Amendment Four: Voting Restoration In Florida

A sticker that says "I Voted Today."
I Voted Republican Today. Source: PJ Nelson, Creative Commons

On November 6, 2018, Florida voted on the Voting Restoration Ballot (also known as Amendment 4) and restored the right to vote of over one million citizens of the state.  This is a true success in the improvement of access to voting rights in America.  As a country, we have come a long way in terms of civil rights, but the area of voting rights is one that we can still improve.

Voting Rights History

The fight for voting rights in the United States has been in progress for centuries.  Ratified on February 3, 1870, the 15th Amendment of the United States Constitution recognizes that the right to vote of all citizens should not be denied based their “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”  This amendment did not make a lot of immediate progress in granting the voting rights of people of color, but it was a step in the right direction.

From the time the 15th Amendment took effect, to the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many different measures were used to prevent citizens of color, particularly black citizens, from utilizing their right to vote.  One way through which this occurred was literacy tests, which were given to potential voters “at the discretion of the officials in charge of voter registration.”  These tests were comprised of questions regarding processes and history of the United States government, and the officials in charge of registration could even decide what questions an individual had to answer.  These questions could range from as simple as “Who is the president of the United States?” to ones that most everyday citizens are unlikely to be able to answer, such as one regarding the limits placed on the size of the District of Columbia by the Constitution.  The more difficult questions were often intentionally given to potential black voters in order to prevent them from voting.  Since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed, literacy tests can no longer be used to prevent someone from exercising their right to vote.

What Is the “Voting Restoration Ballot”?

The Voting Restoration Ballot is an amendment that was made to the constitution of Florida through the election on November 6, 2018.  The amendment allows for the automatic restoration of the right to vote of citizens who have been convicted of felonies and have served their sentences (excluding those who were convicted of murder or felonies involving sexual offenses).  In order to pass it needed to receive support from at least 60% of voters and it actually received support from 64% of voters.  The passing of this amendment resulted in the restoration of voting rights for over one million people in Florida and goes into effect January 8, 2019.

The Issue of Felony Voting Laws

The laws regarding the right to vote for people convicted of felonies vary from state to state.  People convicted of felonies never lose their right to vote in Maine or Vermont, even when they are serving their sentence in prison.  In addition to Florida, 14 other states and the District of Columbia automatically restore the right to vote immediately after those convicted of felonies have finished serving their sentences, and in 21 states this occurs after a set amount of time following the end of their sentence.  In 13 states (including Alabama) there are specific steps that must be taken in order to restore their right to vote, such as a governor’s pardon.

These laws are discriminatory, as they are more likely to have a negative impact on communities of color than white communities.  According to the Sentencing Project, potential black voters “are more than four times more likely to lose their voting rights than the rest of the adult population.”  This disparity results from the discrimination found in incarceration rates.  For example, black people make up 36% of drug arrests and 46% of drug related convictions, even though they only make up 13% of drug users.  Evidence suggests that black and white people have nearly the same rate of drug use, but black people are far more likely to be arrested and convicted.

It is also important to note that felonies include a wide range of offenses.  In Alabama, they include not only violent crimes, such as assault and battery, murder, and sex related crimes, but also some non-violent offenses, such as drug possession and theft.  As a result of this, someone who is convicted of a felony for drug possession in their twenties could potentially never have access to their right to vote again.

A sign that says "Vote Here Today."
Vote Here Today Sign 11-3-09. Source: Steven Depolo, Creative Commons

Voting Rights Are Human Rights

The right to vote is more than just a privilege–it is truly a human right.  According to Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all people have the right to participate in the government they live under, at least through representatives.  The article states that “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government” and that this right should be met through elections “by universal and equal suffrage” that should be “held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”

Through the passing Voting Restoration Ballot, the people of Florida promote upholding of the rights given in Article 21 and recognize the fact that people convicted of felonies are still human beings who should have access to their human rights.

Another Issue in Voting Rights: Voter ID Laws

In addition to the progress that still needs to be made in restoring the voting rights of people who have been convicted of felonies, the impact of voter ID laws on people’s access to their right to vote also needs to be addressed.  There are currently 34 states that either require or request some form of identification to be shown by voters at the polls.  There are more than 21 million American who do not possess any form of government-issued photo identification–that is 11% of the population.  This prevents many people from being able to exercise their right to vote.

It costs money to get identification issued by the government.  There are even costs to getting the documents, such as birth certificates, required to apply for an ID.  The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) estimates that “the combined cost of document fees, travel expenses and waiting times” can range from $75 to $175.  Many people cannot afford this cost.  No one should be deprived of their right to vote based on not having enough money.

Voter ID laws also discriminate against minority groups.  For example, black citizens are more likely to be harmed by these laws than white citizens, as 25% of potential black voters lack the qualified forms of identification, compared to 8% of potential white voters.  The forms of identification excluded by these laws are also discriminatory.  In Texas, for example, concealed weapons permits are accepted, but not student IDs.  A study performed by Caltech/MIT even found that there is discrimination in the enforcement of these laws, as voters of minorities are more likely to asked about identification than white voters are.

According to the ACLU, these laws are not remotely necessary.  One study found that “there were only 31 credible allegations of voter impersonation” since 2000.  ACLU also states that these laws are “a waste of tax-payer dollars” due to the costs of “educating the public, training poll workers, and providing IDs to voters.”

Celebrate the Successes

While it is clear there is still much work to be done in ensuring that everyone has access to their right to vote in the United States, it is important that we take time to celebrate successes in the process and recognize positive impact these successes have on the country.  Florida’s passing of Amendment 4 restored the right to vote of over one million people!  During the same election, Nevada and Michigan approved automatic voter registration for citizens who are eligible to vote.  Michigan and Maryland now allow voters to register on the day of the election.  By recognizing and celebrating these successes, we can remind ourselves that progress is possible and that things really can change for the better.

The Age of Human Rights?

The Institute for Human Rights at UAB is proud to take part in the 70th annual Human Rights Day today, December 10th, 2018.  Today, the United Nations led the global celebration honoring the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its subsequent influence on global affairs.  This is the last post in our series on Human Rights Day, exploring possible next steps to protect, maintain, and expand human rights across the globe.

Looking Ahead: Third Generation Rights & Beyond

Human rights are broken into three generations: (Saito, 1996)

  1. Civil & political, embodied by the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). These rights primarily protect the individual from government overreach, including the freedom of the press, right to ownership, and equality under the law.
  2. Economic, social, & cultural, embodied by the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). These rights primarily ensure equality and equity of individuals in society, including the right to work, freedom of association, and right to an education.

Third Generation human rights relate to ‘solidarity’ and broadly represent the rights of collectives, expanding human rights beyond the individual (exemplified in Generations 1 and 2; Saito, 1996). However, unlike the previous two generations, Third Generation human rights do not have a corresponding UN Covenant or Declaration to codify or clarify what these rights specifically entail. At this point in time, Third Generation human rights include the right of people to self-determination, to peace, and to the environment (Cornescu, 2009).  This last right, to the environment, is an interesting development.  This shifts the focus of human rights beyond the present circumstance and expands the purview of human rights into future generations.  If the human rights doctrine embraces this temporal expansion, what new rights may arise?

Bridge of Harbin Songhua river, illuminated at night
Bridge of Harbin Songhua river. Source: siyang xue, Creative Commons

Pushing forward the jurisdiction human into years beyond the present requires a futuristic approach to the human rights agenda, attempting to account for potential crises that may threaten the lives and livelihoods of humans of the future.  Here are a few upcoming crises requiring the attention of the human rights community:

  • Climate Change. The US Global Change Research Program recently published the “Fourth National Climate Assessment”.  This assessment urges policy-makers to take action to mitigate the effects of the global climate change crisis.  If this crisis unfolds unchecked, marginalized populations (e.g. persons dealing with the consequences of poverty, indigenous groups, and so on) will first feel the brunt of climate change, followed by economic, health, and infrastructural catastrophe.  The unwillingness to take immediate steps to curb the effects of climate change infringes of the human rights of global populations.
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI). Harvard Political Philosophy Professor Dr. Mathias Risse (2018) recently published a research brief illuminating the Gordian Knot of ethics, human rights, and the creation of artificial intelligence.  Two concerns are particularly relevant to human rights: (a) the transmission of bias from human to machine (i.e. discrimination and prejudice along gender, ethnic, ableist, or ageist dimensions); and (b) the problem of value alignment (i.e. ongoing debate regarding how and which normative values should be imparted into machines).  By the same breath, Risse contends human rights advocacy networks would do well to integrate AI into their operations for two purposes: 1) to increase the efficiency and minimize human risk in humanitarian emergencies, and 2) to insert the human rights community into the AI community.  As AI technology develops, perhaps even to the point of artificial consciousness, human rights language must offer clear rules and safeguards concerning the human-AI relationship.
  • Genetic Engineering. He Jiankui Shenzhen, China, recently claimed the mantle of the first research scientist to use genetic engineering to alter embryos during fertility treatments (pending corroboration from peer reviewers).  The human right to our own genetic material has sometimes been referred to as 4th Generation human rights, and this generation declares the human genome is a crucial part of human heritage (Cornescu, 2009).  The use of genetic engineering has been considered a potential boon for eradicating diseases such as HIV/AIDS, while simultaneously harkening to Nazi sentiments regarding the creation of a perfect human race. In the coming years, the human rights community must decide, in no uncertain terms, how and if humanity itself should be subject to engineering, and how human rights fits into this process.
  • Space Colonization. (In)Famous technology personality and businessman Elon Musk claims he and his private spaceflight company SpaceX will send the first human beings to Mars at or before the year 2024, build Mars’ first city in the 2030s, and terraform Mars into an Earth-like planet throughout the 2100s.  As Musk and other billionaires seek to tame the Final Frontier, ethical concerns about the human right to and human rights in outer space must be clarified.  Most notable of these issues is that of “internality”: through lack of access and/or privilege, many humans will remain Earth-bound, with “no true escape… from the atomic bomb, terrorism, or the ecological crisis, which is already dramatically destroying our environment” (Calanchi, Farina & Barbanti, 2017, p. 215).  Stoner (2017) presents another arresting argument: space colonization is an inherently invasive act (a resurrection of the horrors of “New World” colonialism, nonetheless) and threatens to displace or destroy life on any extraterrestrial bodies that humans colonize.  Before hightailing it across outer space, perhaps our species should instead focus on the human rights crises on our home planet.
A view of outer space from the Hubble Telescope
NASA’s Hubble Telescope Finds Potential Kuiper Belt Targets for New Horizons Pluto Mission. Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Creative Commons

The Age of Human Rights?

Eighteen years ago, former UN Secretary-General Kofi A. Annan penned an editorial for Project Syndicate Magazine, lauding the fact that the UN and its member states broadly coalesced around the norm of human rights: “Above all we have committed ourselves to the idea that no individual – regardless of gender, ethnicity or race – shall have his or her human rights abused or ignored.” Cautiously optimistic from the international community’s recent outrage towards massive human rights violations and movement towards protecting vulnerable populations, Annan proclaimed that the 21st century will be the “Age of Human Rights”.  Annan’s optimism stemmed from his observation that global civil society had, in the span of 52 years, began to take seriously extrajudicial violence both within and between member states.  There is another reason to be optimistic as well.  Humans in the current day have a universal language, mechanism, and procedure to prevent global catastrophe; this was not the case leading up to the last catastrophe – World War II.

Human rights are not static concepts – they are constantly defined and redefined through developments in research, policy, and practice.  Human rights are also ideal forms – translating abstract concepts from documents such as the UDHR into the messy world of lived experience is a Herculean task.  The idea of human rights is challenged by both thought and behavior, whether the ideology of nationalism or the actions of genocidaires.  Human rights are claimed, in the sense that each one of us has a responsibility to report suspected human rights violations, to defend the notion of universal human rights from potential spoilers, and to self-advocate in instances where our rights might be diminished.  The human rights movement must also be forward-looking, anticipating future dangers well before they happen, pre-emptively codifying human rights to account for the scientific and ethical progression of human civilization.  The human rights movement is an opportunity for humanity to write its own rulebook, guiding our approach to thorny issues such as climate change, AI, genetic engineering, and space colonization.

These and more profound challenges await our species in the coming years, and an adaptive, cogent, and enforceable doctrine of human rights will prepare humanity to successfully transform these challenges into opportunities for growth for the human species.  This growth is utterly contingent upon a global commitment to the idea of human rights – that all individuals deserve a free and full life, dignified by our shared human condition and experience.  If the Age of Human Rights is indeed here, the global community should adopt an outlook of futurism in human rights: looking into the coming years, taking stock of critical issues on the horizon, and utilizing the human rights movement to brace global civil society for the coming winds of change.  It is not enough that the Age of Human Rights decries violence in all of its forms.  To future generations, the Age of Human Rights must be known for its foresight identifying, preventing, and transforming global and (perhaps) extraterrestrial challenges for the betterment of all humankind.

References

Calanchi, A., Farina, A. & Barbanti, R. (2017). An eco-critical cultural approach to Mars colonization. Forum for World Literature Studies, 9(2), 205-216.

Cornescu, A. V. (2009). The generations of human’s rights.  Days of Law, Conference Proceedings.  Masaryk University.

Risse, M. (2018). Human rights and artificial intelligence: An urgently needed agenda. Cambridge, MA: Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.

Saito, N. T. (1996). Beyond civil rights: Considering “Third Generation” international human rights law in the United States. The University of Miami Inter-American Law Review, 28(2), 387-412.

Stoner, I. (2017). Humans should not colonize Mars. Journal of the American Philosophical Association, 3(3), 334-353.

What is a human rights-based approach?

A human rights-based approach to activism entails empowering people by giving them the knowledge to know and claim their rights. This also involves focusing on holding institutions and individuals responsible for respecting, protecting, and fulfilling rights accountable through constant pressure and oversight. It is important to give people a greater say in the creation of laws that affect their rights. This can be achieved by educating the public on how they can make their voice heard as well as educating politicians on how to listen to public opinion and respect human rights. The policymaking and organizations involved with human rights need to ensure that strict standards and principles of human rights are taken into account.

There are many different ways to advocate for human rights. Some organizations choose to offer direct assistance to individuals which have had their rights violated. This can involve food, shelter, legal support, healthcare, and other types of aid. Another way in which to help the fight for human rights is to support key cases through the court systems. The hope is that if even one individual who has had their rights infringed upon wins their case then that will set a legal precedent. Such a precedent would protect future human rights violations of this type from ever happening again. Another legal strategy is to lobby for changes to existing local, national, or international law. This gives voice to the cause and widespread awareness of existing human rights issues. Media coverage and public support can oftentimes pressure politicians into coming up with a solution by passing new or amending current legislation. Lobbying groups can even provide specialists who are most knowledgeable in human rights issues and how to best solve the problem. These specialists can guide and advise lawmakers into developing policies and drafting legislation that will provide the best protection and support to at-risk people and groups.

One of the most important ways to promote lasting and effective changes to secure the future human rights of all people is to educate the public. People need to be made aware of the various types of human rights abuses and what exactly the human rights issues are. A more educated populace will be more respectful and open to supporting the necessary changes to protect at-risk groups.  This public support is key to campaigning for necessary legislation and electing politicians who are empathetic to human rights concerns. In addition, educating the public will change the existing culture and help influence future generations to be understanding and active in advocating for a better future of human rights.

An imperative part of combating human rights issues is for each person to know what their rights are and how to protect them. The United States Department of Justice is responsible for handling all claims of civil rights abuses. The Civil Rights Division enforces criminal, disability, educational, employment, housing, immigration, voting, and special litigation offenses. The process for filing a claim is not that difficult with information and personnel available online at https://www.justice.gov/crt/how-file-complaint. All necessary procedures to file a complaint are detailed clearly and with additional personal assistance available upon request. You can also contact the United Nations and file a complaint under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as the United States is a member nation. It is important for human rights concerns to be acknowledged with formal complaints so that legal actions can be taken to stop current and future human rights violations from occurring. Everyone can do his or her part to protect their human rights and the human rights of all people by being active in advocating for change and by reporting each and every human rights violation.

 

 

 

The History of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

UN Flag
Flag of the United Nations, paixland, Creative Commons

The conception of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) gave birth to human rights as they are known today. Adopted by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly on December 10, 1948, the UDHR was a response to the atrocities that took place during World War II. As half the globe laid in ruin and millions of lives were taken, a dormant side of humanity seemed to reawaken within the world powers, and an international prioritization of human rights emerged. The UDHR, comprised of 30 Articles defining human rights, was an expression of humanity’s resurgence, as well as an international commitment to never allow such monstrous acts to take place again.

Those tasked with composing the UDHR were members of the Commission on Human Rights, chaired by the dynamic Eleanor Roosevelt, who served as First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945. Roosevelt transformed the role of the First Lady by using her position as a platform for social activism in women’s rights, African-American rights, and Depression-era workers’ rights. After her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, died in 1945, she was appointed to be the US Delegate to the UN and served in this role for 7 years. It was her experience and passion for social activism that prepared the widow Roosevelt to Chair the commission responsible for creating the UDHR. Roosevelt asserted the Declaration would reflect more than Western ideas; to accomplish this, the Human Rights Commission was made up of members from various cultural and legal backgrounds from all around the world, showing respect for differing cultures and their customs while also ensuring each region had a hand in creating the document. Under Roosevelt’s leadership, the diverse commission was able to craft the UDHR in a unique and culturally-competent way.

Statue of Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt, Kevin Borland, Creative Commons

The UDHR was the first document in history to explicitly define what individual rights are and how they must be protected. The Preamble of the document outlines the rights of all human beings:

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people…

Thus, for the first time in history, human rights were assembled and codified into a single document. The Member States, or sovereign states that are members of the United Nations, came together in agreement to protect and promote these rights. As consequence, the rights have shaped constitutional laws and democratic norms around the world, such as the Human Rights Act of 1998 in Britain and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the United States.

Silhouette of a dove holding an olive branch
Dove Silhouette, Creative Commons

The Commission on Human Rights defined human rights with the conception of the UDHR. By fusing dignity, fairness, equality, respect, and independence, the UN defines human rights as:

rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more.  Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination.

Human rights are the cross-cutting theme within every UN agency. They have inspired the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are goals to “provide peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.” These planet-, urbanization-, and group-focused goals substantially contribute to the realization of human rights, as the human rights-based approach to development stipulates development is conducive to the promotion of human rights.  In the ideal sense, human rights are a guiding force toward living in global harmony, and through the promotion of the basic rights bestowed by the UDHR, the world has made strides toward achieving that harmony.

 

Human Rights Day 2018

Word Cloud. Source: Universal Rights, Creative Commons

How It All Began

Human Rights Day is celebrated worldwide on December 10, originating on the day the United Nations formally approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.  This year is their 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which declares everyone has basic rights, regardless of their nationality, social origin, opinion, etc. It is the most translated document in the world and it appears in over 500 languages. The concept was put into action in 1950 when the United Nations General Assembly invited the States and organizations to approve of declaring December 10 as Human Rights Day. The goal of Human Rights Day is to create a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations: in order to “strive by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance”. Furthermore, the aim is to show people that human rights are relevant to us all, often consisting of conferences, meetings, and events surrounding human rights issues.

How the World Celebrates

Countries and organizations around the world celebrate Human Rights Day differently; however, the end goal is the same – to stand for our rights. The theme has varied from year to year. In 2003, the focus was on “Know Your Human Rights, while the theme in 2010 was on “Speak up, Stop Discrimination”, and, in 2017, the focus was on “standing up for equality, justice, and human dignity”. Not only does the theme differ from year to year, but also what each country focuses on. For example, Senegal concentrated on a blind theatre group, while Pakistan held a human rights film festival. Furthermore, Madagascar created a human rights debate contest and Azerbaijan held a writing and art competition on human rights. Additionally, the impact of social media over the recent years is phenomenal. Last year #HumanRightsDay was the most trending topic in Spain, while it was #3 in the United States. As a result, Facebook created a profile frame for Human Rights Day, while Twitter created a special emoji. In fact, some organizations such as the United Nationals, Amnesty International, and the World Health Organization used Twitter as a platform to create conversations on topics such as immigration, reproductive rights, access to clean water, universal healthcare, and equality among communities of color.

How you can celebrate in Birmingham, AL

Around the world many organizations have events; however, there are ways to get involved with the local community. An example of getting involved among college campuses would be where individuals could work with their respective student government to pass a resolution to observe Human Rights Day. Another possibility would be to work with the Birmingham community and create an event to raise awareness a variety of human rights issues such as environmental justice, domestic violence, and gender equality. There could be performances, lectures, and a discussion to highlight the importance of these pressing issues, among others. Before the event starts, there could be the option of having a tabling event, where people can learn more about different organizations across the Birmingham community associated with different aspects of human rights. Furthermore, people could start a social media campaign through Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat. Another opportunity would be to have numerous free expression walls, all over Birmingham, where people can write down thing such as what human rights means to them, what human rights issues they were impacted by, or what human rights issue they want to spread awareness on. Ultimately, Human Rights Day is about taking the time to focus on different human rights topics and what it means to stand up for not just our own rights, but for others as well.

Human Rights Day. Source: Flickr, Creative Commons

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” – Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 1

 

Free and Uneasy

by Mary Johnson-Butterworth

When I visited the Equal Justice Initiative Legacy Museum, I sat down at a booth where I was separated by plexiglass from a video of a prisoner who picked up a phone as I picked up my receiver.  This prisoner told me of his 12 years in solitary confinement and his struggles to survive, and then he shared his beautiful poem with me.  Given my recent passion for poetry, I felt that I had just had a karmic experience, and it affected me deeply.  I dedicate this poem to Mr. Ian Manuel, a brilliant writer, who is now free and currently resides in Florida.

the inside of Alcatraz
Outside this empty shell. Source: Derek Finch, Creative Commons

I am humbled to meet you

In a place defining legacy as atrocity.

Here in a cubicle with the glass between us,

I learn your stare before I sit;

Your stagnant gaze stings like lashes.

Lashes–but what do I know of lashes?

 

In terror, I reach for the receiver

While you do the same.

You introduce yourself to all who call

With a show of strength in sepia

As you share yourself on video.

Terror—but what do I know of terror?

 

You tell me of your bleak and solitary plight,

Of the fight with your tortured soul,

Of your twelve years in a cell alone

With no human breathing near you.

I have suffered my own confinements.

Solitary—but what do I know of solitary?

 

You speak of an exploration within–

Within your hourless term,

A timelost search for your voice

Within the breadth of your mind,

A mind that ever evades capture.

Capture—but what do I know of capture?

 

You proclaim the poem of your truth,

Well-versed in human pain,

Words meting out the inner you.

I listen with my newfound poet’s ear

To the meaning of your life.

Pain—but what do I know of pain?

 

Shocked by our common shred,

I return the receiver to the still shot

Of your shackled silence.

What reverberates for me now

Is of words you set aloft and free.

Poetry—for we two know of poetry.

Representing Disability 

Representation shapes the way we view the world – media regularly exposes us to perspectives and truths that we may otherwise never experience. Disability is one perspective that abled society frequently avoids. Persons with disabilities are heavily under-represented in media, and existing representations often perpetuate harmful stereotypes. Persons with disabilities are rarely depicted with agency or dignity. More often, disability in media is associated with helplessness, pity, or as a perverted source of inspiration for abled people.

However, times are changing. GLAAD’s Where We Are On TV is an annual report on diversity in television; findings from the recent 2018-2019 television season report a positive trend on representation for people with disabilities. Last year’s report found that 1.8% of all series regulars on primetime broadcast television had disabilities, while this year’s report lists 2.1%. This is only a small increase, and still under-represents the proportion of Americans with disabilities. According to the United States Census Bureau, Americans with disabilities make up between 1219% of the population (variation in range is due to inconsistent definitions of disability).

Three people in wheelchairs face each other while talking.
“Creative Accessibility Mapping Tour.” Source: Andi Weiland / SOZIALHELDEN, Creative Commons.

But that 2.1% consists of a variety of compelling characters with disabilities. Popular television shows Speechless is groundbreaking for its representations of differently-abled youth. The show is centered around a young man with cerebral palsy, JJ, and his wacky family and friends. Speechless is unique in its approach of wholesome humor to deal with the difficulties of navigating personal agency, inclusivity and the struggles of teen life. Disability is so often viewed from a lens of misery, alienation, and darkness, but this show handles tough topics without demonizing disability. Speechless demonstrates that life with disabilities is much like any other, filled with pain but also joy and laughter. Though this is only one show, Speechless empowers persons with disabilities and sets a better tone for disability representation.

Despite under-representation in mainstream media, people with disabilities have found power in creating a culture of agency within their respective communities. Superfest, a disability film festival, was held in October of this year and showcased a range of perspectives from quadriplegia to cerebral palsy to Deafness. Social media allows persons with disabilities to present their own image of independence and beauty, empowering themselves and others. Advocate/blogger/model Mama Cax is an amputee woman of color with nearly 200k followers on Instagram (@mamacaxx). Cax, who modeled in popular designer brand Chromat’s inclusive Pool Rules campaign, is an inspiration to many women with disabilities who have never seen bodies like theirs proudly and unapologetically represented as beautiful.

Positive strides are also being taken in terms of political representation. Notable people with disabilities in politics include former president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and former Senator Tammy Duckworth. FDR was the first and only United States president who used a wheelchair; Duckworth was the first woman with a disability to be elected to Congress. Currently, no member of Congress has openly identified as having a disability, but the recent midterms did include several candidates with disabilities. Disability Action for America is an organization dedicated to increasing representation for persons with disabilities in the American political arena. Disability Action for American endorsed 16 candidates and raised money to aid their campaigns through the grassroots effort Disability Action Network. With their help, Jennifer Longdon is the first full-time wheelchair user to be elected to Arizona’s State Legislature.

“Ignite Phoenix 9 – Jennifer Longdon.” Source: Sheila Dee, Creative Commons.

“I think that my own marginalization, my own minority status, gives me a point of view that some of the other candidates might not share. It’s all interconnected. We’ve got to work together to get solutions… It touches education and employment. It touches housing and public transportation and health care and how the criminal justice system works. It touches disability and being LGBTQ, disability and being undocumented, disability and being black or brown, disability and being poor, being uneducated, being whatever else that made you ‘other.” – Jennifer Longdon

People with disabilities are a large and significant community. Increasing representation in media and politics is a critical step towards the acknowledgement of the rights of persons of disabilities at all levels, in all arenas. The examples discussed in this blog are few, but I believe that representation will grow from here. As more people see disability through better representation, disability becomes less distant and more easily understood and accepted. Disability advocates and activists are already growing in number as social justice movements have made efforts towards inclusion and intersectionality. These factors combine to create a positive force for change. Though there are still plenty of barriers to dismantle, disability representation and inclusion in society is on an upward swing.

Guardians: The Bridge between the Medical and Social Models of Disability

Getting fitted out for a better future Omar (in the middle surrounded by his brother Rasekh, 10 and sister Majan, 8) was born with weak legs and hands since birth. They came to the Red Cross orthopedic clinic in Kabul with their father to get Omar fitted up for a wheelchair. Rasekh is in grade 4 and love Dari classes – he would like to be an engineer. Omar will have to be pushed around for the rest of his life, but his siblings are happy to support him to have a normal life – he hopes to start school soon. Aid from the UK is supporting the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to run a network of seven orthopaedic centres across Afghanistan to assist those affected by mobility disabilities, including hundreds of mine victims. The UK is to help provide 3,800 new artificial limbs and 10,000 crutches for Afghan children and adults disabled during 30 years of conflict and extreme poverty. UK Dept of Intl Development
Omar (in the middle surrounded by his brother Rasekh, 10 and sister Majan, 8) was born with weak legs and hands since birth. They came to the Red Cross orthopedic clinic in Kabul with their father to get Omar fitted up for a wheelchair. Rasekh is in grade 4 and loves Dari classes, he would like to be an engineer. Omar will have to be pushed around for the rest of his life, but his siblings are happy to support him to have a normal life, he hopes to start school soon. Aid from the UK is supporting the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to run a network of seven orthopaedic centres across Afghanistan to assist those affected by mobility disabilities, including hundreds of mine victims. The UK is to help provide 3,800 new artificial limbs and 10,000 crutches for Afghan children and adults disabled during 30 years of conflict and extreme poverty. Source: UK Department of International Development, Creative Commons

I am currently binge-watching Law & Order: SVU. In one episode, “Competence,” the rape survivor has Downs Syndrome (DS). Her mother, who is also her legal guardian, feels DS limits her ability to function “normally” in the world. The main concern of the mother is her daughter’s ability to care for the baby she is carrying as a result of the repeated rapes. The mother’s protection of her daughter extended only as far as she could be with her. Throughout the show, the revelation is that the store owner, where the daughter worked part-time as a stocker, exploited her disadvantage for his advantage. To limit the risk of the baby having DS and added to her belief in her daughter’s inability to care for the baby, the mother arranged an abortion of her daughter’s behalf. The courts stepped in and conducted a competency trial. Placed on the stand, the pregnant rape survivor acknowledged that once she did set fire to the kitchen but that she could now make soup because her boyfriend showed her. She also explained that even though she did not know how to care for a baby yet, she could learn if someone taught her.

As persons with disabilities (PWDs) move from the medical model into the social model in pursuit of independence, often overlooked are the role and needs of the caregiver. Society must begin to acknowledge and identify the paradigm shift occurring across the board. The purpose of this blog is to reflect on the role of parents and caretakers (also referred to as guardians) who attempt to bridge the gap between the medical and social models of disability while encouraging self-determination and protecting their loved ones in a created world that does not have them in mind.

The societal solution to PWDs was eugenics, institutionalization, or isolation–out of sight and out of mind for centuries. The employment of this solution allowed and continues to allow some guardians to abuse the system and take advantage of those in their care, and the pursuit of swift legal action is necessary. However, as societies move towards inclusivity, we must give encouragement and praise to those who through their actions look for avenues and solutions that empower. More specifically, we must continue to champion the guardians. With the implementation of the CRPD, standards of ADA, more universal design efforts, and competency hearings, PWDs are becoming productive members within their communities. So, what does this mean for their guardians who have sacrificed to protect their family member from the cruelty of an able-bodied world and the able-bodied world not used to making allowances for Others, particularly PWDs?

Who is a guardian? Persons with intellectual disabilities often have a legal guardian. The legal guardian acts in the “best interest” of their ward or the person in their charge. Much of the present debate regarding guardianship is the abuse of power in the denial of civil and human rights. In a 2007 study, Dorothy Squatrito Millar found that study participants did not recognize the disconnection between self-determination and guardianship or realize that there are several available alternatives to guardianship. Despite the arrival at the age of majority (18), students with intellectual disabilities did not receive the opportunity to self-advocate; rather, in many instances, they are given directions on what to do, or their guardian did the task for them. The inability to self-advocate as an adult is a denial of personhood, a violation of dignity. “We are adults. They need to accept that” and “they need to put themselves in our shoes sometimes” were some of the responses of the students.

What is notable about the SVU competency hearing is the assumption that all adults know how to care for a baby or balance a checkbook. The implication is that a person with an intellectual disability needs to have a guardian to avoid making any mistakes. As one non-disabled parent in Millar’s study put it, “We all make mistakes, and we all need help sometime—but that doesn’t mean we need guardians.” Most guardians resist the transition to adulthood and self-determination out of fear of exploitation, lack of information, and concern for their disabled child’s well-being. Millar concludes that while there is a significant need for more research on the transition to adulthood, the inclusion of children with intellectual disabilities into decision making throughout their lives does assist in the collaboration between other institutions in providing care that aligns with goals, imparts knowledge, addresses concerns, and maintains dignity and personhood.

 

 

International Day of Persons with Disabilities 2018

Today, December 3, 2018, is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD), an observance promoted by the United Nations (UN). This year’s theme, “Empowering persons with disabilities and ensuring inclusiveness and equality,” accommodates the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’s pledge to “leave no one behind” which envisions sustainable urbanization, namely through a smart-city approach that prioritizes digitalization, clean energy, technologies, and service delivery. Such ambition is salient to persons with disabilities because, above all, achieving these goals will result in communities that are more accessible and inclusive for everyone.

It is argued the main contribution to why persons with disabilities have been excluded from public life is the practice of the medical model of disability (MMD) which embraces the perspective of non-disabled persons, reducing persons with disabilities to dysfunctional people in-need of medical treatment, with emphasis on normative functioning of the body. As a result, persons with disabilities are often assigned a sick role that exempts them from activities and expectations of productivity, leaving them as passive recipients of medical goods and services. These medicalized expectations of normality, restoration, and functional independence can devalue the lived experiences of persons with disabilities, thus inviting discrimination into their daily lives.

On the contrary, the social model of disability (SMD) challenges the knowledge/power differential employed by medical authorities and suggests empowerment for persons with disabilities, ultimately strengthening the patient role and influencing changes in treatment paradigms. Furthermore, the SMD argues that social practices are what disable persons with impairments, placing many persons with disabilities into isolating circumstances and preventing full civil participation. Whether it be employment in Alabama or being a refugee in Kenya, the SMD challenges the MMD by suggesting persons with disabilities are an oppressed group that experiences discrimination and deserving of equal treatment.

On December 13, 2006, the UN adopted the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), an international agreement which details the rights of persons with disabilities and lists codes for implementation, suggesting both states and disabled people’s organizations (DPOs) are to coordinate to fulfill such rights. In the following years, nations spanning the globe have ratified the CRPD, such as Jordan (2008) and Ireland (2018), thus strengthening protections for persons with disabilities. Although the United States is one of the only nations to have yet ratified the CRPD, this international document is largely modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed in 1990, which prohibits discrimination toward persons with disabilities. As a result, we are only seeing the beginning of what is to come for accessibility and inclusion for persons with disabilities, both domestically and globally.

Disabled people celebrate the passage of The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2016 by the Lok Sabha, in New Delhi. Source: Hindustan Times, Creative Commons

 

To commemorate IDPD 2018, the Institute for Human Rights is holding a blog series today that addresses access, inclusion, and representation for persons with disabilities, namely through the influence of media and power of politics.

“Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.” – George H.W. Bush at the signing of the ADA