Author’s Note: Many disabled people choose to use identity-first language (“disabled people”). In contrast, others prefer person-first language (“person with a disability.”). This blog post mostly uses identity-first language. However, it is a personal decision, and I wish to stress the importance of respecting the individual choices of people with disabilities. Thank you.
According to the CDC, 26% of US adults are disabled in one way or another. According to UNICEF USA, there are roughly 93 million children with disabilities around the world. Furthermore, depending on the disability, anyone can become part of that number. All it takes to become disabled is age, an accident, or a diagnosis. So, one would think that influential people would prioritize disability inclusion and services, just in case they may need such services one day. Right?
Unfortunately, no. While there has been much progress towards equality over the years, ableism--prejudice against disabled people--permeates every aspect of American society, often on the basis that disabled people are “dangerous” or “burdens.”
There are many things the United States must improve on, including:
Hold Abusers and Killers Accountable
According to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, disabled people are two and a half times more likely to be victims of violent crimes, especially police brutality and filicide. In filicide cases, the killers get sympathy and lighter sentences, based on the defense that the victim was “a burden” and “better off dead.” In police brutality cases, the disability is ignored, so nobody addresses disability-inclusive reform. Disabled people should not have to prove that their deaths matter.
Numerous studies have proven no direct link between mental health disabilities and violence, excluding suicide. Yet, when tragedy strikes, lawmakers and media outlets continue with armchair diagnoses and scapegoating. Not only does this misinformation do nothing to lower crime rates, especially gun violence, but it also results in people with mental health disabilities losing their rights on the grounds of being “dangerous.”
A 2020 report from RespectAbility found that there are 20 million working-age disabled people in the United States, yet only 7.6 million of them have jobs. Even once employed, disabled individuals continue to face obstacles, including inadequate accommodations and legal pay discrimination to the point where some only earn pennies per hour. The disparities are even worse for disabled people of color and disabled women. Donna Walton, Ed.D told RespectAbility, “The impact of the triple jeopardy syndrome cannot be overstated, as an African American [woman or nonbinary person] with a disability can never be quite sure if their race, gender, or disability is hurting their chances for advancement.”
Healthcare and Benefits
Much of the COVID-19 response excludes or actively harms disabled people, resulting in countless preventable deaths. COVID-19 has also deepened existing financial inequalities. The delivery fees for SNAP (food stamps) can be cost-prohibitive, and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits have asset caps that don’t even meet the federal poverty line. As federal, state, and local governments map out the economic and social recovery from COVID-19, they must not make the recurring mistake of leaving out key constituencies significantly impacted by the crisis. Constituencies like the disabled community.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) had a significant impact on accessibility but has not eliminated the pervasive threat of ableism. Having curb cuts in sidewalks is one thing, but they’re useless if they’re not maintained. A polling place may have assistive technology, but unless all poll-workers are adequately trained to use it, many disabled individuals will be barred from exercising their right to vote.
Perhaps the most important step the US must take is improving the representation of the disabled community. In fact, everything on this list comes back to a lack of representation. Although roughly one in four Americans have a disability, recent research from the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) found that only 15 individuals with disabilities ran for local office, 25 ran for state office, and 12 ran for federal office in 2020.
As Lisa Blunt Rochester told NPR, “When a person’s voice is not in the room, sometimes people don’t even know that they’re missing it, and it hampers, and dampens and makes us not as effective.” Without disabled representatives in power, daily systemic inequalities will only get worse.
The United States’ current electoral system actively works against any candidate from any marginalized group. Real equality will only come to pass if that changes. If America wants an electorate representing the voters, political parties and recruitment organizations must make a conscious effort to recruit disabled people to run for office and engage them in the political process.
The end of ableism is in our grasp, but we need representatives who care about getting us there. We need a Congress that understands and empathizes with the core representation creed: “Nothing about us without us.”
Laura is a Spring 2021 administration and development intern for RepresentWomen. She is currently a student at the University of Maryland studying for a degree in communications.