Differently Abled: A New Look at Disability
The Largest Minority Group
“I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” - Thomas Edison, inventor with a learning disability and partial deafness
Before exploring how to shift the way we think about disability we must begin with a couple of basic questions:
What is disability? Is it the standard medical definition of a physical or mental condition that greatly limits a person’s movement, senses, or daily activities? Is it a handicap recognized by law? Is it something you are born with? The result of an illness? An accident? Is it physical or mental or both? Are aging or obesity disabilities?
Who defines disability? Those with the disability or society? Many of those considered “afflicted” by society,including a considerable number of the deaf, dispute the very notion that they are “afflicted.”
Identity is key. To be disabled is to share a multidimensional identity, as disability crosses all boundaries of race, gender, sexual orientation, generation, geography, and socioeconomic class. Though some are born with a disability, most people will acquire one laterin life. In an aging society, and as global citizens of an aging world, we are often reminded that all of us are, at best, just temporarily able-bodied.
Before we delve into these new concepts, let’s summarize what most people agree on regarding disability.
Who are people with disabilities? People in wheelchairs. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans without limbs. The blind who navigate with the assistance of canes and sight dogs. At least, these are the visibly disabled—a group making up less than 29 percent of people with disabilities. But 71 percent of disabled people have neurological disabilities like cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder or learning and cognitive disabilities.1
At 50 million in the United States and 1.1 billion worldwide, people with disabilities make up the largest and fastest growing minority group.2 Take the case of Baby Boomers in the United States—a group comprising more than 77 million people between the ages of 47 and 65. With the measured prevalence of a disability above age 65 at 51.8 percent,3 legions of the disabled-to-come are gathering on the horizon.
What are the barriers they face? The World Report on Disability 2011, developed by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank, with contributions from more than 380 experts, recognizes that disability can be caused by attitudinal barriers such as equating disability with inability, as much as lack of access to health services, transportation, and buildings.
As a result of these barriers, WHO says, “people with disabilities experience lower educational achievements, fewer economic opportunities, poorer health, and higher rates of poverty than people without disabilities.” The report urges governments “to step up efforts to enable access to mainstream services and to invest in specialized programs to unlock the vast potential of people with disabilities.”
Yet, times are changing for people with disabilities. With the legal protection of the Americans with Disabilities Act, they are advancing. No longer hidden away at home, they are aggressively pursuing education and training. On college campuses they number 2.2 million, or 11 percent of the student population.4 And 25 percent of them are majoring in computer science, engineering, and science5—key areas where our country’s talent shortage is especially acute.
Technology has played a huge role in enabling this coming out—from doors that open outward to cochlear implants, the TDD telephone, and futuristic goggles with built-in computer screens.
Despite these advances, challenges remain. Many talented people with disabilities remain significantly un- or under-employed. In fact, the Disability Funders Network, a Midlothian, Va.-based membership and advocacy organization, reports the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is ten times higher than for the nation as a whole.
It is misunderstanding, calcified attitudes, and outright prejudice that are keeping so many people with disabilities un- or under-employed. And this is why we need to redefine how we look at disabilities in the 21st century.
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