March 21st marks World Down Syndrome Day (WDSD). On this day, events take place worldwide to raise awareness, promote inclusivity, encourage advocacy, and support people with Down syndrome. This day carries a lot of importance for individuals with Down syndrome as it creates a platform for their voice, which is often unheard of. This year’s WDSD focuses on campaigning for the right to legal capacity, with the slogan “With Us Not for Us.” Every year the United Nations holds a conference for WDSD, which will be hosted in New York this year. The goal for each meeting is to identify and speak on key issues that affect people with Down syndrome, call for action, and inclusive policymaking. Since 2011, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) has designated this day to raise awareness about the struggles and successes of individuals with Down syndrome.
History of WDSD
At every WDSD conference, individuals with Down syndrome and other disabilities, activists, and UN and government officials consider different ways to help the Down syndrome community. WDSD gives power and a voice to people with Down syndrome, enabling them to speak on the changes they want and providing guidance to how we collectively, as a global community, can help. Past themes of WDSD have supported inclusion, acceptance, and freedom for all individuals with disabilities. All too often, individuals with any form of disability are deemed unfit or incapable of being independent due to a lack of awareness and understanding, which is why this day is immensely important. Down Syndrome affects 3,000-5,000 newborns every year, which is caused when newborns have an extra copy of chromosome 21. Their struggles begin from the moment they are born. People with Down syndrome are not always accepted, particularly in societies that have strong stigmas against medical problems.
Every year, the WDSD conferences promote different aspects that individuals with Down Syndrome face, this year’s WDSD conference focused on the right to legal capacity and decision-making. People with Down syndrome are often not given the right to make their own life decisions. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) protects this right, but the sad reality is that it is often ignored. Legal capacity is critical for people with Down syndrome, as without it, they have no authority to make decisions on:
This is a prevalent issue. Rather than having protection from governments or their families, people with Down syndrome are often considered mentally incompetent and incapable of making their own decisions. Governments and judicial areas within countries are responsible for ensuring that people with Down syndrome have the right to legal capacity and the proper protection and support.
All over the world, people with Down Syndrome are treated unjustly. They are denied proper education, healthcare, and employment opportunities and are often ignored, unable to make decisions about their lives. These struggles are pervasive, affecting developing countries and modern, progressive westernized countries. In 2019, Bassel Dib, a man with Down syndrome, was dismissed from an internationally recognized gym chain, Golds Gym, in Amman, Jordan. He was kicked because the owner did not want someone with a visible disability to ruin the gym’s prestige. The owner is a well-known member of the Jordanian parliament who has been able to get away with discrimination on multiple occasions by leveraging his status and powerful connections within the Jordanian government. Common stigmas and stereotypes surrounding people with Down syndrome prevent them from accessing specific opportunities, places, and decision-making power.
Despite these injustices, there are many inspiring success stories of people with Down syndrome. For instance, Bassel has been able to go to college, compete in the Special Olympics on the Jordanian national team, and now aspires to become a bodybuilder. Sofia Jirau made history as Victoria’s Secret’s first model with Down syndrome. Chelsea Werner, a special Olympic gymnast that has now become a successful model, was a four-time U.S. national championship winner in gymnastics and has modeled on the cover of Vogue and New York Fashion Week. John Tucker, also a man with Down syndrome, starred in the Emmy-winning series “Born This Way.” This series features seven young people with Down syndrome and follows their lives as they look for employment and housing while overcoming societal obstacles. These are just a few success stories of people with Down syndrome. Numerous other achievements exist, from small unknown advancements to big, publicized ones. The important thing is that every single one of them has been able to break societal barriers and achieve their dreams.
What can you do
The most significant problem for people with Down syndrome is the lack of equal opportunities. We can work towards addressing this issue by educating ourselves, our peers, friends, and families. It is crucial to constantly be aware of issues preventing people with Down syndrome from accessing their full independence and power. Together, we can collectively create positive change and ensure that people with Down syndrome are given the same attention, opportunities, and power as everyone else.
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Naturally, many human rights violations and atrocities leave one wondering, “What can I do to ensure these violations do not happen again?” Unfortunately, however, many don’t know how to help to support human rights and a lot of information online is convoluted. This in turn causes charities and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which seek to promote humanitarian efforts, to often get overshadowed by bad news.
In this blog, I will share notable charities and initiatives that one could support in an effort to make a difference in the world.
Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch (HRW) is an organization that investigates and reports on human rights violations and atrocities throughout the world. The advocacy of Human Rights Watch, as said by them, is directed towards “governments, armed groups and businesses, pushing them to change or enforce their laws, policies and practices.”
Moreover, Human Rights Watch does not accept any sort of funding from the government or corporations, as they seek to remain unbiased and bipartisan. The organization is complied of over 400 lawyers and human rights experts, and they would be a great organization to help out with donations.
Human Rights Watch prides itself on its transparency in its affairs, and it was thus awarded the Guidestar Platinum Seal of Transparency, an award given by an organization that “gathers, organizes, and distributes information about U.S nonprofits in an effort to advance transparency, enable users to make better decisions, and encourage charitable giving.”
Moreover, if that was not enough to show you the commitment of Human Rights Watch, allow us to make note that in 1997, they were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for helping create the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty — a piece of legislation that brought about newfound protection to citizens from bombs which previously “killed and maimed indiscriminately.”
Therefore, with all of the aforementioned facts in mind, donating to Human Rights Watch would be a sure way in bringing about change and ensuring that human rights violations get exposed, lessened, and stopped.
Amnesty International is one of the most influential and famous nongovernmental organizations in the world. Amnesty International, simply put, could be defined by its mission statement: “[we are] a global movement of more than 10 million people who take injustice personally. We are campaigning for a world where human rights are enjoyed by all.” Amnesty International, like Human Rights Watch, is primarily funded by its supporters – not governments or political institutions.
Moreover, Amnesty International is both unbiased and bipartisan – they simply just seek to ensure all people enjoy human rights. Amnesty International functions by lobbying governments to ensure they keep their promises and passions for human rights; investigate and expose all violations that occur in the world, despite of where or what might have happened; and seek to educate and mobilize all people who wish to learn more about human rights.
Amnesty International was founded more than 50 years ago when the owner, Peter Benenson, saw two Portuguese students jailed for raising a toast to freedom in 1961. Since then, Amnesty International has been one of the most prominent and respected NGOs on the scene, and they have accomplished a lot.
In just 2022 alone, Amnesty International has helped free individuals who were imprisoned unjustly and ensured that human rights abusers got locked up. Moreover, Amnesty International was a driving force behind the decriminalization of Abortion in Colombia. Needless to say, Amnesty International’s impact, passion, and dedication to human rights is incredibly influential, and donating to their cause would definitely help bring about good changes.
Human Rights First
Human Rights First (HRF) was established in 1978, with the mission of “[ensuring] that the United States is a global leader on human rights.” Human Rights First is centered in the United States, but it conducts a multitude of work abroad to ensure that “human wrongs are righted.”
Human Rights First has been involved in a lot of international political affairs which sought to eradicate injustice and, as they put it, human wrongs. For instance, in 1988, Human Rights First initiated its Lawyer-to-Lawyer network, which was an initiative that helped ensure all lawyers that have been imprisoned unjustly internationally are released. As of now, the program has worked with over 8000 lawyers in over 130 countries.
In addition to helping create the International Criminal Court, Human Rights First also helped establish the Fair Labor Association in 1999. This Association brought together over 60 major companies, such as Nike and Adidas, to help set workplace standards for industries throughout the world. In doing so, Human Rights First helped ensure that those who work for major international companies are not going to face hardships or disparity in their workplace environment.
Human Rights First, in addition to all that has been mentioned, has been a major actor in the anti-torture movement. In 2009, Human Rights First stood beside President Obama when he signed the executive order banning all torture in the United States. Then, in 2015, Human Rights First sought to make Obama’s order even more powerful and impactful. After the release of the Torture Report, Human Rights First was able to gain public support and then work with Senators McCain and Feinstein to craft what they consider to be the “strongest anti-torture law in U.S. history.”
Needless to say, Human Rights First is an incredibly dedicated, driven, and successful organization, which has had years of successful changes in the world of human rights. You definitely would not go wrong by donating or supporting them.
In summary, human rights is a very complicated topic that is often convoluted and hard to understand through the media. Due to this, many do not always know what is the best way to donate and help out, despite wanting to. In this blog, I have listed multiple different organizations that have a proven history of success and change, and I thus hope to have made the process of getting involved in human rights easier.
If more people are involved in human rights, more change will happen, and more people internationally will have access to these same rights. It is my hope that, one day, human rights will be as accessible to everyone on this planet as oxygen is. This will only happen with support, and that is exactly what I hope to have urged you to do in this blog — support the NGOs which fight for human rights.
For years the United States (US) has been employing extraterritorial jurisdiction to impose oppressive sanctions on foreigners. Often, these sanctions violate due process rights because they are imposed without providing individuals with adequate notice, a fair hearing, or an opportunity to challenge the designation. The US has the authority to freeze assets, ban travel, and place other restrictions on financial transactions. This significantly impacts an individual’s human rights as the freedom to travel, freedom to work, and freedom to have privacy. Targeting individuals abroad for alleged activities that occurred outside of the US makes it evident that these restrictions are over-complying out of fear, a fear which is rooted in ethnophobia. Many Americans fear immigrants are taking their jobs, and sanctions like this only bolster this. Arbitrarily depriving someone of their property based on where they are from is an inherent violation of human rights. Unilateral coercive measures like the Global Magnitsky Act, Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Person List, and Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctions have a disproportionately negative effect on international people.
Global Magnitsky Act
The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act authorizes the president to block or revoke the visas of certain “foreign persons” (both individuals and entities) or to impose property sanctions on them. People can be sanctioned (a) if they are responsible for or acted as an agent for someone responsible for “extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights,” or (b) if they are government officials or senior associates of government officials complicit in “acts of significant corruption.” It was enacted as a deterrent for foreign political corruption but instead was a catalyst for arbitrary detention and arrests without due process. There is a lack of transparency and little to no evidence provided to justify designating individuals under the Act. UN Special Rapporteur Alena Douhan concerned about human rights violations states, “This is a clear violation of due process rights, including the presumption of innocence and fair trial.” The Act allows the US government to impose sanctions on individuals accused of human rights violations and corruption but does not provide them with a fair opportunity to challenge these allegations. Though it serves the purpose of preventing acts of terrorism and maintaining foreign accountability, the language is not concise enough to prevent arbitrary detentions or sanctions.
Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Person List
The SDN list is updated regularly with the names of individuals, entities, and organizations deemed to be involved in a range of criminal activities such as terrorism, narcotics, or arms. Therefore, US nationals are prohibited from engaging in any form of transaction with SDNs. Based on similar provisions under the Patriot Act, the government can block all of an individual’s or entity’s assets in the US. Similar to Magnitsky, there are concerns over transparency and due process violations. There have been inconsistencies in the way that individuals and entities are designated on the list, including cases where some individuals or entities are designated while others engaged in similar activities are not. Since the process behind the designation is not made public, it begs the question what is the real intention behind this decision and are there any underlying motives? Also, the list is public which subjects the individuals on the list to political abuse by targeting people that are seen as political opponents or rivals, rather than based on evidence of wrongdoing. “This is a clear violation of due process rights, including the presumption of innocence and fair trial, “ The Special Rapporteur observed.
Office of Foreign Assets Control Sanctions
OFAC is an office of the U.S. Treasury that administers and enforces economic and trade sanctions based on U.S. foreign policy and national security goals against targeted individuals and entities from foreign countries. OFAC sanctions can have unintended consequences and harm innocent parties, such as businesses or individuals that have no connection to the sanctioned entities or countries. The exterritorial reach the US has over foreign businesses is overt and unnecessary. Similar to the other legislation, there is a significant gap in knowledge between the government and the individuals affected. They do not know what they have done that has caused them to be targeted. The affected parties have no way to challenge these accusations if they are not aware of what they have done wrong, thus hindering the due process. The UN expert mentioned how human rights are infringed upon when US trade sanctions against specific countries penalize foreign companies for doing business.
While these laws are in the interest of national security, we need to reevaluate if their ability to reach their intended goals or if have they just enforced discriminatory, biased legislation. There are concerns about their impact on innocent parties, lack of transparency and due process, extraterritorial reach, and potential for abuse. These are important factors to consider when evaluating the country’s presence in foreign entities. It is important to incorporate human rights protections in the sanctions the government passes because they affect international relations, global human rights, and the preservation of American ideals of democracy and equality.
This post is an update on the previous blog titled: The Natural-Humanitarian Disaster of the Turkey-Syria Earthquake. While this topic is no longer in our regular newsfeed, the consequences of disaster are very much ongoing. People n Turkey and Syria are still recovering from the devastating aftermath of the first earthquake that occurred on February 6th people and have yet to find a sense of calm. Trying to find a sense of normalcy, children have begun attending school, and parents have attempted to return to their usual lives. But there is still so much destruction, making it hard to do so. According to the latest records, the earthquakes have killed over 50,000 individuals and injured over 100,000. 214,000 homes have collapsed, leaving thousands in need of aid and shelter. There are still victims that have yet to be found or identified under the rubble of what was once their home. UNICEF has reported that earthquakes have impacted almost 5 million children. Even though the initial earthquakes have finished, the need for humanitarian assistance has worsened.
These earthquakes are incredibly destructive considering the conditions of the areas, mainly referring to Syria. Syria has already been going through one of the most significant humanitarian crises in the world. The earthquake has only worsened its conditions, and access to aid is even more limited. Access to aid has been a very important topic considering the governmental sanctions imposed by many of the big nations (USA, Europe, etc.), and part of the country is controlled by its own government. Other areas are under the control of NGOs. On February 12, Martin Griffiths, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator at the UN, stated: “We have so far failed the people in north-west Syria. They rightly feel abandoned. Looking for international help that hasn’t arrived.” Over 4.1 million individuals in Syria depend on aid and assistance from NGOs, primarily women and children. Getting aid to Syria has been and is more difficult than getting aid in Turkey. It is especially apparent when comparing the aid given to both countries on an international level because, on the one hand, Turkey receives both international aid and support from its government. Yet, on the other hand, Syria, which is not controlled by one body of government, can receive partial international aid.
Problems in Syria
On February 14th, eight days after the initial earthquakes, border crossing points were finally opened for UN aid to be delivered to Syria. By February 22nd, 282 aid trucks were sent by 6 UN agencies. On February 19, Medical Charity Médecins Sans Frontiers (MSF), was able to send 14 aid trucks to Syria in an effort to assist with the rescue operations. As essential as these efforts of sending aid and providing help have been, many problems remain, mainly the governmental sanctions and the closed borders surrounding the affected areas. In addition, Syria is still undergoing a Civil war, making it even more challenging to receive the help they need. Since the initial earthquake, it took days for aid and rescue crews to arrive, which has critically impacted injured civilians and individuals stuck under the rubble of buildings. The Syrian regime has bombed the affected areas of Syria (Northwest area) over 84 times. Such attacks have caused damage to the border crossings, so many NGOs have requested for more crossing points to be available, especially considering the scarcity of resources in Syria and the inability of UN aid to reach the areas affected.
Efforts to help:
As seen, there is a lot of sadness surrounding the earthquakes and their aftermath. Along with the destruction, there have also been many organizations, individuals, and countries who have come to help, providing a sense of hope and relief. A group of online internet activists has created a website called TakeShelter, which enables displaced individuals to connect with hosts worldwide. This initiative was created and developed just 48 hours after the earthquakes occurred. One of the founders, Avi Schiffmann, stated that this website has reverted “power back into the hands of those displaced by the earthquake, allowing them to find shelter.” This website was launched through an organization called InternetActivism. This has opened many doors for activism and providing humanitarian care for generations to come. With almost everything being online, this website has paved the way for providing humanitarian support through a digital platform and helped over 100 families to find shelter in the homes of others.
Moreover, many countries have taken a stronger initiative by investigating earthquake destruction prevention methods. Iraq has begun to install 16 earthquake warning stations throughout the country. Iraq experienced some aftershocks from the initial earthquakes. Since then, they have worked to put different stations to monitor the earthquakes and future ones on the borders connected to Syria and Turkey. In addition, Saudi Arabia has built around 3,000 temporary homes to be sent to the victims in Turkey and Syria. Public, influential figures such as Cristiano Ronaldo have sent aid to those affected. There have been many reasonable efforts that have been made and shown.
What can you do?
In times like these, after the shock has been visible through news cycles, articles, and social media posts, people tend to think that this disaster is fixed, but that is not the case. The weeks after an initial humanitarian disaster can be much worse than the first day of it. As time passes, more family members are identified as dead or remain missing. Incomes for families have entirely disappeared, and now humanitarian aid support is required to survive. Those who have lost their homes are now living in community shelters or on the streets, and the conditions of those affected will continue to worsen unless we do something about such a situation. Hundreds and thousands of homes, schools and businesses must be rebuilt. The importance of donations, providing awareness and finding ways to help continues. Even though the earthquakes have stopped, millions continue to be displaced. Below are resources to donate and learn more about the cause.
Armed conflict often results in a wide range of human rights violations, includingright to life, liberty, and security. Conflict can have a devastating impact on human rights, leaving individuals and communities vulnerable to a range of abuses and violations. Oftentimes,during military conflicts, the elderly are overlooked when it comes to human rights abuses. Despite being among the most vulnerable members of society, the impacts of armed conflict on older people are often underreported, highlighting the need for greater attention and support for this marginalized group.Human Rights Watch released a report addressing the significanthuman rights violations older people endure during wartime. The report calls for the United Nations (UN) to end the abuses, provide protection, and facilitate humanitarian assistance for the elderly. The report documents a pattern of violations against the elderly in African and Middle Easterncountries experiencing war.
Pattern of Abuses
Older people are more likely to experience a range of physical, emotional, and economic challenges during times of conflict. Government and non-state armed forces have unlawfully attacked and killed older civilians, subjecting them to summary executions, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and other ill-treatment, rape, abduction and kidnapping, and the destruction of their homes and other property.Older people are more likely to be injured or killed during armed conflict due to their reduced mobility, impaired senses, and other health issues. In the Central African Republic, for example, the armed forces executed Dieudonne, a blind 60-year-old man in July 2017.Many older people rely on family members and caregivers for support, but armed conflict can disrupt these networks, leaving them isolated and vulnerable.In Ethiopia, after Tigrayan forces recaptured most of the Tigray region in 2021, authorities arbitrarily arrested and detained older Tigrayans in Addis Abeba. Amhara forces in control of the Western Tigray zone detained elderly people in overcrowded detention facilities, subjecting them to beatings and other forms of ill-treatment.The stress and trauma of living in a conflict-affected environment can have significant impacts on older people’s mental health and well-being, and may exacerbate pre-existing mental health conditions.In South Sudan during government operations against rebel forces in February 2019, a soldier made a 50 year-old woman carry looted property, beat her with a gun, and raped her repeatedly.Sexual assault can have profound and long-lasting effects on an individual’s mental health and well-being.
Unable to Receive Aid
Another facet of the abuse is that displaced older people cannot access humanitarian aid. People experiencingmust flee in order to access basic services such as food, shelter, and medical care. During hostilities,many older people have chosen not to flee their homes because they think they will not be harmed, or they want to protect the land they have had in their families for years. Also, limited mobility and disability lead to fewer elderly choosing to flee. In 2017, Myanmar security forces pushed older people who could not flee back into burning houses.Displaced older people have also faced difficulties in registering for and receiving humanitarian aid. In South Sudan in 2017, displaced older people who sought refuge were more likely to face difficulties in receiving aid than those who fled to Protection of Civilians sites within UN bases.Amnesty International has documented the failure of humanitarian actors to meet humanitarian standards and be inclusive of older people in their responses to conflict-driven displacements.
We should be concerned with the gross negligence of elderly’s human rights because every person deserves respect and dignity. Elderly individuals have a wealth of life experience and knowledge to share, and they deserve to be valued and respected for their contributions to society. Due to their age, older people are one of the most vulnerable groups, so it is up to us to do all we can to ensure their safety and protection. Protecting the human rights of elderly individuals is a matter of social justice. As members of society, they have the same rights and entitlements as anyone else, and it is our collective responsibility to ensure that these rights are upheld.
I grew up in the Atlanta metropolitan area. Not inside the perimeter as one might say, I spent my childhood in the forests for hours at a time. My brother and I never grew bored of the endless possibilities and freedom we felt among the oaks: they are some of my most treasured memories. So, whenever we drove into Atlanta proper, I would watch the trees blur by as we encroached further to the city’s heart, well past the notorious highway 285 that encircles it. I always had a tree in sight no matter the distance we ventured into the city, and it always reminded me that home could extend and coincide with a vibrant metropolis rising ever closer in my sight. This always soothed me and put me at peace.
Not all is peaceful in the forest, however.
When protesting is rebranded as domestic terrorism
Since the quiet release of plans to demolish South River Forest (also known as the Old Atlanta Prison Farm) in 2021, protesters have been camping in the forest for months. Local organizations have banded together in order to advocate for the forest and resist police attempts to forcibly remove protesters. These organizations includeDefend the Atlanta Forest, Community Movement Builders, a Black-led nonprofit serving working-class and poor Black people, and the newly formed Stop Cop City group.
These organizations have intersecting goals that culminate in mutual aid to stop the construction of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center known as “Cop City.” Leaders from the Community Movement Builders described the project as a “war base” wherein “police will learn military-like maneuvers to kill Black people and control our bodies and movements.”
One reason for the clear disdain for the project, aside from the historical implications discussed further below, is that the proposed site resides in unincorporated Dekalb county. Thus, those living in the neighborhood had no representatives on the council that approved the project in the first place. After public outrage at the lack of transparency and community engagement, the Atlanta council begrudgingly allowed public comments before the vote in September 2021. The council received 17 hours of recording on the proposal with 70% (or 12 hours) expressing opposition. The plan still passed 10-4.
Protesters have created makeshift barricades from mounds of illegally dumped material such as automobiles and tires in the forest. There is no water or electricity in the encampments so the protesters live very frugally to defend their beliefs. Access to water has continued to be an issue as police try to cut off supplies in an attempt to disperse the protesters and conduct regular raids and wreaking camps.
Confrontations with the police have only become more frequent: and with more serious consequences. At first, some activists found themselves with trespassing charges, but protests escalated on January 18th when demonstrator Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran, a 26-year-old queer environmental activist, was lethally shot by Georgia state police.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation released a statement that Tortuguita, they/them, did not “comply with verbal commands” and allegedly shot a Georgia State Patrol trooper who is in stable condition. As a result of these alleged sequence of events, Tortuguita was shot over a dozen times by multiple different firearms and there is no body cam footage of the tragedy.
Now, the state is planning to convict 18 activists of domestic terrorism charges which holds a possible sentence of up to 35 years.
Local authorities have continued to falsely claim that organizations involved in resisting police development plans are “domestic violent extremists.” During the bail hearing for those arrested on Jan. 18th, bail was denied to four activists while two were given the unprecedented amount of $355,000, along with conditions for ankle monitors and curfews.
What once would have been considered a sit-in protest has now been twisted into “domestic terrorism.”
Considered a private-public venture between the city of Atlanta and the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF), the 85 acres slotted to be turned into a police compound would cost $90 million to construct. Renderings of the project include indoor and outdoor shooting ranges, an auditorium, classrooms, a space dedicated to explosion tests, and a mock miniature city to practice high-speed chases and burn-building training.
The Public Safety Training Academy Advisory Council was formed under the previous mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, on Jan. 4, 2021. According to investigative work conducted by the Mainline, a woman-led independent magazine based in Atlanta, the council was comprised entirely by “government, police, and fire officials, including Chief Operating Officer Jon Keen and APF CEO and President Dave Wilkinson.”
After meeting on Jan. 22, Feb. 12, March 4, and March 26 in 2021, the plan that would become Ordinance No. 21-O-0367 (Cop City) was introduced on June 7th the same year. It was passed shortly thereafter on September 8th, 2021.
Two-thirds of the costs ($60 million) to construct Cop City are coming from corporate donors such as Chick-Fil-A and Delta. Otherwise, despite the desperate and apparent need for affordable housing, food, and other life-affirming infrastructures, the remaining third of the costs ($30 million) is to be paid by taxpayers.
The land is currently under lease to the Atlanta Police Foundation for only $10 a year (see page 10) and construction started this February.
Hidden racist history of the forest continued with the development of Cop City
Before South River Forest became known as such, located in the bustling perimeter of Atlanta’s sprawling metropolitan, the land belonged to the Muscogee Creek nation. In the early 19th century, these people were forcibly removed from their land by ever-encroaching settlers on the East coast and South Florida.
In 1821, Georgia held its fourth land lottery, dividing the Muscogee Creek home into 202.5 acres. Between an 11-year period (1827-38), 23,000 Muscogee were driven from their lands by white, enslaving men.
Soon after, the land became a part of a complex of plantations that exploited the labor of enslaved people. The proposed South River Forest zone contained at least 9 plantations. The names of these plantation owners will not be given here, however, to learn some of the known names of enslaved peoples residing in this area, please read this article.
Eventually, this land was sold to the city of Atlanta which was then used as a city-run forced agricultural labor prison that ran uninterrupted from 1920 to nearly 1990, being officially shuttered in 1995.
Originally, the land became the first “honor farm” in the state, allowing trustworthy prisoners and those with minor infractions to work off their time. This was only a mask for a new form of slavery, cruelty, and so much worse as the Prison Farm ran, without clear archived records, for decades. The last official record comes from a 1971 health inspection record.
There are no official reports on the number of people who died under the inhumane working conditions, but there is a widespread belief that some inmates who died were buried in unmarked graves though none have been found yet. A little of what we know is troubling at best and stomach-churning at worse. In 1941, a prison superintendent reported housing 9 Black prisoners in a 12 ft space, alongside numerous reports of sexual violence from guards, and inmate deaths, often under suspect circumstances.
In one example, prisoners were allowed to handle Sulfotep, which was only contained in unlabeled squeeze bottles and is an extremely toxic chemical pesticide only supposed to be dispensed by licensed company personnel. We know this because of the death of Leroy Horton, who was serving only a 20-day sentence, and who had been sprayed with the substance by another inmate at his own request after contracting lice at the prison. He served only four days of his sentence and died three weeks later due to these gross malpractices in safety protocols and sanitary living conditions.
Now, the land is once more under contract by state policing structures.
Benefits and necessity of urban forests
Atlanta has been called the “City in the Forest” for its vast canopy coverage and abundance of trees within the city. That is because Atlanta leads the nation and major metropolitan cities in canopy coverage at 47.9 percent.
The canopy is not distributed evenly across the city, rather it decreases as one approaches downtown and increases as one approaches the outskirts, making the presence of South River Forest within the perimeter that much more extraordinary. Researchers also found that the lowest canopy coverage was along transportation corridors, but was over 90 percent along stream corridors and in nature preserves.
More and more cities are tracking the number of trees they foster because of the multitude of benefits they offer. This ranges from combatting urban heat island effects, reducing heating and cooling costs overall, providing blue/green space which improves mental health, acting as stormwater management to control flooding, and sequestering carbon thus improving air quality, combatting carbon emissions and climate change.
Results from a Montgomery, Alabama analysis found that urban forests removed 3.2 million lbs of pollutants from the air annually which is valued at $7.9 million. Moreover, the urban forest sequestered 11,263 tons of carbon each year and stored a total of 1.45 million tons of carbon.
In Atlanta, climate scientists have warned that destroying woods will make the city more susceptible to flooding and dangerously hot temperatures. Other concerns over the South River Forest area are worsened air quality due to construction, fires, and weapons training. In this mainly Black part of metro Atlanta, people have been historically neglected. According to the US Census, 75 percent of the neighborhoods near the forest are Black and suffer from high poverty rates and health challenges like diabetes and asthma.
The Sierra Club Georgia Chapter issued a statement on behalf of Black and Latinx community members, who have long been victims of environmental injustice and pollution within the city, stating their vehement opposition to the destruction of the South River Forest.
Intersections of social ecology and human rights
In recent years, there has been a burgeoning movement to connect ecological and social issues together: known as the theory of social ecology. Murray Bookchin, a pioneer in the environmental movement and social theorist, has stated that ecological problems stem from social issues which in turn are exacerbated by ecological destruction. This vicious cycle has become the driving force behind new movements to address climate change and foster more awareness of the interdependence of people and their environment. Without this widespread recognition, social-ecological theorists have argued that hierarchical societies that rely on violent institutions like prisons and police are more likely to treat their environment and people as entities to be dominated, conquered, and/or controlled.
In the case of the South River Forest/Cop City contention, this theoretical framework can be easily illustrated, alongside numerous normative international human rights standards.
Firstly, the plans to develop Cop City were done so surreptitiously; there were no public announcements on the proposal before voting, nor were community members and organizations/specialists asked to participate in the development of the plans. Secondly, the council that approved the plans was not elected by anyone from the community in which the Cop City construction will take place. These are prime disregards for political and public representation: foundational blocks for democratic governance, rule of law, and social inclusion. From the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR):
“Participation rights are inseparably linked to other human rights such as the rights to peaceful assembly and association, freedom of opinion and expression and the rights to education and to information.”
Next, the economic and social human rights of the South River Forest community are also being threatened. Economically, once again without any representative input, ⅓ of the cost ($30 million) is to be paid by taxpayers. Socially, each human has the right “to social protection, to an adequate standard of living and to the highest attainable standards of physical and mental well-being.” These rights are being threatened by the gross environmental degradation of a low-income community that already suffers from health conditions such as asthma. Moreover, it has long been scientifically proven that blue-green space increases one’s mental health 一 an explicitly aforementioned social right.
Lastly, we come to environmental rights. The task of succinctly explaining them can be a lot, I encourage readers to look on our site in the “Environmental Rights” category for even more insight. However, in this case, where the environment is the key concern of protest, one should return again to social-ecological theory. In human rights, the right to health found in the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights,cannot be fully achieved in an environment that contributes to worse air quality, mental health, and dangerously high temperatures. The right to security, found in Article 3 of the UDHR, cannot be achieved in an environment where the community is under threat of more flooding, subject to burns, bombs, and shooting daily, and lives in fear of violence. And this can go on and on.
Ultimately, this issue is complex and multifaceted: and it deserves public and civilian representation and more time than 7 months of deliberation to destroy a forest hundreds of years old.
This blog is part three of the conversation around disability rights, especially as it applies to children within the American school system. If you have not read the first two blogs in this series, I suggest you do so. The first blog focused on the historical view of disability and the American school system’s approach to children with disabilities. The second part mainly focused on the struggles that children with disabilities face within the school system, and how these struggles have been exacerbated due to the recent pandemic. This final part will focus on some of the approaches that have been taken in the past to address people with disabilities, and how they differ from a human rights approach. We will also examine how we can help on various levels, whether we want to focus on our personal abilities or advocate for a larger movement.
The Rights of Children with Disabilities
What rights are protected?
Much of what we have established in modern society in terms of children’s rights comes from decades of struggles, from implementing child labor laws to fighting for the right to an education. Similarly, the fight to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was one sure way to protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination. These rights and more are protected under the United Nations, both in terms of people with disabilities, (Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, CRPD), and with children’s rights (Convention on the Rights of the Child, CRC). Yet, these developments have only occurred in recent years; the ADA and the CRC were passed in America and the UN respectively, in 1990, and the CRPD was not adopted internationally until 2006.
The ADA, passed in the United States, protected the rights of people with disabilities from being discriminated against in all aspects of society. This was the first major legislation that protected people with disabilities from being denied employment, discriminated against in places of business, or even denied housing. In addition to these protections, the ADA required industries to be inclusive of those with disabilities through (among other things) taking measures such as building ramps and elevators for easy access to upper-level floors and building housing units with people with disabilities in mind. While America had passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA (originally passed in 1975, and renamed in 1990) by this time, the initial form of this legislation allowed schools to place certain students with disabilities in special programs for no more than 45 days at a time. It was not until its improved form was passed in 2004 that provided the necessary financial and social infrastructure for its successful implementation.
The passage of the CRC, which applies to all individuals under the age of 18, focuses on non-discrimination, the right to life, survival and development, the State’s responsibility to ensure that the child’s best interests are being pursued, including ensuring that the child has adequate parental guidance. Additionally, it focuses on the child’s right to free expression, free thought, freedom to preserve their identity, protection from being abused or neglected, adequate healthcare and education, and includes certain protections the State is required to offer the children, including protection from trafficking, child labor, and torture. Article 23 of this Convention specifically focuses on the rights of children with disabilities, adding that these children have the right to the care, education, and training they need to lead a life of fulfillment and dignity. It also stresses the responsibility of the State to ensure that children with disabilities can live a life of independence and protect them from being socially isolated. Even though the UN passed this Convention in 2004, America is the only nation that has yet to ratify this treaty. This is why certain realities continue to exist, such as what is happening in Illinois.
Finally, we have the CRPD, which entered into force in 2008, only 15 years ago. Influenced by the ADA, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was passed to ensure that people with disabilities were fully protected under the law, including from discrimination, with the ability to function as fully pontificating citizens of their societies, with equal opportunities and the right to accessibility in order for them to lead a life with the dignity and respect afforded to their able-bodied counterparts. This convention had massive support and draws from both a human rights focus and an international development focus. What makes this convention unique is the implementation and monitoring abilities embedded within the treaty itself, and it includes non-traditional actors from communities (usually those with disabilities) with specific roles in charge of monitoring the implementation of this treaty. Unfortunately, the United States, while Obama signed the treaty and passed it to the Senate for their approval in 2009, has yet to fully ratify the CRPD treaty as well.
Some Approaches to Disability Rights
Upon understanding the various nuances of this conversation, we can now explore the three different approaches to defining disability in society. These approaches examine the issues that people with disabilities face and provide models influenced by differing fields of expertise. Many within society view disability as a medical issue and their solutions to the struggles faced by people with disabilities are medically focused. Similarly, others believe that disability is an issue of how society is structured, and their proposals for solving these issues lie within the realms of reshaping society to be more accessible to people with disabilities. Still, another approach built upon the foundations of human rights, focuses on the individual first, and the disability as an extension of their individuality. We will explore these three approaches and their pros and cons.
Approach 1: Medical Model of Disability
As mentioned above, some people view disability as a medical issue, and this approach can be categorized as the medical model of disability. This means that they believe that the “problem” of disability belongs to the individual experiencing it and that disability comes from the direct impairment of the person. The focus of this approach is to look for medical “cures” for disability, which can only be provided by medical “experts” based on the specific diagnosis. While it may be true that individuals with disabilities require medical help from time to time, their entire existence does not revolve around this notion of viewing disability as an illness. The focus here is to “fix” the person with disabilities, so they can become “normal” again. This approach also makes use of the “special needs” rhetoric, which can result in the isolation and marginalization of people with disabilities. Media plays a big part in portraying people with disabilities as weak or ashamed of their disability, which can invoke fear or pity for people with disabilities within the larger society.
Approach 2: Social Model of Disability
Another approach that has been proposed is what is known as the Social Model of Disability. In this approach, the “problem” of disability is seen as a result of the physical and social barriers within society that exclude people with disabilities from fully participating in their society. Disability is seen as a political and social issue, and the goal of this model is to be more inclusive and recognize the prevalence of disability within our societies. This means looking closely at the ableist social institutions and infrastructures present within society and attempting to address these manmade challenges posed by people with disabilities. This model recognizes the social stigma around disabilities and recognizes people with disabilities as differently abled rather than viewing them as incapable of living an independent lifestyle. This approach places individuals with disabilities on a spectrum rather than the two categories of disabled and able-bodied. The goal of this approach is to be socially inclusive of all individuals, regardless of their disabilities.
Approach 3: The Human Rights Model of Disability
Finally, there is the Human Rights Model of Disability, which builds upon the foundations laid out by the Social Model of Disability and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). In this approach, the focus is on viewing the individual with a disability as a human first, recognizing that disability is a natural part of humanity that has existed as long as humans have been around. While it shares a lot of similarities with the social model, the human rights approach emphasizes not only the right of every individual to be treated equally before the law but also stresses that a person’s impairment should not be used as an excuse for denying them rights. This is essentially what the CRPD centers around, and the main goal of this approach is to ensure that people with disabilities have equal opportunities and protect their right to fully participate in society, politically, civilly, socially, culturally, and economically.
How Can We Help?
On the Internation Level
While the United Nations has a convention that focuses on protecting children’s rights, it is highly debated whether these treaties are being enforced around the world. Child labor is still common in various places around the world, including right here in Alabama. While it can be argued that the US has not ratified the treaty and that is why the UN cannot do anything about this issue, there are other places that have ratified the treaty that still places children in dangerous working conditions and face no real repercussions from these decisions from the UN. In 2019, many tech companies were sued for their use of child labor in other countries to mine the precious minerals they require to produce their devices. Many textile companies within the fashion industry use child labor in nations that have ratified the children’s rights treaty. While the United Nations is trying its best to protect and promote the rights of vulnerable communities, it has not been able to enforce these treaties and regulations, and as a result, atrocities against those vulnerable communities, (including children), continue to occur. How can we as human beings, ensure that all children are protected from harm, not just those able-bodied, living in wealthier nations? This is something that needs to be addressed, and it requires the cooperation of many different nations willing to put their differences aside and work together to find a solution.
On the Domestic Level
As we explored in the human rights model of disability rights, it is the responsibility of society to provide equal access to all its citizens. This includes its citizens who have disabilities, and not doing so would discriminate against those who have disabilities and violate the Americans with Disabilities Act. This means that both on a national and local level, our infrastructure needs to be updated with an inclusive mindset that makes the roads safer and more accessible to all the citizens using them. As a state, Alabama could not only fix the infrastructure, but also pass bills to ensure that people with disabilities receive the care they need, including employment opportunities, medical assistance, food assistance, and any financial help they may require. Furthermore, on a national level, the police (or another department focused on social work) can be better trained to recognize the various disabilities, both visible and invisible, so people with disabilities are not wrongfully imprisoned for “behavioral” issues. This training would help erode the school-to-prison pipeline that has replaced disciplinary standards in American schools and make way for a brighter future for children with disabilities. Finally, the United States can, at the bare minimum, ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, signed into existence in 1990 by member states of the United Nation. As we mentioned earlier, the United States is the only nation in the world that has yet to ratify this treaty.
On the Individual Level
We can all be more mindful of our actions and our ableist mindsets. Next time you walk down the street, pay attention to the roads and sidewalks. Are there any sidewalks for people with disabilities to use safely? Are there curb cuts, and are those curb cuts freely accessible or are they blocked? How accessible are public buildings such as restaurants, storefronts, or even the DMV? Are there enough parking spots allotted to people with disabilities, and are those spots easily accessible, or blocked off by other vehicles? Thinking outside of an ableist mind frame is the first step toward being more inclusive of people with disabilities. It might seem like a powerless and pointless step to take, but the more you start to notice the ableist structures within society, the more you will want to speak up about these issues the next time you have the opportunity. You will also be more mindful of your own ableist actions and how they may have unintended consequences. If you are a parent, you have the ability to question your school’s practices concerning children with disabilities and offer support to the children and their parents. As an individual, you can also contact your representatives to pass legislation that would empower people with disabilities to live independently. As a society, we need to get past the stigmatization of this group and normalize disability being an innate part of being human.
Over 60 years ago, the United Kingdom (UK) government secretly planned with the United States (US) government to forcibly remove an entire Indigenous people, the Chagossians, from their homes in the Chagos Archipelago. TheChagos Islands are a group of islands in the Indian Ocean. The UK has a long-standing dispute with Mauritius over the islands’ sovereignty. The UK separated the Chagos Islands from Mauritius in the 1960s, establishing a British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) on the islands. The original inhabitants of the islands, the Chagossians, were forcibly removed and relocated to other countries, including Mauritius and Seychelles. The eviction of the Chagossians has been a contentious issue, with many claiming that the UK’s actions were both illegal and unjust. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled in 2019 that the UK’s separation of the Chagos Islands from Mauritius was illegal, and that the UK should cease administration of the islands.
Diego Garcia, the largest of the inhabited Chagos islands, would be turned into a US military base, and the island’s inhabitants would be relocated. This is an ongoing colonial crime because according to article 9 of the Human Rights Act,“ No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.” The UK government forcibly removed the indigenous people from their native, ancestral lands. This removal was carried out without their knowledge or consent, and they were given no say in the matter. This action infringed on their right to self-determination, a fundamental principle of international human rights law.
Loss of Livelihood
The reality was the indigenous people had been there for centuries developing their distinct culture, language, and customs. From 1965 to 1973, the UK and US forced the entire Chagossian population from all the inhabited Chagos islands to be displaced from their homeland. Both governments treated the people as if they had no human rights. The islanders were a fishing and coconut plantation community, and their forced removal from the islands cost them their livelihoods. When they were exiled, they were unable to take any of their possessions or belongings with them, and they were not compensated for their loss. This had a significant financial and social impact on their lives.
Separation from Families
“My mother cried and said to us, ‘Now we will live a very different life’” quote from Louis Marcel Humbert, born in Chagos 1955. This was in response to leaving four brothers and a sister back on the island. Unable to bring their families with them, many families were broken and left in a similar situation. The strict restrictions imposed by the UK government on access to the islands made it impossible for families to even visit those they have left behind. The governments’ merciless persecution on the grounds of race and ethnicity have resulted in thousands of families being isolated from each other. This is a continuation of the colonization and exploitation of the inhabitators of Chagos. In 1814, the Chagos Islands were ceded to Great Britain as part of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Napoleonic Wars. The islanders have been subject to forced removal for years.
Deny Right to Return
Despite the International Court of Justice ruling that the UK’s separation of the Chagos Islands from Mauritius was illegal and that the UK should end its administration of the islands as soon as possible, the UK government has retained control of the islands and denied Chagossians the right to return.Full reparations are in order and that starts by granting passage to return back to Chagos. The US and the UK need to provide restitution by immediately lifting the ban on Chagossians permanently returning to the Chagos Islands. This is a human rights violation from over 650 years ago that has yet to be corrected. By acknowledging the islanders were removed unlawfully, both governments can work towards rectifying the situation.
The first line of the first amendment in the Constitution of the United States, also known as the Establishment clause, asserts that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” This clause, although seemingly simple in nature, has been the root of many judicial battles throughout the United States’ history. Religion, as a human right, has always been a topic of political debate.
One might inquire as to why this is the case: what makes the freedom of religion such a sensitive topic? In this blog, I seek to answer this question by outlining fundamental cases which have shaped how our legislators interpret our right to religion. Moreover, this blog shall conclude with how our fundamental right to religion is being interpreted today, as well as what is potentially in store for religious interpretation in the future.
Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) | Introduction of the Lemon Test
Our journey begins in 1971, with the landmark Supreme Court Case of Lemon v. Kurtzman which involved the states of Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. The issue materialized when both of the aforementioned states decided to introduce legislation that would use taxpayer money to fund church-affiliated schools. In doing so, the government funds would pay for teacher salaries, textbook costs, and many other educational materials. Funding church-affiliated schools could be construed as a violation of the Establishment Clause. The Supreme Court followed this logic, and with an 8-1 ruling, they decided to strike down the legislation passed by Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, no longer allowing state funds to go to church-affiliated schools.
What is particularly remarkable about this case is that it formally introduced the so-called Lemon Test, a judicial test constructed to see if legislation defies the Establishment Clause. The Lemon Test has three ways to test and see if a piece of legislation defies the clause:
The piece of legislation must have a secular purpose;
The piece of legislation must not advance or prohibit the practice of religion;
The piece of legislation must not force the government into “excessive entanglement” with religious affairs.
If a piece of legislation passes the Lemon Test, then it does not defy the Establishment Clause and can proceed to further scrutiny. That is, the legislation will be evaluated to see if aligns with the other amendments. With these three prongs noted, one can see how easily Lemon v. Kurtzman would have failed the Lemon Test.
Wallace v. Jaffree (1985) | Application of the Lemon Test
Wallace v. Jaffree, a case that took place in the state of Alabama, is another landmark Supreme Court case involving a dispute in legislation around religion. In 1981, Alabama decided to introduce legislation that mandated a 1-minute moment of silence at the start of class in all public schools. Although, ostensibly, the legislators claimed that this moment of silence could be used either for reflection or prayers, the legislation’s intent was to create an opportunity for students to pray before school started.
This decision naturally upset many non-religious parents, and multiple lawsuits soon followed, climbing their way up all the way to the Supreme Court. Throughout this process, the Alabama legislators argued that this bill does not defy the Establishment Clause, as the moment of silence can be used in any way that pleases the student— not necessarily just for prayer. However, the fault in this is that the introduction of the bill was done to allow students to pray, not to give them a moment of silence; thus, this bill failed the Lemon Test’s first prong as it did not have a secular purpose. In a vote of 6-3, the Supreme Court held that the bill defies the Establishment Clause.
Oregon v. Smith (1990) | Introduction of RFRA
This case, unlike the aforementioned ones, has a bit more nuance to it and led to a wide range of implications. This case is the primary reason Congress enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993, which is one of the most bipartisan pieces of legislation, having passed the House unanimously and the Senate 97-3.
In Oregon v. Smith, two people, who both worked at a drug rehabilitation center, were fired due to having consumed peyote, a hallucinogenic drug. The issue at hand, however, is that their consumption of peyote was done during a sacred religious practice. This case did not make it to the Supreme Court because the drug rehabilitation center fired them (as the center very much can fire whoever they please — they are a private entity); it made it to the Supreme Court because after they were fired, these two individuals sought unemployment benefits and were denied due to being fired for consuming drugs, which is considered “workplace misconduct.”
However, unlike the previous cases, the Supreme Court did not rule in favor of the appellants. The Court, by a 6-3 vote, ruled that since the denial of unemployment benefits due to workplace misconduct is a rule of general application (meaning it does not specifically target any people or religious practice), it is constitutional.
However, as one might conclude, many did not like this outcome. Therefore, as aforementioned, Congress enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to clarify some of the issues raised by Oregon v. Smith. The first clause of RFRA states its purpose, saying that it aims to prohibit “any agency, department, or official of the United States or any State (the government) from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.”
This first clause seeks to prohibit exactly what was the outcome in Oregon v. Smith, but it also comes with some limitations. That is, Congress is free to burden one’s exercise of religion if (1) doing so will further a compelling government interest; and, (2) doing so is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest. The introduction of this incredibly bipartisan bill, as we will shortly explore, has some interesting implications.
Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014) | Application of RFRA
In the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, we see the RFRA being put to use which leads to an interesting implication from the outcome of this case. Burwell v. Hobby Lobby sprouted from one of the requirements of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), namely, that all nonexempt employers are legally required to offer their employees health coverage and benefits, including contraceptives, some of which stop an egg from fertilizing. Before progressing with the case, we ought to make note that some employers, primarily religious institutions such as churches, are exempt from the ACA.
Hobby Lobby, a crafts company, is a tightly-owned company, meaning that there are only a few number of people who own the company. All of these owners, moreover, do not want to comply with the ACA since they believe life begins at conception and to thereby provide their employees with free contraceptives would go against their religious beliefs. However, if a company does not comply with the ACA, it would have to pay a fee per employee. For Hobby Lobby, the total cost would amount to about $475 million per year.
Hobby Lobby was conflicted about whether they should go against their religious beliefs and supply their employees with contraceptives or instead pay $475 million a year and adhere to their religious stance. Due to this ethical dilemma, Hobby Lobby decided to sue the Department of Human Health Services (those who implemented the ADA), and the case made its way up to the Supreme Court. Hobby Lobby cited RFRA, stating that the ACA mandate does not comply with RFRA’s second clause. They argued that forcing Hobby Lobby to offer its employees contraceptives is not the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government decision. Rather, Hobby Lobby stated that they, like religious institutions, should be exempt from the ACA, as that is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest (health care for employees). The employees of companies who are exempt from the ACA have their health care paid for by taxes.
The Supreme Court agreed with Hobby Lobby. By a vote of 5-4, the Supreme Court ruled that Hobby Lobby is correct—the least restrictive means indeed is making Hobby Lobby an exempt company, thereby allowing governmental taxes to pay for the health care of their employees.
What is remarkable about this case is its implication that the Supreme Court stated that the best course of action to resolve a religious dispute over health care is to simply allow the government to fund health care. One might argue, then, that the Supreme Court is hinting toward universal health care, as they view that as the least restrictive means.
Kennedy v. Bremerton School District (2022) | Abandonment of the Lemon Test
The last case we shall discuss is one that has been all over the media recently:Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. In this case, a high school football coach decided to kneel and pray before and after games. The school district feared that his actions would violate the Establishment Clause, so they asked him to stop. When he did not, they fired him.
Claiming his first amendment right to the freedom of religion was violated, he sued the school. The lawsuit eventually made its way up to the Supreme Court, and, by a 6-3 vote, the Court ruled in the coach’s favor, stating that he was not complicit in praying since he did it during post-game periods when people were free to do as they pleased.
However, something remarkable also happened in this case: the Supreme Court decided to stop using the Lemon Test, which has been in practice since 1971. Instead of the Lemon Test, the Court stated that they will decide disputes over the Establishment Clause by “accor[ding] with [what] histor[ically] and faithfully reflec[ts] the understanding of the Founding Fathers.”
What this means, we do not yet know, as this is yet another new change by the Supreme Court. Throughout history, the Lemon Test has proved itself to be a great way of settling legislative disputes, so one could only wonder why the Supreme Court decided against it.
As I showed with this blog post, cases revolving around religious freedom are by no means simple, but the courts, thankfully, have historically always ruled in favor of the Establishment Clause, never seeking to subdue religious freedom.
However, after the abandonment of the Lemon Test in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, it is clear that the Supreme Court is planning on interpreting the Establishment Clause differently than they have had since 1971. What this means for upcoming cases, we have yet to find out. However, what we do know is that religious freedom, despite how tricky it might be at times, should remain a human right.
Even though 1 in 6 people around the world experience disabilities, they are often among the forgotten groups within our society. While people with disabilities today are living under better conditions than their ancestors, there is still a lot of progress needed to be had to ensure that people with disabilities can lead a life of dignity and independence, free from the stigma and failures of society’s ableist mindset. In this two-part blog, we will focus specifically on children with disabilities within the American education system, but before that, it is necessary to frame the historical context surrounding the American education system, and how disability in America has been treated as a whole. As a result, part one of this series will focus on setting the historical context, exploring the American Education System as well as the treatment of people with disabilities throughout American history. The second part of this series will focus on exploring the contemporary issues faced by children with disabilities and their families within the American Education System and learn about a human rights framework for disability rights.
History of America’s Education System
The Unequal Distribution of Knowledge
Since the founding of this country is rooted in capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy, many groups of people have been historically denied access to education. Traditionally, children from poor backgrounds were expected to help their families on the farm or work in their family businesses to make ends meet. As the industrial revolution took hold, child labor transferred from the farms to the factories, and many industries, such as the textile industry preferred to employ children to exploit their minuscule features. The petite features of the children came into use when they were needed to get into tight spots, or when operating machinery that required smaller extremities. Child labor in America was not outlawed until 1938, meaning that many children from poor families were illiterate and disadvantaged in comparison with children from wealthier families, who could afford to educate their children instead.
In addition to the absence of child labor laws, the patriarchal structure of American society deemed it more important for boys and men to be educated than their female counterparts. While poor families were denied access to education on the whole, even among wealthier families, the education of boys was prioritized over educating women. Women were expected to be homemakers and child-bearers in the private sphere, and the public sphere was reserved for their male counterparts. Many women were denied access to education, were not permitted to participate in politics and were limited to feminine jobs (such as teaching, nursing, and domestic work) when they did participate economically in the larger society. It was not until the 19th century that women were given more flexibility in their pursuit of higher education. Of course, not all women shared the same experiences, and white women were better able to receive education than women from other races, and as expressed earlier, wealthier women had more opportunities to educate themselves than did women living in poverty.
Furthermore, the foundations of white supremacy upon which America was built denied people of color access to education. Education provides the key to empowerment, and the status quo did not want to empower those they deemed to be inferior. Due to the hierarchical nature of this supremacist mindset, people from different groups were “dealt with” in different manners. For immigrants, access to education depended on their country of origin. Some immigrants, such as those from Asian countries, were barred from receiving education in America until the 1880s and were instead used for hard labor, like constructing railroads. European immigrants, on the other hand, were well-received by many in America, (with the exception of the Irish), and were granted many of the rights shared by American citizens at the time. There was however, a difference in treatment between the Old immigrants, (which were members from wealthier backgrounds with skills and education levels from the Southern and Eastern parts of Europe that came to America in the early 1800s), and the New immigrants (who were mostly impoverished, unskilled laborers from Western and Northern Europe who migrated to America in the late 1800s).
In addition to immigrants, the indigenous population of America also received access to education with a different approach. In an attempt to force them to forget their rich cultural histories and erase the cultural differences between the indigenous population and the larger (White) American society, children from different tribes were kidnapped and forced into boarding schools where they would learn to be assimilated into the American culture. Indigenous children were punished for speaking their language, engaging in their cultural practices, or even wearing cultural clothing (whether it was casually or for cultural practices). This is one of the reasons that today when people appropriate Native American culture (and attire), it can be very insulting, as they were punished for practicing their culture and wearing their traditional clothing.
Furthermore, during the enslavement of African Americans, who were deemed to be on the lowest level on this racial hierarchy, access to literacy was denied to them and outlawed, making it punishable by law for African Americans to be literate. This law was another way in which racist leaders of the time maintained control over the enslaved population. Following this period, there were many racist laws and social barriers to education for African Americans over time, and it was not until the famous passage of the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that African Americans were given the right to equal education. With all that being said, there is still an ongoing struggle to bring equity, inclusion, and diversity into the American education system.
There can be a whole blog dedicated to the housing market, its impacts on funding for the local schools, and how this influences the level of education the children within those districts experience. As mentioned in previous blogs on similar topics, this funding practice tied to the housing market is, yet another way racism has seeped into American institutions. Transforming the American Education system into a more inclusive one will be a difficult fight ahead, as cries against teachings with an anti-racist approach are molding the current curriculum within the education system today.
The Historical Struggle to Secure the Right to Education for People with Disabilities
This exclusive approach to education also historically denied access to disabled individuals as well. American society has been structured with an ableist mindset, and people with disabilities have been stigmatized and marginalized by the larger society. In the past, many states prevented children with disabilities from attending school, choosing to place them in state institutions instead. Some wealthier families with disabled children could afford to home-school them, but the rest of the children with disabilities within society were not given that opportunity.
Even after education was required for all children, many states refused to provide accommodations for their students with disabilities, and the responsibility of securing access and mobility was placed on the children and their families, rather than the state. Judith Heumann, a well-known disability rights activist, was denied entry to her elementary school during the 1950s because the school district deemed her a “fire hazard” for being mobility impaired and having to use a wheelchair. It was not until the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHC; later known as the Individuals with Disabilities Act or IDEA) in 1975 that educational rights were protected for groups in need, including children with disabilities. While education access was protected under this law, the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 was needed to ensure that people with disabilities are protected from discrimination in all aspects of society.
The Horrific History of Disability in America
How were People with Disabilities Viewed in the Past, and how has that changed today?
Understanding the historical context behind the American education system is only one part of this conversation. Outlining the lens through which disability is viewed today, and in the past, is necessary to comprehend the treatment of children with disabilities within the American education system. Today, people with disabilities are viewed in four ways. For one, following the traditional views of disability, most people with disabilities are simply ignored by society, both as a population, as well as systemically. You can see this is the case by simply looking at some of the ableist framings of our infrastructure. Needless to say, being an invisible group within society comes with its own challenges.
Another common way society approaches people with disabilities is to view them as the “super-crip” (which is extremely insulting) and look at their achievements as “inspirational.” People who believe this highlight people with disabilities in a supernatural sense, similar to how many African Americans were portrayed as supernatural beings with superhuman strength and abilities. This troupe was not helpful to the African American community then, and it is not helpful to people with disabilities today. Some may argue that this troupe seems to be a positive outlook of the group, but upon closer inspection, it is important to recognize the stress and burden of success this places on people with disabilities to feel accepted by society. It also encourages the mindset that these people who achieve extraordinary things are superhuman and that their achievements are highlighted because there is a general conception that this is abnormal for the group. Additionally, for a person with disabilities, it can be insulting and demeaning to hear the phrase, “if a person with a disability can achieve this, so can you!”
Another tactless way in which people with disabilities are regarded, as inferior to the rest of the population. Many able-bodied individuals either view them as a burden to society or simply objects to be pitied. This can have the impact of treating people with disabilities as second-class citizens and making them feel as if they are lacking in some way or another. Those who show pity toward people with disabilities may have good intentions, but their actions treat people with disabilities as victims of fate, rather than with dignity and humanity.
Finally, some people within society treat people with disabilities as if they have undergone a tragic event (whatever led to their disability), and people require “saving” or “treatment” to be “cured” of their ailments. This too is not the case. People with disabilities adapt to living their lives with their disabilities, and they don’t require anyone to “save” them from their disabilities. This is extremely insulting and rude to even think that, and it has the same connotations as would a “white-savior complex” within the context of race. The underlying belief in both of these situations is that the person doing the “saving” believes that the person that needs to be “saved” cannot do this for themselves and that they require the help of the “savior”.
While it is important to understand the contemporary views of people with disabilities, it is equally relevant to familiarize ourselves with the ways in which people with disabilities have been treated in America in the past. Until the 19th century, people with disabilities were separated from participating with the rest of the larger society. During colonial times in America, people with disabilities were treated in a similar light as the Salem witches, either burned or hanged. Others viewed disability as a sign of God’s disapproval of the colonists, and people with disabilities were treated as though they were possessed. Still, others felt that people with disabilities were a disgrace to their family and their community, and many were shunned from their homes. The larger society lumped criminals, poor people, mentally ill people, and people with disabilities under the same roof, labeling them as outsiders. This practice evolved into the many horror stories that we may be familiar with today regarding asylums and their treatment of their patients. An important note: as it is with other American institutions, racism, and sexism disproportionately impact the lives of people of color and women within these institutions, and this translates into how they are perceived and treated by the larger society as well. This remains true for people with disabilities with identities that are not aligned with the patriarchal, white society.
The mistreatment and abuse of people with disabilities within asylums
People with disabilities, along with other vulnerable groups that were stigmatized by society, were pushed into asylums. These were large “hospitals” stocked with medical equipment and personnel in which the goal was to provide care and treatment for the patients that resided within these asylums. The reason I placed hospitals in quotations is that many of these asylums were simply places to house all the people society did not want. These patients were experimented on, abused, neglected, and had almost no rights to defend themselves. Some patients that were from wealthy families were able to be treated at home, but others that came from meager backgrounds were not as fortunate. Many of the staff working within these institutions were unsympathetic towards their patients, feeling burdened by their very existence. Many people (within the institution and outside in the larger society) believed that people with mental illness and people with disabilities were “acting out” on purpose, to make life harder for those “upstanding” citizens of society. Many of the patients were misdiagnosed, and the institutions went from trying to care for the patients to “cure” the patients of their disabilities. The stigmatization of these groups within the asylums meant that their needs and wants were ignored. In addition to that, because it did not require a professional recommendation from a medical practitioner to admit patients into the asylums, many people were wrongly admitted to these institutions (because of personal grudges or disapproval of their behavior) for years without the right to defend and protect themselves.
Of course, it is not wise to lump every institution together and generalize about their treatment of their patients. While some were genuinely trying to take care of their wards and research ways to help “cure” them, others were less sympathetic to the plights of people with disabilities, both visible and invisible. For one, similar to the issues that American prisons face today, asylums were overcrowded, understaffed, and underfunded. This meant that each individual residing within the institutions was not given the personal care they required, and instead, they were all lumped into groups to receive generalized treatments. This was problematic in so many ways, but the most obvious is that disability takes many shapes and forms, and each individual had different needs that had to be met. Approaching a group of people with disabilities with generalized treatments meant that the doctors and nurses never took time to understand the details of each person’s disability, much less how best to approach them. As a matter of fact, because many believed disabilities to be a spiritual problem (a person being possessed by the devil), early “treatments” for mental illnesses and disabilities came in the form of exorcisms. When medical professionals finally were able to understand that this was a bodily illness, not a spiritual one, they then proceeded to conduct various experiments on the patients without having any knowledge of how to treat their patients. This is where the tortures began.
Medical personnel proposed many treatments to “cure” people with disabilities, including inhumane procedures that involved drilling holes into the patient’s skull in an attempt to bleed out the disease in question. While it is easy to judge in retrospect, in the beginning, many of the doctors truly believed that they were “curing” their patients with the various treatments they provided them, even as many recognized the inhumane nature of their treatments.
Other various treatments were administered to the patients, which can be defined as abusive and torturous today. Many women with disabilities were abused sexually, both by other patients and their caregivers. In addition to these incidents, many states (through the support of the law) practiced forced sterilization of disabled individuals in these institutions. The justification for this practice was expressed as cleansing humanity of these various illnesses and disabilities. Inspired by the American practice of eugenics, Nazi Germany expanded upon this practice to include everyone that did not fit their description of the “Aryan” race. To this day, America has not acknowledged this practice, and forced sterilization continues to be legal in the United States because of a Supreme Court ruling in 1927. The case in question, Buck v. Bell maintained that the sterilization of Carrie Buck (a woman who was raped and accused of “feeblemindedness”) was not in violation of the Constitution. This ruling permitted the forced sterilization of thousands of people with disabilities and other traits deemed “unwanted” by the general public. While the Supreme Court has outlawed forced sterilization as a form of punishment, it has never overturned its ruling made in Buck v. Bell. As a result, this practice is technically still supported within the legal framework.
With very little funding, the living conditions within the institutions also proved to be dangerous. The asylum itself was built to be uncomfortable because there was a belief that comfortable living would encourage patients to stay there forever. This meant that there was poor insulation, keeping the buildings cold. Due to the shortage of staff, many patients were restrained or locked up, while others were neglected altogether. These conditions, along with the “treatments” they received, exacerbated the patients’ conditions and were detrimental to their mental and physical health. Finally, as a result of society’s exclusion of this vulnerable population, many people outside of the institutions were not aware of what was taking place within. The patients inside these asylums were all but forgotten, invisible to the rest of society.
In an attempt to expose these terrible conditions to the larger society, journalists and activists spread accounts about the conditions within the asylums. Many were able to do this by investigating these institutions firsthand, and images (and videos) of the ill-treatment of the patients began circulating. As people started learning about the horrific conditions in which their loved ones were being kept in, the asylums faced a lot of backlashes. Amid all the backlash, in 1946, President Truman passed the National Mental Health Act to begin research on neurological issues. It would not be until 1955, however, that things changed drastically for those suffering from mental illnesses. Thorazine, a psychoactive medication that was introduced as a way to treat mental illness, and the population within the institutions peaked around this time. In the 1960s, there was an attempt to take a community-based approach to treat mental health, but it lacked the funding to progress in any substantial way. In 1981, Ronald Reagan takes a drastic step to stop government funding to help with mental health, forcing institutions to close their doors and leaving the patients on the streets.
This dramatic change provided no cushion for the patients to fall on, and much experienced homelessness as a result. With nowhere to go and no help from the government, many people with disabilities lost their lives because of this policy shift. These individuals never received any compensation for their ill-treatment, nor were they given any transitional housing or aid to help restart their lives. Of those that did not end up dead, many people with disabilities were imprisoned for causing “public disturbances.” Unfortunately, this practice continues to exist today, especially impacting people of color, and people living in poverty disproportionately. Of course, the imprisonment of people suffering from physical and mental disabilities exacerbated their conditions, and the lack of care and treatment resulted in many deaths. With nowhere to go, and no rights to protect this vulnerable population, people with disabilities continued to suffer due to systemic failures.
The movement for disability rights
Eventually, following the lead set by the Civil Rights Movement and many other movements such as the Women’s Rights movement, and the sexual revolution that fought for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities came together to stand against discrimination toward them from the larger society, and fight for their rights to exist and prosper like any other groups. People with disabilities wanted to challenge the practice of institutionalization and employed many of the tactics that were used during the Civil Rights Movement. They staged sit-ins in governmental buildings like the FBI building, challenged the mobility norms of society by blocking busses (that denied accessibility to people with disabilities) from moving, and they protested on the streets, able-bodied allies and people with disabilities alike, fighting for their rights.
People with disabilities were also exhausted with the ableist society they lived in and began to challenge the many barriers within society that kept them from living as independent individuals. They did not need someone to hold the doors for them; they wanted the doors to remain open automatically long enough for them to pass through. They wanted accessible sidewalks on which they could move their wheelchairs, walkers, and other walking devices (if applied) safely, and independently, without having to depend on others to take care of them. People with disabilities and their caregivers began to challenge the largely held view by society that people with disabilities were a burden to society. They argued that societal barriers made them dependent on others and implementing disability-friendly solutions can provide the community with the independence to live their lives freely.
In 1973, with the passage of the Rehabilitation Act, specifically, Section 504, people with disabilities, for the first time, were protected by law from being discriminated against. This act recognized that the many issues faced by people with disabilities, such as unemployment, transportation, and accessibility issues, were not the fault of the person with the disability, but rather, a result of society’s shortcomings in failing to provide accessible services to the group. While this was a major win for this community, this law only applied to those who accepted federal funding, meaning that the private sector, and even many of the public sector, could still discriminate against people with disabilities. Following the passage of this act, many people with disabilities were instrumental in ensuring its enforcement. Many of the sit-ins referred to above happened at this time, as an attempt to keep governmental offices accountable. Protestors would block the entrances into the government buildings, or stay in the buildings past close time, refusing to leave until the necessary changes were agreed to be made to the buildings (such as including ramps to the building or elevators inside the buildings) to meet the Section 504 requirements. This continued until Ronald Reagan issued a task force to stop the regulatory attempts made by supporters of Section 504, and the protections secured by the IDEA, an act that protected the educational rights of children with disabilities. Over the following years, his decision resulted in hundreds of frustrated parents and people with disabilities alike questioning the justification for stopping the regulatory actions of Section 504. This backlash, accompanied by the tireless leaders of the community meeting with White House officials, ended in Reagan reversing his crackdown on Section 504, allowing regulations to continue on businesses that refused to incorporate practices outlined in Section 504.
Additionally, following the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, people with disabilities, along with other protected groups such as race, gender (and sex), and religion, were protected from discrimination in housing. The first passage of the act initially only included race, religion, national origin, and color, as the protected groups. It was not until 1974 when sex (and gender) were added to this list, and not until 1988 when the disability community was added. Still, this act was especially important for people with disabilities because it required home builders to provide reasonable accommodations necessary for the inhabitants to live comfortably and move around the housing unit.
Following these many small victories came the biggest one of them all, the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 (ADA). This law was the first general law protecting people with disabilities from discrimination in all aspects of society, including in housing, employment, healthcare, transportation, and many other social services that impacted the lives of this protected group. The passage of the ADA focused on four main themes: full participation, equal opportunity, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency. Full participation focuses on the ability of people with disabilities to participate in all aspects of their lives, including having access to transportation, entering and exit buildings without issues, being able to vote on inaccessible sites, and enjoying life without social barriers that prevent them from being able to do so. Equal opportunity centers on being able to be employed without facing discrimination due to their disability and being able to take advantage of other such opportunities free of discrimination. Independent living brings attention to the ableist framework that society is structured in and recognizes the need for a more disability-friendly society, with access to handrails, ramps, curb cuts, and other options such as disability-friendly online sites (that for example, speak the menu out for you if you are a person with visual imparities) to raise the living standards for people with disabilities. The basis of this pillar is to empower people with disabilities with tools they can use for themselves in order to live independent life. Finally, the economic self-sufficiency piece mainly concentrates on the economic security of people with disabilities. This includes access and accommodations to receive higher education, better employment opportunities (including training, transportation access, and mobility within the workspace), and other such necessities to promote economic self-sufficiency within the disability community.
Many communities across the United States are brainstorming innovative ways to be more inclusive, but we are far from being a fully inclusive society. People with disabilities remain among the invisible groups within society, not because their advocates are not loud enough, but because their cries are being ignored by lawmakers and their local representatives. Globally, the United Nations established the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities(CRPD) in 2006, working to shift the mindset of people’s views on disability as a whole, as well as protect and promote the rights of individuals with disabilities by empowering them to fully participate in society with the dignity and humanity they deserve.
While this blog mainly focused on the historical context of the American Education System and the perception of people with disabilities in the past and today, the next blog will focus more on the treatment of children with disabilities within the American education system today, the many challenges they continue to face, how the pandemic has impacted their learning and development, and the human rights framework necessary for disability rights to do what we can to be more inclusive and less ableist as a society.
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