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.
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.
In the last blog, we covered the contextual history of the American Education System, primarily, who was allowed education, who was not, and even the differences in the quality of education that children in America received. We also explored the historical treatment of people with disabilities, both in the larger society, as well as in children with disabilities within the school system. Understanding the past is crucial to analyzing why certain events occur as they do in the future. That is what we set out to do in this continuation of the conversation about disabilities and the American education system. In this second part, we will focus on the realities children with disabilities witness within the education system, including the challenges they face, the school-to-prison pipeline that exists, and how this impacts their development (both mentally and physically). We will then explore how the recent pandemic exacerbated these conditions, and what sort of rights the children possess in this post-pandemic world.
Children with Disabilities in the Education System Today
The many challenges faced by students with disabilities in the classroom
Children with disabilities today face many challenges within the classroom even without taking the pandemic into account. These challenges vary from physical barriers to socio-emotional ones. One thing that needs to be recognized is that not all disabilities are alike, and with various disabilities come various challenges. I don’t want to appear to be generalizing the struggles that children with disabilities face in the school system, because each individual’s experiences vary, even between different places. Some states within the United States may be very inclusive, while others may place the responsibility of accessibility on the people with disabilities themselves. Regardless of which state you live in, my goal here is to spread awareness of the various challenges that children with one or multiple disabilities face as they maneuver through their primary academic journey.
With that being said, one of the most common barriers that children with disabilities face is on the social level. Throughout history, children with disabilities have been separated from the rest of the able-bodied society, and this is also true within the school system. Many schools, when they began to accept children with disabilities into the school system, would educate them separately (in the basement or another room) from the other children. Even today, many children with learning and speech disabilities require additional help from trained professionals, which requires these children to spend extra time on their academics, and less time socializing with their peers. This naturally distances them from able-bodied children their age and can lead children with disabilities to become victims of many instances of bullying and harassment. A crucial element to consider is that while many children their age are dealing with the various emotions that come from development, children with disabilities have to deal with additional fears and insecurities surrounding their disabilities, as they learn to accept and adapt to life with disabilities. This can be challenging in and of itself, without having to deal with the social pressures from peers.
Additionally, while schools receive federal funding to meet the required measures for the children with disabilities within their institutions, this funding is limited, covering less than a quarter of the expenses needed to fulfill the required services for each student. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) we covered in the previous blog allows Congress to allocate up to 40% of the average funding per student, but unfortunately, this has never been exercised by Congress, and funding for special education programs continues to be miserly. Schools receive 15% of the funding they are allocated, but they are still required to fulfill all the mandated regulations simply for receiving federal funding. This means that they have to come up with the remaining 85% of the expenditures on their own, in place of the 55% they would be responsible for covering if Congress secured the full 40%. This can place additional strains on these schools that are already struggling for funds.
Furthermore, children with learning disabilities require trained professionals to provide them with additional support throughout their academic journey. Someone who is hearing impaired may require additional resources to combat the auditory issues they face, or someone who is visually impaired may require additional lessons on how to read in Braille. Others with learning disabilities such as dyslexia (which is a disorder in which someone has difficulty reading and processing language), may need additional patience and support to process the information they are learning. Public schools, by law, are required to provide assistance to children with disabilities and those who have been through traumatic experiences. Licensed professionals that focus on educational needs for children with learning disabilities can be hard to find, and this has only worsened due to the pandemic. As many as 44 states experienced this shortage even before the pandemic, and this number continues to grow due to the issues of limited funding discussed earlier. Without the necessary help that students with learning disabilities require, they continue to fall behind their peers academically.
Many of these challenges can be addressed with more funding allotted to the education system as a whole, and professions within the field of special education can be incentivized by the government (by for example, making the training programs free and accessible to those who are interested) to address the shortage of licensed professionals. The education being taught in the schools can be more inclusive of children with disabilities, with opportunities for the children to share their experiences with their peers and help remove the stigma associated with disabilities by normalizing helpful conversations around disabilities. While these challenges can have a great impact on the learning abilities of children with disabilities, there are some challenges that can have drastic impacts on their futures as a whole.
The school-to-prison pipeline
Unfortunately, along with an increase in school shootings within the educational system, another phenomenon that has become all too common is the use of law enforcement to discipline children. More and more stories have been reported regarding children with disabilities and children of color being subjected to drastic disciplinary measures by school systems. When a child “acts out” or showcases any behavior not supported by the schools, the educators have resorted to involving the law instead of following disciplinary protocols within the schools (such as contacting parents, placing students in detention, or for more serious issues, using suspensions). Police are called on these students, and educators watch as young children are punished for their misdeeds by being harassed by the police. In many instances, these incidents have turned deadly, as police officers have used full force on young children, to force them into complying, at times jeopardizing the children’s well-being. Children as young as 7 years of age have been placed in handcuffs and threatened jail time, for childish behavior such as spitting or throwing tantrums. This can be especially dangerous when children with disabilities are involved because they are accused of “misbehaving” when they are simply reacting differently to situations than their able-bodied peers. The police, with little to no training on the different ways to approach people with disabilities, only escalate the already tense situations.
According to a CBS News analysis of data from the Education Department in 2017-2018, children with disabilities are four times more likely to be arrested than their able-bodied counterparts. Another research conducted by Cornell University reports that 55% of Black men with disabilities have been detained before they reach the age of 28. Young African American children with disabilities, therefore, are the most at-risk demographic to face legal repercussions for “behavioral” issues common among most children their age. This phenomenon, known as the school-to-prison pipeline, which disproportionately targets students of color, (and children with disabilities), involves the use of the criminal and justice systems as a tool to discipline children. Unfortunately, these disciplinary attempts remain on the permanent records of the targeted children and can have lifelong implications that determine their future.
An example of this school-to-prison pipeline is clear when looking into some of the instances where law enforcement is used to discipline children. Jacksonville, Illinois is home to a particular school that makes use of its law enforcement officers for behavioral issues. Garrison School, a public school where children with disabilities in that region attend, has been in the news recently for the staggering number of arrests made within a single school year. Although the population of this school is an average of 60-70 children, the police, who are located less than 5 miles from the school, have been called over 100 times for “behavioral” issues, such as throwing tantrums and spraying water. An investigation into this school found that in the school year 2017-2018 alone, more than half of the entire student body was arrested. As the only public school for children with disabilities in that region of Illinois, caregivers are limited in choices of schools for their children. In addition to having disabilities, the children at this particular school have also experienced immense trauma and violence in their past. Arresting these children for their “behaviors” continues to place these children in traumatic situations, further impacting their development.
Impacts on children with disabilities’ development
Using the criminal and justice systems to punish or “discipline” children with disabilities can have lasting impressions on the children’s futures. For one, especially children such as those from Garrison School, who deal with personal trauma and violence from their past, experiences with law enforcement can deteriorate their mental health even further. Even those without previous trauma can have lasting impressions on their academic success, meaning that children who have been disciplined with the use of law enforcement are even more isolated from their peers and can experience breaks in their educational journeys. Studies have shown that children who have their needs met are more likely to outperform those students who do not have their needs met. Linking back to the school-to-prison pipeline, those students who have been arrested and imprisoned as young adults are more likely to continue down this path of criminality. Additionally, students with disabilities that have been imprisoned have to face the added struggles of maneuvering the prison system with disabilities, and these struggles are increased with multiple disabilities, especially with invisible disabilities, in which case, many people may not even believe the existence of these disabilities. Studies have shown how incarceration can worsen issues of mental illness within the prison population, and when translated to the impact imprisonment has on people with disabilities, these conditions are exponentially worse.
How it impacts children with disabilities’ professional futures
In addition to the harm this causes to the development of children with disabilities, the practice of using law enforcement to discipline school children has far-reaching consequences. For one, the children who are constantly “othered,” bullied, or harassed by both students and teachers can internalize their experiences and react to them, increasing their chances of being disciplined again for behavioral issues. In addition to that, being imprisoned, even for a few days, can be a traumatic experience that can shape your worldview, and as a result, your future. For young, developing children, these experiences can be impressionable, and coupled with the isolation that many children with disabilities experience, this can be a devastating combination, resulting in the deterioration of the children’s physical and mental well-being. Furthermore, many of these zero-tolerance policies that end in the arrests of children happen due to the faculty members pressing charges against the children. These charges, though they can be sealed for juvenile offenses, can lead to more charges in these children’s future into their adulthood. A criminal history into your adulthood can result in slim educational and employment options. Research conducted more broadly on this subject has been reported by the Prison Policy, and it showcases how increasingly difficult it is to find decent employment upon exiting the prison system. The report adds that even when formerly incarcerated people do find employment, they are often paid fewer wages than their co-workers.
Applying this research to children with disabilities who are disciplined through the legal system, can be an even bigger challenge for their futures. People with disabilities experience many barriers to obtaining employment even without imprisonment on their records. Studies have shown how incarcerating children does not deter them from engaging in criminal behavior in the future; it might actually have the opposite impact. Finally, children who are incarcerated experience large gaps in their education, and this can impact their ability to successfully enter the job market. This issue is exponentially worse among children with disabilities because they are more likely to be imprisoned for “behavioral issues”, and expands the academic gap felt by so many children with learning disabilities who are already facing many social and learning barriers.
How did COVID make things worse for children with disabilities?
The pandemic was a time of uncertainty, and many of us were scrambling around not knowing what to do. Even as more and more information came out about the virus itself and how to safeguard it, there was a lot of anxiety and misinformation being spread around. Children with disabilities had to navigate not only their personal lives with their unique experiences but also the larger society that was falling apart around them in the face of a virus. Many businesses and schools shut down in the beginning, which meant that children had to adjust to different learning styles, something that may have been easier for some, but widened the academic gap for others. Children with disabilities as a whole had to be mindful of the threat that the virus posed on their lives. This virus was especially deadly to those with pre-existing conditions and for those who were immunocompromised, both of which apply to many children and adults with disabilities. So, constantly having to live with the anxiety of whether or not they might contract the virus would have been stressful enough without the masking and vaccine debates that have politicized this medical crisis. What is worse, COVID-19 vaccines for children were not available for over a year after the pandemic first began, leaving this population vulnerable to infections with no way to protect themselves against them.
Additionally, along with their children, parents, and caregivers of children with disabilities faced new challenges as everyone attempted to adapt to the “new normal”. While the mandated quarantine helped with transportation issues for some, it opened up a whole new set of issues for many. Children with learning disabilities who received additional help from professionals either had to go without it or transition to seeking their help through zoom. For some, accessing help through Zoom and Telehealth was extremely helpful in addressing the medical needs of people, and this had a positive impact on people with disabilities as a whole. However, accessing Zoom and Telehealth was a challenge on its own for many who lived in rural areas or marginalized areas where internet services were very minimal or nonexistent, or simply unaffordable. The pandemic was a time when many people also lost jobs, so children faced additional financial repercussions from the pandemic. These instances further widened the academic gap among children with disabilities.
This blog mainly focused on the struggles that children face within the American school system. Part three of this series will focus on some of the approaches that have been taken historically when addressing disabilities, and some ways in which we can take action, on a personal level, on a local or national level, and even on an international level.
Content Warnings: imprisonment, religious persecution, torture, trafficking, rape, brainwashing
Falun Gong, officially known as Falun Dafa, is a form of qigong, which roughly translates to ‘cultivation.’ Qigong is similar to yoga or tai chi and focuses on the perfection and refinement of mind and body. Falun Gong takes this a step further and incorporates the cultivation of morality and virtue. In 1992, Li Hongzhi introduced the practice to China. As the practice grew in popularity, excitement about the health and wellness benefits associated with the tradition have flourished. Not only this, but the culture of Falun Gong experienced a rediscovery of ancient Chinese philosophies combining elements of Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.
The Chinese government largely celebrated the practice throughout the 1990s, but on April 25th, 1999, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), led by Jiang Zemin, launched a violent campaign against Falun Gong by issuing a letter expressing their wish to see Falun Gong destroyed. The atheist communist regime, which notoriously rules by the threat of force, was itself threatened by the emphasis on morality and traditional Chinese culture found in practitioners.
Since 1999, an organization called Friends of Falun Gong has reported cases of torture, disappearance, brainwashing, rape, and death of Falun Gong practitioners by the CCP. When a person dies while imprisoned, families are told that their loved one committed suicide or died of a disease, but the bodies are cremated before evidence can be gathered. Notably, a relatively new development alleges that many of these detainees are victims of organ trafficking.
Through propaganda campaigns, the CCP has classified Falun Gong as a xiejiao, which in some contexts has similar implications to the word ‘cult.’ Personally, as someone who actively studies religion and cults, I would not qualify the practice as a cult, as it does not pass any widely accepted tests qualifying organizations as cults.
Propaganda and Unclear Beliefs of Americanized Version
In my research about Falun Gong, I found very conflicting information about the moral beliefs of practitioners. Officially, they have three significant tenets: Zhen, Shan, and Ren, which translate to truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance, respectively. They emphasize ancient Chinese values and, by my evaluation, hold a form of virtue ethics. As far as I can tell, the version being practiced in China is unharmful and beneficial to its practitioners. The relationship between Chinese practitioners of Falun Gong and the Americanized version based in New York is unclear. The following are productions of the official organization of Falun Dafa.
Shen Yun is a dance-based performance/production sponsored and organized by Falun Dafa. They are based in New York City and perform internationally but do not perform in China for fear of persecution. The performance has themes of anti-Marxism, anti-atheism, and a passing instance of homophobia. Jio Tolentino, a writer for the New Yorker, saw the show twice in New York and calls the production uncanny and unsettling. Throughout my research, I have not found any instances of China-based practitioners personally expressing the themes seen in Shen Yun.
The Epoch Times is a newspaper sponsored by and associated with Falun Dafa. While claiming to be “unbiased,” they post far-right opinion pieces and side with Trump in many of their political articles. To anyone with an ear tuned to the sound of right-wing dog whistles, the Epoch Times website is loud, high-pitched, and painful. Again, I have not found any instances of China-based practitioners expressing the harmful themes found in the Epoch Times. It seems to me that the Americanized version of Falun Gong is a harmful version of what is being practiced and persecuted in China.
Religious Rights and Persecution
Human rights, with respect to a person’s religion, is a complicated subject. Too often, we see people using the excuse of religious freedom to act in a bigoted way toward certain communities. Religion is a personal practice meant, consciously or otherwise, to help a person cope with and understand the trials and tribulations of existing as a human in this world. Sometimes, that religion will come with a set of morals that each practitioner decides to follow. People have a natural right to practice their own religion and to determine their own moral codes without persecution or intervention. But, as with every right, this only extends insofar as it does not impede the rights of others.
The CCP must be held accountable for imprisoning, torturing, and trafficking the organs of Falun Gong practitioners in China. These people are not impeding on the rights of others. They peacefully practice truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance while aligning their body and mind through qigong. In accordance with my working definition of religion, nobody deserves to face religious persecution. Everyone has a right to decide how they will come to terms with and cope with their own existence. It is important that, as humans, we keep certain spaces safe for people to cultivate their spirituality. By taking away every space that may be safe for these people to practice, the CCP is violating their rights.
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.
With the start of quarantine in 2020 and the rise of the social media app TikTok, many activist movements come to light and shed knowledge on the horrific injustices. One of the most prevalent examples is the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in 2020 and the period following it; it has become crucial for individuals to speak out against injustices. In a sense, it is part of “cancel culture” not to speak out, or if you speak out on the incorrect issues. As important as that is, it has been observed that many liberals and progressives only stand against injustices for specific issues. In a way, it involves choosing who is more worthy of having their rights protected. This may seem like an extreme notion or definition of selective activism, but it is essential.
The idea of selective activism was first introduced to me while reading “Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics” by Marc Lamont Hill and Mitchell Plitnick. Even though this book specifically regarded the issues of Palestine and Israel, it dealt with an extremely important point and message; when we label ourselves as activists, we must be activists in all important issues. This is not to say that selective activism is always done intentionally; sometimes, it is by mere mistake or lack of knowledge on various issues. Everyone is guilty of this. Sadly, there are so many human rights injustices in our world that it is impossible to dedicate all your time to fighting for them. But what one can do in these situations is to be cautious of all issues at their prevalent times.
What is Selective Activism?
Selective activism is closely linked to the idea of selective hearing, only hearing what you want to hear. Its advocating for specific things only. The best way I have found to explain selective activism is through this quote in the book: “progressives and liberals who oppose regressive policies on immigration, racial justice, gender equality, LGBTQ rights, and other issues must extend these core principles to the oppression of others.” Some questions arise when speaking of selective activism; how do we choose? What makes one cause more worthy than another? The answer is simple. There are always causes that we feel especially connected to and that we constantly advocate for, but what is essential is that if one labels themselves as an activist, progressive, or humanitarian, then this needs to apply to all issues. If one is going to protest the killing of innocent individuals in America, then the same support must be shown to women in Iran. If one is going to advocate for Ukrainian refugees, then activism must be shown to MENA refugees and those whose countries are still under occupation. Ravyen Monroe, a writer for Affinity Magazine, explained it perfectly: “You can’t be an activist but stop advocating for certain groups when you get mad. You don’t get to pick and choose who is worthy of respect and who gets degraded by terms that have oppressed them for centuries…That’s not how activism works.”
Instances of Selective Activism
The most recent example of selective activism can be the world’s response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis compared to refugees from the MENA region (see blog on this topic here). Although what Ukrainians are going through is indescribable and is seen as an urgent humanitarian crisis, the problem is selective activism. The attention given to Ukrainian refugees was commendable. They were given the necessary aid and protection as needed. However, the same support was not extended to refugees from the MENA region. An Armenian writer explained this as a betrayal and stated, “it hurts to feel that certain people are prioritized in the eyes of the media, and thus, the world.” This type of selective activism is not limited to political activism and can also be seen in environmental activism. For instance, climate change activists. Many took the stance against using plastic and began investing in metal straws once it became a trend but continued to utilize plastic throughout their lives.
Impact of Selective Activism
Selective Activism has negative implications and effects on the world, like the forgotten issue of the Yemen crisis, Islamophobia in European countries, refugees, etc. The list is long and never-ending. Despite the many important human rights crises in the world, some face extreme critical conditions that tend to be forgotten. Many become activists when issues are trending, yet will forget about them once they are off the mainstream media. As illustrated, it is not possible for one to advocate for every cause or injustice. But, if one labels themselves an activist and sees many prevalent issues but ignores it, then that is participating in selective activism. An inclusive solution would be to continue the fight for human rights for all and to stay educated. If there are specific humanitarian causes important to one, make sure you are advocating for all the individuals affected. Below are books, movies, and resources that expand upon the notion of selective activism.
“Except for Palestine: Limit on Progressive Politics” By Marc Lamont Hill & Mitchell Plitnick (This book opened my eyes to the idea of selective activism and its existence)
Many movies educate one on the many humanitarian causes. My favorites are:
Syria and Turkey have been impacted by one of the deadliest earthquakes that have been seen in the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region. The death toll has surpassed 20,000 and continues to rise considerably, not accounting for the thousands injured. Some of the areas this earthquake has hit are some of the most vulnerable areas in the world. The conditions in both countries are indescribable; with homes destroyed, hospitals at capacity, and limited supplies, the need for help has become critical. It was noted that due to the destruction of the hospitals, and the lack of staff and supplies, patients have had to receive medical attention on the hospital floors. At this point, any type of aid is scarce in both countries. It is vital that everyone supports in any possible way. At the end of this post, you will find numerous links on how to help, whether through donation, reading, reposting, etc. Anything you can do to help is urged. Pass these resources along to your friends, family, colleagues, etc. The most minor contribution makes the most significant difference.
What is Happening?
An earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8 struck early Monday morning at 4:17 AM in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, 150 miles away from the Syrian border. This earthquake led to more than 300 aftershocks that rumbled, with one following the initial earthquake just 9 hours later at 1:25 PM and carrying a magnitude of 7.5. Earthquakes are measured using a magnitude scale ranging from 2.5 or less to 8.0 or greater. The Turkey-Syria earthquake reached a magnitude of 7.8 following a shock of 7.5. Meaning this was a significant earthquake that yields severe and destructive damage. This has been one of the worst earthquakes to hit the region since the early 1900s. Along with the destruction of this horrific disaster, the regions are currently facing a winter storm. The temperatures in both Turkey and Syria have dropped tremendously to below 21 degrees Fahrenheit. Rescuers have noted that the weather conditions are so bad that those trapped under the rubble have been found frozen to death.
Who is Sending Aid?
Two days have passed since the initial disaster, and the death toll continues to rise. Turkey currently has tens of thousands of rescue teams and aid personnel helping to search for survivors. More than 24 countries have sent aid, help, or rescue teams to Turkey to rescue as many people as possible. With the window closing for the survival of the many lives still stuck under the rubble, the rescue teams are still not losing hope and asking for aid and help. With all the help being given to Turkey, there is an absence found in Syria. Many political and logistical issues hinder aid from being given to Syrians. Since the Syrian Civil War, many countries, such as the EU and USA, have posed sanctions on Syria, and many border points are blocked. At this time, many are urging the sanctions to be removed as it hinders aid to Syria. In times of crisis, we can look to our governments for help, but that is not the case for the Syrian people, which is why it is so critical and necessary to support any in any way you can. Syria is still undergoing and recovering from a Civil War that has been happening for the last 10 years. Many Syrians have been displaced and have become refugees, most residing in Turkey, making the country the world’s biggest refugee host country, with over 3 million Syrian refugees living there. El-Mostafa Benlamlih, UN Resident and Humanitarian coordination for Syria stated: “Sadly, needs are rising rapidly in Syria, and not everyone who requires assistance is visible. Over 75% of all sub-districts in the country are classified as being under severe, extreme, or catastrophic conditions…We must act quickly to ensure more communities do not slide into an inescapable loop of deprivation and negative coping mechanisms.” The areas of Syria affected are some of the worst. Millions of individuals were already displaced in the northwest portion of the country house. With aid in Syria already being scarce, there are many worries and urgencies surrounding the need for humanitarian care.
It is urgent that you can do anything you can to help. Whether that is donating $1, reposting a donation link, or just speaking about it. The current condition these people are living in is unimaginable, so it is vital to help in any possible way. A Syrian journalist has spoken about his experience and current grief. Mohammad Haj Bakri lost multiple family members due to this national disaster. His brother and his three children, his sister and her son, all died under the rubble of collapsed buildings. Although there is international support and awareness for those affected by the earthquakes, I urge you to support them still as much as possible. The aid given to these survivors will be for the current time and post-quake. Below are links to donation sites, articles on how to help, and additional links with information on the conditions.
This article exemplifies the urgency of supporting the people of this horrific disaster. This piece explains the stories of those who went through the earthquake, had family members present or had their loved ones die.
A humanitarian aid organization that operates in the rebel-controlled areas of Syria, also known as Syria’s Civil Defense. They are the leading group for helping victims and displaced persons throughout the Syrian Civil war. You can find the link to donate here.
There are countless humanitarian groups accepting donations for those affected by the earthquake. For more resources, check out the links below:
The right to equitable housing, employment, and standard of living are in jeopardy due to Nepal’s government policies towards the displaced community. In the capital district of Kathmandu, the mistreatment of vulnerable, minority populations ensueswithout providing any alternative measures. Street vendors line the capital with their small business trying to make a living, but new policies are allowing authorities to seize their property and rob them of their way of life. This campaign is accusing street vendors of blocking sidewalks and obstructing pedestrian pathways. People who cannot find regular employment resort to selling their wares on the street. Now, their livelihood is threatened. These are non-permanent, transition spaces for vulnerable individuals dealing with poverty. Nepal government is displacing people who already do not have a place to live, and they are not providing adequate housing. This is only exacerbating the significant homeless population in the country. Preying on this disadvantaged population is harmful and violates human rights.
Along the banks of the Bagmati River in Kathmandu, rumbles of protests seem to emerge. The city announced that they will be removing beggars in an effort to make Kathmandu a beggar-free city. The landless squatters held a rally on December 5thfrom Maitighar to New Baneshwor urging for the government to provide alternative housing. Demanding government aid and relief United National Squatters Front Nepal Chairperson Kumar Karkistated to the press, “Removing us from the current place without arranging an alternative is not tolerable. It is a violation of human rights.”The slum settlements in the Kathmandu valley are not a threat to the government.
The government has bulldozed their living structures, so the only way to resolve the issue is through dialogue. Evictions are not the solution. According to the National Land Commission, a statutory body, the city government has failed to provide an alternative place to live. Under international human rights law, everyone has the right to the opportunity to work and to an adequate standard of living, including food, clothing, and shelter. The continued removal of residents is causing undue hardship on the citizens. This policy targets people who have no alternate source of income or no way of supporting themselves. Most of the time, it is young women and children which means now young women and children are being made homeless.
In order to prevent any more draconian governmental initiatives, you can get involved with Help Nepal. Donation, sponsorship, and volunteering are all great ways to support the Nepalese people faced with displacement. Posting on social media to raise awareness is another helpful measure. Speaking out against policies like this will result in less similar policies. Right to housing, work, and living are all basic human rights. Sprawling urban fringe is not only seen in Nepal, but in fact a lot of other parts of the world deal with these same issues. This is why it is important to discuss and bring attention to these topics.
People filled the plaza in the place where all three powers of governance meet in Brasília, Brazil. A sea of green and gold as hundreds of citizens displayed their nation’s colors before entering the seats of power, destroying property, and overpowering the police. People climbed to the roof of the Congress building and unfurled a flag that read “intervention.”
Raging riots in the wake of a new presidency
On January 8th, 2023, citizens stormed Brazil’s Congress, Supreme Court, and presidential offices in objection to the newly incumbent President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Their rage and fear came after the loss of former president Jair Bolsonaro and a false belief that the October 2022 election had been rigged.
Bolsonaro had steadily fostered suspicion against the integrity of Brazil’s voting system for years, even making such false claims on his 2022 campaign trail. After being ousted, his refusal to concede, alongside his previous claims of fraud, left his supporters reeling. Many demanded for months that the military step in and deny letting da Silva take office on Jan. 1st.
While the military did not listen to the demands, they did not completely rule out the possibility of vote rigging either. In spite of the fact that the Defense Ministry found no evidence of fraud during the election, one comment stated that “It is not possible to guarantee that the programs that were executed in the electronic voting machines are free from malicious insertions that alter their intended function.” No evidence has been found to support this conjecture either.
In the wake of growing suspicions and conspiracies, Bolsonaro supporters, known as “Bolsonaristas,” stormed the Three Powers Plaza (named after the three branches of governance located there) in a massive demonstration that soon turned violent.
The facts and events of the U.S. and Brazil riots
The similarities between January 6th, 2021 in the United States and January 8th, 2023 in Brazil are stark. Aside from the dates themselves, both these events signal serious declines in trust in democratic institutions.
In both instances, supporters overpowered police before entering capitol buildings, breaking windows, stealing items, and documenting their own crimes in the offices of elected legislators.
When capitol riots in the U.S. occurred, it was during the ceremonial certification of the election results and interrupted this important step before President Biden’s inauguration. On the other hand, in Brazil, President da Silva had already taken office nearly a week before. When demonstrators arrived, congress was not in session, nor was anyone within the buildings that Sunday.
This distinction, while slight, is significant to note because, during the time of the riots in Brazil, the actual transition of power had already occurred. In the case of the U.S., the symbolism surrounding the counting of ballots represented a key component of the democratic transition.
Moreover, in the U.S., citizens only targeted the Congress building, while Bolsonaristas also attacked the presidential palace and Supreme Court. This aligns further with claims that Bolsonaro had made during his term about the Supreme Court conspiring against him.
Of most importance, and concern, is how federal police responded initially in Brazil. In the case of the U.S., many sources reported that security forces had been unprepared for such escalations, but in Brazil, channels to “invade Congress” had formed on the apps WhatsApp and Telegram. These channels had gathered tens of thousands of followers. Bolsonaristas had formed groups across the country with the intention of renting buses to the capitol for “violent anti-government action.”
Just as former president Donald Trump had attempted to undermine the legitimacy of the 2020 election result, so too had Bolsonaro engaged in making the same false claims over vote-rigging. Incidentally, Bolsonaro had come to be known as the “Trump of the Tropics” during his time in office. But false claims over vote rigging don’t end with these two heads, former aids, current politicians, and social media play a crucial role in fostering anti-democratic extremism.
Two years after the riots in the U.S., concerns over the legitimacy of Brazil’s election have been a contentious topic among far-right groups in the United States. These groups do not know anything about Brazilian politics, however, social media has connected the two continents to reinforce illegitimate beliefs about the accuracy of democratic processes.
During the 2020 U.S. election, conspiracies over the voting machines manufactured by Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic had been extremely popular in supporting false claims of vote rigging. Now, these conspiracies have re-emerged but in the context of Brazil, circulating online and in far-right media, despite the fact that neither company’s products were used in Brazil. These lies have found their way onto Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Truth Social, and Gettr (alternative platforms popular on the right).
During the Brazilian riots, Bolsonaristas held a banner that stated “We want the source code” in both Portuguese, the nation’s most spoken language followed by Spanish, and English. This is a direct reference to the conspiracies spread first in the U.S. further emphasized by the languages of choice.
Moreover, dating back to October, Steven Bannon, former Trump aid, has been drawing parallels between the Brazilian election and the U.S. on his podcast. Sites like The Gateway Pundit have published blogs the morning after the first round of elections in Brazil about “MASSIVE fraud” and Matthew Tyrmand, a conservative activist, has repeatedly pushed the idea that Smartmatic machines were used in Brazil to tens of thousand on Twitter and Gettr.
According to Madeline Peltz the Director of Rapid Response at Media Matters, a left-leaning non-profit and media watchdog, “There’s a sympathetic audience for it in Brazil, and there’s certainly a sympathetic audience for it in the States. The building of a coalition between those two groups is really a win-win for Steve Bannon and the right-wing movement broadly.”
In Germany over a dozen were arrested in 2021 for planning to overthrow the government, while in Australia, the U.S.-centric conspiracies over machine-based voting fraud (even targeting Dominion again) had to be publicly debunked by the Electoral Commission.
In the end, far-right groups are taking inspiration in each other. Not from a shared set of goals or identities, but from their refusal to accept a candidate’s loss stemming from deep-seated anti-democratic stances. With social media to bridge distances and languages, it has become ever harder for governments to stop false election claims and silence the dangerous rhetoric of election deniers.
Democracy does not always equal or improve human rights. However, the values outlined in normative human rights frames overlap significantly with democratic governance. Democracy provides environments that are more likely to support human rights, as is the case with Articles 8 (right to national tribunals), 9 (arbitrary arrest), 10 (right to a fair trial), and 12 (arbitrary interference) in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) just to name a handful.
In countries with weak rule of law, government institutions, and corruption, there is a 30 to 45% increase in the risk of civil war and a higher risk of extreme criminal violence. Any country can suffer from one or more of these factors which then threatens the personal security of people and their human rights.
According to Freedom House, a non-profit that conducts research on democracy, human rights, and political freedom, the last 16 years have been marked by a democratic decline globally. For example, President Nayib Bukele in El Salvador has undermined democratic institutions designed to check executive power. In Peru, riots for the past five weeks have demanded the government disband the legislature and president in favor of new elections, and in the most extreme case, that the military step in to rule. As the youngest democracy in Latin America (restored in 2001), Peru has long suffered poor living conditions which have made the population steadily view the government as corrupt, ineffective, and unfair. In fact, a 2021 poll from Vanderbilt University found that only 21% of the population was satisfied with democratic rule.
Brazil is a young democracy, previously under a military dictatorship between 1968 and 1985. Considering Bolsonaro’s praise of military rule in office, and the attack on all three democratic institutions, the riots on Jan. 8th signal a larger issue 一 a rejection of the democratic results overall.
While citizens always have the right to self-determination, this does not give anyone the right to inflict harm on someone’s personal security or engage in violent acts. In a democracy, tides are always able to change, switching between ideologies and agendas based on the popular vote of the nation. In the case of Chile, violent demonstrations did prompt a constitutional rewrite, however, once this democratic process began the violence ceased and turned towards peaceful demonstrations.
As President da Silva begins his new term, he will be faced with many challenges to unite Brazil. However, he has already taken major steps in the wake of the riots, arresting hundreds in a single day, beginning an investigation, and removing individuals from security positions.
For us, we must remain committed to the values of human rights, recognizing the inherent dignity of everyone and continually striving for equity and equality. To do this, we must have faith in the governments that ensure us these rights, and in the cases that do not, we must organize peacefully, research and reach out, and live our lives by our belief in human rights.
To learn more and get involved, visit these sites and blogs below:
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