Dreams and More: Is Disability a Civil Rights Issue?

Hello, readers,

Today we celebrate the birthday of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Although in some circles this has been reduced to a good excuse for a day off work, it remains an important day to commemorate civil rights for all and the human spirit’s beauty and dignity. A quick disclaimer: I am a white woman. I don’t have any African-American blood inside me, and although I am 1/16 Cherokee, I would not consider myself a Native American. So I don’t know firsthand what it is to be discriminated against and thought less of due to skin color. However, I do know what it is to belong to a people group struggling for civil rights.

There are those who claim disability is not a civil rights issue and that those who say otherwise are deluding themselves. Some of these people are written about in Mary Johnson’s book Make Them Go Away. The general thought process is that because persons with disabilities cannot access certain buildings, cannot perform certain jobs, and cannot walk, talk, move, eat, or go to the bathroom in the same way as every other person on the planet, they should not complain that the world is not built around them. There is also a thought process that says, people with disabilities already have equal rights because unlike skin color, their disabilities can be helped or fixed. If they would just get up off their lazy butts and exercise more, work harder to walk and talk, work harder to read, and learn to clean up after themselves, they’d be equal. They shouldn’t expect the rest of us to cater to them.

Two thoughts on that. One, it’s a bunch of baloney, and two, that’s essentially what we used to say about blacks. If they would get better educations and learn to act like white people, they could be equal, right? Wrong! So why do we continue to insist things should be different for PWDs?

Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream. Parts of it have been accomplished. Parts of it we are still waiting for, because human nature is to judge, to put down, to harm, and to kill. Parts of it have been misrepresented or twisted to fit other people’s agendas. But we’re a lot closer to his dream of equality based on skin color than we used to be. If you can walk down the street and no longer see “Colored Entrance” on buildings, if you have dark skin and can vote without taking a bizarre literacy test, if teachers and principals warn parents about racist material in textbooks and reading assignments–that is progress. Not enough in a lot of cases, yes. But progress.

I have a dream, too, and I want to examine the progress we’ve made toward it. As you might guess, the dream is to see PWDs treated as equal to their temporarily able-bodied peers. To see them judged not by the limb that is missing, the mouth or eyes or ears that work differently, the tasks they cannot complete, but by the tasks they can complete, the talents they possess, their character and integrity, and their hearts.

In a lot of ways, we’re already there. Back in the 1920s, for example, a boy who used a wheelchair was denied access to public school because “his presence would depress and nauseate the other children.” In the 1940s-’60s, it was not only commonplace but considered completely normal to immediately institutionalize, for life, any child born with cerebral palsy or Down syndrome, degree of severity notwithstanding. We didn’t even have an Americans with Disabilities Act or an Individuals with Disabilities Education Act until the 1990s. Many schools are moving from segregated special classrooms to partial or full inclusion. Transportation workers who deny PWDs access to their vehicles are disciplined for it. Universal design is slowly becoming considered in more housing options. We’ve come a long way, but we’ve still got plenty to do.

A Texas mother was offered eighty-six thousand dollars to keep her son with autism out of school.
A woman with a physical disability named Ellen Nuzzi was called selfish for wanting to ride a public bus.
Persons with disabilities in New York have to ask kiosk attendants for bathroom access in public, open spaces such as street fairs–and that’s if the attendant even bothers to show up.
People with disabilities are regularly discriminated against at work, placed on arbitrary discipline plans, and fired.
High school graduates with disabilities are maligned because their “life skills curriculum” offered little to no preparation for real-world experiences.
In foreign countries, children with disabilities are kept in cages due to “behavioral and emotional issues.” They are left chained to bus stops during the day because no one is available to care for them.
Some adults with disabilities are America’s slaves. Why? Because they are placed in sheltered workshops, forced to make widgets or pack boxes, for no pay or sub-minimum compensatory wages (compensatory to the supervisor, not them)

People with disabilities are still placed in corners. They’re told to sit down, shut up, do menial work, and accept the crumbs society gives them.

Sound familiar?

Celebrate civil rights today. As you do, please join me in continuing to raise awareness. Disability is a big civil rights issue. It’s time we came out from underground, turned traditional thinking on its head, and kept working to finish the movement. Will it ever be finished? Sadly, probably not. But we can make great strides while we’re here.



  1. Something that drives me crazy is the fact that people with disabilities are allowed to be paid less than minimum wage. It boggles my mind that PWDs should be so “grateful” that anyone is willing to give them a job at all, that they should be happy to accept wages that are illegal for all other people. Really, society? Really?

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on that and whatever programs or companies set these folks up with jobs that underpay. And I’ll try not to get more ragey… sorry, it’s been a bad day.

  2. Don’t sweat it. If there were more rage about this, there might not be as many problems, you know? As for my thoughts, yeah, the whole thing makes me crazy white Irish girl mad (I’m only technically 1/4 Irish but you take what you can get and let me tell you, it’s a strong quarter). I know some companies have programs where PWDs can get actual jobs like EARN (go to askearn.org) and separate franchises, like Chick-Fil-A make a real effort to hire them and treat them with respect.

    Unfortunately, these examples are part of the minority. In a lot of cases, what happens is, the companies can’t get the resources they need. So what you end up with is the employers, and by extension, PWDs, begging for jobs they should be entitled to simply because they’re willing to work and are human beings.

    See, that’s what gets me about this whole Civil Rights deal. Because of the progress we’ve made, the TAB people of the American population are included simply because they were born, simply because they are humans. But if you have a disability, the construct is, you must earn the right to be included. You must meet others’ expectations and goals, stay in the places you are put, act grateful and submissive, and never ask for more. In some cases, this crosses into spiritual abuse because persons with disabilities are told their state of living is God’s will and that He doesn’t like it when they are “uncooperative” or “ungrateful.” Which…really? Gag me with a shovel, please. It would be less painful than listening to that twisted crap. We need to get to the point where PWDs are seen first as humans, not as diagnoses.

    1. Glad to know I’m not the only one who gets pissed off about this (and, I am embarrassed to admit, I have only relatively recently been made aware of it at all). I understand that there will be certain jobs that some people with disabilities may not be able to do, even if accommodations are made (for example, construction might not be a great place for a blind person). But seriously, that’s completely true of the TAB community too. Not everyone is qualified to do my job, and I’m not qualified to do many other peoples’ jobs, and no one seems to take that as a sign that you are “unhireable” unless you have a disability. Furthermore, even if a person’s job prospects may be limited (for any reason, disability or no) that doesn’t at all mean that the work that a disabled person does is of lesser quality than an able-bodied person doing the same work. It disturbs me that the man bagging my groceries might be doing just as good of a job as the man bagging groceries next to him, but one man has a disability and thus might only be paid half (or less) of the other man’s wage based on some arbitrary and discriminatory assumption that his work won’t be “as good” and that he should just be happy to have a job at all. It boggles my mind how dehumanizing and degrading that is! I mean, forgive my french, but what the actual f***?! Why are more people not bothered by this?

      I feel like it’s part of our highly individualistic and capitalistic culture that steamrolls over anyone who is less fortunate with the dismissive attitude of “if you just tried harder, you would be fine” and “don’t you dare complain; you don’t get a voice until you’ve proven to our satisfaction that you deserve one.” In the eyes of so many people, if you don’t succeed, it’s because YOU failed and YOU didn’t deserve it, not because our entire society might be built on holding you back. I think this attitude becomes especially toxic when it meets people with disabilities who are automatically assumed to be less productive and more needy (even if that’s not actually true) than the rest of the population, which results in people dehumanizing and disdaining an entire subset of the population. Unfortunately, I feel like this is a really stubborn mindset since it’s so selfish and it stokes the ego of those with the most influence and visibility in society. I have no idea where to start fixing it!

    2. Oh, and also, the spiritual abuse stuff that you mentioned makes my skin crawl. Seriously, PWD’s do not exist to be your “god has a plan for everything, if you’ll just be patient and submissive” sermon fodder. I just… UGH.

  3. UGH is right, and yes, what the actual French? Just a heads-up: I’m of a pretty conservative bent, so I’m not inclined to say capitalism itself is the issue. Capitalism affords a lot of business-based freedom–but you’re right–ONLY IF you are temporarily able-bodied. After that, it becomes an issue of “earning” the voice that you should have had because you exist. And if you’re like me, a person with a disability who works hard and transcends expectations? Best-case scenario, you’re treated like everyone else. I have been blessed in that regard. Worst-case scenario, you become some kind of inspirational poster child. And Heaven forbid any other PWD get angry or upset or dissatisfied once you become that poster child, because then it’s like, “Why can’t you be like that cripple over there?” Not to “steal” anything from the African-American community, but it’s as if the TAB community would like us to be Uncle Toms. Well, sorry y’all, but this Auntie Tomasina is NOT interested.

    1. I’m not really of a conservative bent, but I also don’t think this sort of viewpoint is limited to conservatism (communists haven’t always had the best track-record with those that they deem non-productive either). I think capitalism is a useful tool, but not if it trumps human rights and dignity. Unfortunately, I fear that our over-emphasis of capitalism over human dignity is the problem, more than capitalism itself. I hope that clarifies.

      And I love “Auntie Tomasina” :D.

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