in support of the Americans with Disabilities Act passed later that same year.

The problem with most definitions of disability is the implication of inferiority.  Disabled populations have historically been treated as undesirable, shameful, burdensome, and pitiful.  Many health, law, and social science fields use person-first language in attempts to respect a person or population.  An example of person-first language would be, “a person with a disability.”  However, many believe that person-first language insinuates that one’s disability is something to be downplayed or pitied.  Identity-first language puts the identity traits at the forefront.  An example would be, “disabled person.”  The Deaf and Autistic communities both tend to prefer identity-first language over person-first language (i.e. Deaf person; Autistic person).  However, it is important to note that not everyone in these communities shares this preference.  Additionally, many communities do not view themselves as disabled.  The concept of disability is one shaped by the majority culture. Branson and Miller (2002) argue that a person is only considered disabled if their conditions counter the expectations of society.  Many communities identify as different or divergent from mainstream society, but not disabled.

Disabled and Divergent Populations are Being Devalued

In 2020, I fought to have a stair lift installed in my alma mater’s Graduate Psychology building, where the upper floor is inaccessible to individuals with mobility issues.  I was told by those in leadership positions that unless there is a current student, staff, or faculty member with a mobility limitation currently using the building, that there was not a need to add accommodations to the building.  Today, that building is one of many that sends a less-than-welcoming message to disabled communities.

Since the ADA, there has been limited improvement in disability laws and little enforcement of the ones in place.  It is often mistakenly believed that buildings built prior to the ADA are not required by law to update their structure to become ADA-compliant. In fact, there is no such exemption and all places of public accommodation and commercial facilities are required to remove barriers where removal is achievable (ADA, 1990).  Yet, many buildings remain inaccessible.  It seems that disability rights movements have been forgotten by the able-bodied population and social justice advocates.

Picture of protesters holding sign reading disability rights are human rights
Picture of protesters holding sign reading “Disability rights are human rights”, during the Non-March For Disabled Women in New York City on January 19, 2019. Credit: Barbara Alper/Getty Images

Awareness, acceptance, and appreciation are necessary for true inclusion and empowerment.  Gaining awareness of differences, ability, and identity amongst various disabled communities is vital.  Acceptance means ensuring that you act in a way that is inclusive, which includes holding those around you accountable and fighting against barriers to inclusion.  Appreciation means valuing, honoring, and respecting the differences found in disabled and divergent communities as you would friends and allies.

It’s Time to Increase the Visibility of Disability Rights

Disabled and divergent communities continue to face misunderstanding, discrimination, and ostracization.  Disability is still treated as something that is shameful and inferior.  Disability rights starts with informing ourselves and others.  Listen to disabled and divergent communities, elevate their voices and stories, and be alert to accessibility and inclusion barriers.  It’s long overdue to bring back disability as a mainstream social justice issue.

Note from ARCHER editors: Disability and disability rights are very important topics to have an honest and long-overdue conversation around. For more articles, books, or works of art on the history of disability rights in the United States, we recommend the “Social Welfare History Project” put together by Virginia Commonwealth University (content warning: the resources listed might contain some strong, negative language about people with disabilities that is no longer deemed appropriate).

  • Thank you so much, Dr. Chalk, for this insightful post. I particularly appreciate the distinction you make about person-first and identity-first languages, and your suggestion that individuals have their own preferences.

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