A disability is defined as “any condition of the body or mind that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities and interact with the world around them”.¹ People living with a disability have endured significant discrimination over the years, including a lack of accessibility, workplace discrimination, and other forms of discrimination like prejudice in housing, education, and the media. These acts of discrimination include teachers not structuring their lessons to support students with cognitive disabilities, a lack of accurate representation in movies and television, and a lack of digital accessibility, with many forms of technology remaining completely inaccessible. Individuals can become a part of the marginalized disability group at any point in their life, regardless of their background, making it a unique and relevant topic to discuss. In addition, the length of time having a disability ranges amongst individuals (e.g. temporary vs. situational disabilities or disabilities that are transitory/context-based).
EP defines disability as any condition of the body or mind that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities and interact with the world around them. We chose to use identity first language in this piece, however some people with disabilities prefer person first language. It is important to ask which of the two people prefer and to adjust your language appropriately. This lesson plan includes content about corporal punishment, sexual harassment, and forced sterilization.
In the 1800s, society’s general treatment of disabled people was poor. These individuals were alienated from the greater society and were considered incapable of contributing to it. The mindset of judging people’s worth by their ability to contribute to society reinforced the lack of systemic support for disabled people. At this time, disabled people were forced to be forms of entertainment in circuses and undergo sterilization and/or purification procedures at places like asylums.
Indiana was the first state to enact a Eugenic Sterilization Law to force sterilization on people with disabilities in 1907, which was quickly adopted by 24 other states. The Disability Rights Movement began gaining more support² after World War 1 when disabled veterans started to advocate for more rehabilitation and government assistance.
In the 1930s, the League of the Physically Handicapped emerged to fight for more employment during the Great Depression. Universities started to become more accessible in the 1940s, as UC Berkeley established the Disabled Students Program,³ which promoted inclusion for all and inspired other universities to do the same. However, there were still many accessibility issues in 1950s society, as people with disabilities had little to no access to public transportation, office buildings, bathrooms, and stores. They were also frequently overlooked for opportunities for meaningful work and were consistently denied promotions and higher positions.
Between 1960-1990, more than 50 pieces³ of accessibility-focused legislation were passed, including the Rehabilitation Act, which was the first time the civil rights of disabled people were signed into law. There were many significant sections in this Act focused on preventing discrimination. For example, Section 501 supports disabled people in the federal workplace, while section 503 requires affirmative action to hire, retain, and promote people with disabilities and supports accessible education.
Section 504 prohibits discrimination against disabled people in the workplace and established a new compliance board, which mandated equal access to public services such as housing and transportation. Unfortunately, this section was written but never implemented. Section 508 guarantees equal access to technological information.³ In 1975, the Education of All Handicapped Children Act (later renamed to Individuals with Disabilities Act in 1990) provided all disabled children the right to obtain public school education.
In 1990, a historic victory was won when the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, which prohibits discrimination against disabled people in public through accommodation, employment, government services, and transportation. Some new developments included making it illegal for businesses to turn disabled people away and making telecommunications accessible to all.
This Act marked great strides made by the government to reduce disability discrimination, but despite the law forbidding it, employers still find ways to turn disabled people away.
Workplaces are also often inaccessible, with employers refusing to make their workplaces more inclusive. In 2008, the ADA Amendment Act was signed, which was one of the disability rights movement’s greatest achievements, and helped affirm the 1973 Rehabilitation Act.³
However, disability discrimination is still very much present in our society. Disabled people continue to face prejudice and barriers through stereotypical portrayals of disabilities in the media, a lack of affordable health care, and restricted access to many public places.
When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed in 1990, discrimination did decrease. It made it illegal for an employer to discriminate based on an ability and required employers to provide assistance to their disabled employees. Although the ADA helped with these issues, there are still many cases of discrimination today.
In 2020, disability claims were the most commonly reported type of discrimination, with 24,324 claims. This number has decreased slightly from its peak in 2016 with 28,073 claims.¹¹ Disability discrimination in the employment process and the workplace can take many forms, such as a refusal to accommodate (either physically or otherwise) and even rejecting applications altogether.⁵
People with disabilities are often less likely to be hired, and a lack of accessibility has made it difficult for disabled people or those with chronic illnesses to keep a job without proper accommodations. It also includes cases of harassment, like derogatory remarks or actions.
While one in five people in the U.S. have a disability, only 8% of family films in 2018 featured a lead with one.⁴ While positive representation in the media has increased in the past couple of years, with disabled characters more likely to be shown in management positions or depicted as hard-working, many negative stereotypes are continuously perpetuated.
1 in 5 disabled characters in family films encompass the stereotype that they need to “overcome” their disability, and 1 in 10 disabled characters become villains after being overcome by their suffering.⁹ Additionally, disabled characters are more likely to be rescued and eventually die than non-disabled characters.
Many disabled characters are seen as pitiful and unable to participate in daily tasks, further pushing unfair stereotypes onto real people with disabilities.⁸
In addition, non-disabled people frequently play disabled character roles. In 2021, Sia released the movie Music, starring Maddie Ziegler, an actress who does not have autism, as the autistic character Music. While hiring a non-disabled actress for a disabled character role isn’t inherently wrong, this signified a lack of care for authenticity and input from members of the autistic community, which led to an inaccurate and harmful portrayal of autism which many viewed as overtly offensive.
Over 5% of elementary school students with disabilities have been suspended and this number only increases with age. Eighteen percent of these children are suspended in secondary school, compared to 10 percent of non-disabled kids. Overall, one third of students with emotional disabilities are suspended at least once over their educational careers, contributing to a huge discipline gap.⁷
The reasoning behind these suspensions is that many schools cannot provide enough resources to help students with disabilities. Many are placed in already crowded classrooms with teachers who are not trained to support them. This is most commonly due to a lack of hiring and an inability to hire teachers who are trained in teaching disabled students. When these students disobey, teachers often take drastic measures, such as physically restraining them as punishment, causing the death of at least 20 children as of 2009.⁷
Many disabled people have low wages and not enough Supplemental Security Income assistance, leaving 7 million disabled renters at high risk for eviction. Disabled adults experience poverty at more than double the amount of non-disabled adults.
Nearly half of adults from ages 25-61 living in poverty for at least one year have a disability.⁶ Additionally, disabled people often face housing discrimination with barriers blocking them from obtaining and maintaining affordable housing. Although the Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination based on ability, violations are severely underreported and the laws are not enforced. Not only that, less than 5 percent of housing across the nation is accessible for people with moderate mobile disabilities, and less than 1 percent is accessible for those who use wheelchairs.⁶