They’ve Got your Number: Keeping People with Disabilities from Becoming Walking, Talking Statistics

Hi, readers,


We’ve all seen them. We’ve worked with them. Some of us have even taken classes based on them and how to interpret them (to those of you who did, you are brave souls and part of me wonders if you’re a little crazy). Some are just advertising gimmicks and, as far as anyone knows, haven’t been proven. You know, the ones like, “Nine out of ten doctors recommend X medicine” or “Nine out of ten dentists prefer Y toothbrush.” (Seriously, the medical and dental community can’t be that cohesive; otherwise, we wouldn’t have Mystery Diagnosis). Some of them are disturbing, like the statistics your doctor actually gives you about how smoking causes one out of five strokes or how eating certain foods is X percent likely to cause cancer (but did you notice those foods change every few months?)

And then, there are the statistics related to people. The ones that we get because someone went out and tallied real numbers of those who actually fell victim to a certain tragedy. Yes, cancer is one, but I’m also thinking about drunk driving, all-terrain vehicle accidents, homelessness, and so forth. Or those beautiful statistics about how minority groups and students from low SES backgrounds are ruining state test scores. (You do hear the sarcasm there, right?) The fact that those numbers paint being part of a minority group, or low SES, as a tragedy is in itself baloney.

And then we have–you knew it was coming–statistics about people with disabilities. Some of these have changed a lot over the past several decades, but I’d like to propose that they haven’t changed nearly enough, and are therefore keeping people with disabilities in a box more than any other minority group. For example, did you know that, as of 2005-2006:

  • 1/2 to 2/3 of all people with all types of disabilities work only in part-time jobs, where they earn a median wage of $7.30 an hour (barely above minimum)
  • No more than 20% of people with disabilities are considered to have achieved independent adult status (that is, competitive employment, connection to positive social groups, and residency of their choice) after being out of high school for OVER 5 YEARS. Think about that. That means, at minimum, 80% of people with disabilities 18 and up do not have any kind of recognized adult status or may only have partial adult status, and are treated accordingly.
  • Only 31% of students with disabilities have been enrolled in any kind of college program (which unfortunately includes college-level special ed), and at the time of William L. Heward’s findings (he wrote the book Teaching Exceptional Children, where these statistics come from), only 19% were currently enrolled. When one considers that 77 PERCENT of students with disabilities included postsecondary education as a goal for their post high school transition plans, this is inexcusable. IDEA and other disability-related education laws make a big deal out of listening to what young adults with disabilities want when they transition out of high school. My question, when faced with this statistic, is: WHO IS LISTENING?
  • For the few students with disabilities who do attend “real college” and obtain at least one four-year degree, the employment rate is an abysmal 50.3%.
  • Three times as many people with disabilities as without them live in poverty, with annual income rates of $15,000 or less. That’s TRIPLE the poverty rate for those without disabilities, folks. Huge–too huge.
  • In 1967, about 195,000 people with disabilities lived in institutions. Circa 2006, that number has shrunk to about 40,000. But if you ask me, that’s 40,000 too many.

I don’t have to tell you what I think of these statistics; the numbers themselves scream “abysmal.” But what’s worse is that, even though we’ve made a lot of positive changes over the years, people with disabilities are still in imminent danger of becoming walking, talking statistics. I mean, a 50.3% employment rate for people with disabilities who graduate with four-year degrees? We ought to be ashamed of ourselves. And don’t argue with me about, “That’s what transition plans are for.” As I said, is anyone really listening to what the students themselves are saying about these “brilliant” plans?

So the question becomes, what are we going to do about it? (If you don’t want to do anything about it, you need to quit reading this right now and go back to surfing YouTube or whatever it was you were doing). I think there are a few things we can all do.

  • Listen. LISTEN. LISTEN. If you are a parent, a general ed or special ed teacher, a vocational counselor, or whatever, and you’re interacting with a young adult who’s about to “transition to adulthood,” don’t stop with asking them what they want. LISTEN–and then do everything you have to do to make it happen. If that person has physical disabilities, but wants to relocate to a new city? Quit freaking out about needed modifications and LISTEN. If that person has PTSD or gets panic attacks, yet would like to have a job that requires a lot of time in the public sector? Turn off your “can’t” switch, be proud of them for wanting to overcome, and LISTEN. Even if the person you’re working with has an intellectual disability and wants to be a lawyer? Okay, so maybe graduating summa cum laude from Harvard won’t happen. But don’t shoot down that dream. Applaud them for it and help them find a viable way to get into the law arena, perhaps as a paralegal. And LISTEN. Are you getting the message? If not, I can’t help you. Go back to YouTube.
  • Presume COMPETENCE. This is huge, especially for job coaches, vocational counselors, and others who work primarily in employment and housing opportunities for people with disabilities. Too often, the person with a disability does not participate fully in his or her own job interview and employment experience. Instead, the coach or counselor goes to the prospective employer and says something like, “I have a worker who might be good for you, but they have a disability, so…” The person proceeds to list all the negatives–the stuff that person can’t do or needs help with. And then the prospective employee looks incompetent. Who wants to hire someone who, from the outset, is made to look like a needy drain on a business? Nobody, that’s who. So why don’t we let the person with a disability come to his or her own interviews and have control over where and when he or she applies for jobs? And for goodness sakes, people, why don’t we focus on the positives and make them look COMPETENT? Because they ARE COMPETENT. Now, if you are a job coach or voc. counselor, understand that I am not knocking your job. What I am saying is that, as a whole, this industry could do a lot better than it has done.
  • Shoot for maximum independence, and don’t let things stagnate. In other words, if a person with a disability is told that he or she “needs” a group home right now, but could move into an apartment “later,” get some definite times and dates, as much as possible, for when that is. DO NOT let anyone suck you or your loved one with a disability into the “not ready” trap, and push for people to do their jobs.
  • Recognize that people with disabilities have been inundated with contrived, fake situations. Fake employment in a sheltered workshop where they do “fake” work. Fake friends–as in, “My friends are the volunteers from X program, because they take care of me.” (Heck, my mom still tries to take care of me, but she’s not my friend, either–at least anymore than a parent should be to her adult child). Fake homes–institutions and yes, even group homes, where other people control when they get up, when they sleep, what they eat, what they wear, and what they read, watch, listen to, and do with their time. If you wouldn’t want someone exerting that kind of control over you, why is it acceptable for a person with a disability? And let me just point out here: “fake work” and “fake friends” and “fake homes” don’t have to mean the examples I gave. “Fake” versions of these things are essentially anything that is below the person with a disability’s true level of intelligence, strength, and independence.

Would you want your loved one to become another cancer, drunk driving, stroke, or school dropout statistic? Of course not.

Then why have we continued letting people with disabilities live their lives as statistics, reporting dissatisfaction with their quality of life and saying that they don’t feel “useful or important?”

If that doesn’t hit you where it hurts, get your head and heart examined.

Come on, everybody…I’m getting bored with the numbers game. Let’s end it.


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