Disability is Difference: What’s next?

Disability is a natural part of the human experience…

–The Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act

Those nine words that begin the preamble of the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act represent a huge paradigm shift in the way we view people with disabilities—and barriers—to self-sufficiency. To parse that phrase even more clearly, one might simply say: everyone is different. Not exactly a revolutionary concept, yet somehow people with disabilities and barriers have had to fight for their rights over centuries-old stigma and misunderstanding. People with disabilities—and barriers—it appears, are seen as more different.

We’ve come a long way since the days of laws like the “Ugly Laws” that were passed in the American colonies in the 1800s and not fully repealed until 1974, when the city of Chicago took the laws off their books. In shocking language, the Chicago Municipal Code Sec. 36034 stated, “no person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed to be an unsightly or disgusting object or improper person to be allowed in or on the public ways or other public places in this city, or shall therein or thereon expose himself to public view…” These laws were echoes of many, many years of prejudice, widely accepted not just in the U.S. but all over the world. We all know there are many horror stories of how people with disabilities were treated—and mistreated—throughout history, which is of course why laws, like the Brown v Board of Education, the Architectural Barriers Act, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and The Americans with Disabilities Act exist today.

Conditions for people still vary from state to state, for example, not all states have embraced full employment for individuals with intellectual/developmental disabilities. Those states that have report story after story of individuals who were once believed unable to work in the competitive workforce  living lives they had not dreamed possible.

What of the future? It is only within the last sixty years that our legal landscape has helped alter how society views those of us with disabilities. Yet the prejudices still linger. People still see individuals with barriers or with disabilities—or differently advantaged—as the “other”—as “them,” not as “us.” There is an inherent prejudice that exists, which I believe is based in fear—fear of the unknown. Unless we are able to place ourselves in another’s skin, we cannot begin to understand what their life is like. What will it take for us to lessen our fear, lessen our “unknowingness,” and ultimately to accept that we are all different, indeed.

I look forward to the day when we just think of ourselves, all, as different. Is there a seismic shift that needs to happen, or do we continue with chipping away at expanding the existing laws? How do we inculcate change in our culture that extends beyond the laws? What is one thing that we can do today to help move our momentum forward at warp speed?

As always, I welcome your thoughts.

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