Deadly Earthquake in Afghanistan Magnifies Gender Apartheid Under Taliban Control

by Delisha Valacheril
Image 1. Afghan Man standing in the rumble caused by an earthquake. Source: Flickr
Image 1. Afghan Man standing in the rumble caused by an earthquake. Source: Flickr

The ongoing humanitarian crises as a result of the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist group, regaining control of Afghanistan have been exacerbated since the devasting earthquake hit the country, with women and children bearing the brunt of the struggle. The Herat province has been shaken by two 6.3-magnitude earthquakes in just five days, with at least 1,482 people killed, another 2,100 have been injured, and an estimated 114,000 people need humanitarian assistance. The detrimental aftermath has been felt by everyone in the country, especially women and children, since they encompass 90% of those killed. With homes demolished and livelihoods lost, obtaining humanitarian aid is of the utmost importance. However, women across the country are struggling to gain assistance due to the numerous human rights violations against them in Afghanistan. Women and children are the most affected when natural disasters strike, but they are often the least considered in the response and recovery process. With the death toll mainly comprised of this vulnerable population coupled with the existing humanitarian crises, the situation in Afghanistan is grave for the young women and children survivors.

Image 2 Afghani Women fully covered in accordance with Taliban rule. Source Flickr.
Image 2 Afghani Women fully covered in accordance with Taliban rule. Source Flickr.

Humanitarian Crisis

It is not just women who are suffering under Taliban rule; everyone is. The UNDP reports that the Taliban’s rule has also erased the Afghans’ standards of life. Since the takeover, the economy has collapsed by up to 30%, and there have been an estimated 700,000 job losses. Over 90% of people have experienced food insecurity in one way or another. The situation in Afghanistan remains precarious and uncertain, and the earthquake has only exacerbated this.

To provide context for the Taliban’s gender apartheid in Afghanistan, a proper foundation must be laid. In 2021, after the US withdrew troops from Afghanistan, the extremist group rose to power and established itself as the sole authority. Since resuming their regime, they have implemented restrictive, discriminatory practices against women. Women have been banned from attending and tutoring at universities, women cannot work, and most girls cannot attend secondary school. These Taliban-imposed constraints have left women and girls increasingly confined to their homes, which is why they suffered the most from the natural disaster. Even when women are allowed to go outside, they must comply with the strictly enforced dress code that requires them to be fully covered, and on top of that, they must be accompanied by a male chaperone.

Image 3 Children in a refuge shelter in Afghanistan. Source Flickr.
Image 3 Children in a refuge shelter in Afghanistan. Source Flickr.

What’s Currently Going On

Considering the plight women have to endure under this restrictive government, it has been extremely difficult for aid to reach these vulnerable communities. An obstacle women must overcome to get relief is they must have a male relative’s tazkera, a national identity card. Since there is an absence of women working at the distribution center, many women cannot obtain humanitarian aid if they don’t have male relatives who can access it on their behalf. They also need to adorn the Islamic hijab so they can dress appropriately to access services and relief. This natural disaster has decimated homes, destroyed families, and left many to grieve their loss alone. How can the government discriminate and impose restrictions on who can receive aid in a time of crisis? After losing their husbands, fathers, and sons to this calamity, what are women supposed to do? Is there life meaningless without a male associated with it? Are they not worthy of aid from Afghanistan’s government?

Sonita Bahram, who is part of a team providing medical assistance to survivors, recounts the hardships women have had to withstand during these trying times. “I saw dozens of women and girls each day, and I can tell you that 99.9% of them were suffering from some sort of psychological trauma,” she said. Bahram narrates how women who have lost their homes, some of them their entire families, now have to work together to exist. Survivors seek refuge in the sea of tents that now stand in the rubble of Afghanistan’s towns and cities. Women are tying tattered blankets and even their headscarves to construct some semblance of privacy. On top of the mental stress and trauma that these women have had to endure from their daily home lives, these devasting earthquakes add significantly to their worries.

Significance

Conflict, food insecurity, drought, displacement, and poverty were already prevalent among the women and children of Afghanistan, but since the deadly earthquake, the government has continued to marginalize this group. The obstacles Afghani women have to overcome to receive aid are egregious; the treatment of women survivors has been abysmal, and they make up the majority of the fatalities. The humanitarian crisis involving women’s rights has been festering for a long time in the country, but this catastrophe has only inflated the concerns and hardships of the minority group. The severity of this issue has reached a global extent, with international relief centers and governments limiting humanitarian help to Afghanistan since the Taliban took power because of the government’s flagrant breaches of human rights, especially those committed against women and girls. This is harmful to the women and children of Afghanistan because they are the ones in dire need. It is important to support and donate to NGOs that are providing aid. UNICEF has launched a $20 million appeal to support 96,000 children affected by the earthquake. Life USA is pledging funds to provide emergency relief to the survivors. 2023 Afghanistan Earthquake Relief is also a great organization committed to doing beneficial work. By supporting these organizations, we can help the women and children of Afghanistan even if their government chooses not to.

 

 

Inequalities in America’s Foster Care System

by Caitlin Cerillo

This picture shows a child pulling a suitcase and standing on top of a cliff-like figure, which depicts the harsh reality of children being relocated in the foster care system.
This picture shows a child pulling a suitcase and standing on top of a cliff-like figure, which depicts the harsh reality of children being relocated in the foster care system. Source: Yahoo Images

Common Misconceptions

Foster care is typically seen as a temporary living arrangement for children who are vulnerable due to circumstances like conflict in the family or home or until they are permanently adopted into a family. However, this is not the case for the hundreds of thousands currently living in the system in the United States. The average amount of time a child stays in the foster care system is just over a year and a half, with about 30% remaining in the system past two years. Many are awaiting being reunited safely with their biological parents or a relative, as their reasoning for being put in the system could have been due to anything from a parent being hospitalized to a death in the family.

On the other hand, many do not have parents or family members that they can be reunited with. Many children in foster care are subject to harsh living conditions, being moved and relocated multiple times during their time in the system, aging out, and the heightened risks of experiencing abuse and malnutrition, just to name a few. Each of these conditions can be extremely harmful to one’s mental and physical well-being. An estimated 50% of young people in the system possess a higher likelihood, 2.5%, of developing mental health disorders compared to their non-involved counterparts. Intersections of race, gender, sexuality, age, ability, and more play a significant role in the experiences someone in the system may face, which will be discussed in this article.

Overrepresentation in Foster Care

One glaring issue regarding the United States foster care system includes the overrepresentation of children of color. Specifically, Black children are among one of the most overrepresented racial groups in the American foster care system. This poses a problem because Black children represent 23% of the foster care population yet only makeup 14% of the general population in regard to children, according to KIDS Count.

This can be attributed to the social and economic disparities that Black families face. Intersections between race and socioeconomic status contribute to the hardships many Black Americans face, such as barriers created by systemic racism and economic inequality that put them on unequal footing. Systemic racism—also referred to as institutionalized racism—means that practices and behaviors that uphold white supremacy are instilled in all aspects of society. Just to name a few, systemic racism can appear in healthcare, educational, criminal justice, and economic systems. Systemic racism has caused Black Americans to face inequalities when it comes to accessing quality education, equal job opportunities, and housing, which all play a role in overrepresentation in the foster care system. Due to these circumstances, Black children may be more likely to be placed into foster care.

Social workers are professionals whose role is to promote social welfare, advocate for disadvantaged populations, and aid people in overcoming the challenges they are going through. Foster care social workers deal with ensuring the well-being of individuals in foster care by conducting home visits, monitoring the health, security, and academic performance of the child, and consulting with other professionals the child may interact with, such as counselors, teachers, and medical professionals.

Implicit biases are preconceived notions that one can have towards a specific group, which affects the ways in which they interact and view that group. Unfortunately, implicit biases that can be held by social workers have also been attributed to the overrepresentation of Black children. These biases can have an influence on how the social worker may handle cases and lead to disproportionate numbers of Black families being investigated and, as a result, becoming involved in the foster care system.

So, what can be done to correct the implicit biases that may exist among foster care social workers? Implementing diversity within the hiring process can ensure an inclusive environment, which can challenge potential implicit biases. Similarly, policies that ensure inclusivity can foster a proactive decision-making process when dealing with biases. Implicit bias training could also be helpful and open the conversation to important topics like the importance of cultural competence, the impact of stereotypes and microaggressions, intersectionality, and ways to recognize and address implicit biases.

Overcrowding in the System

This picture shows a young girl holding a sign with the words "I've been in foster care for 1015 days..."
This picture shows a young girl holding a sign with the words “I’ve been in foster care for 1015 days…” Many children will stay in the system for over two years while awaiting permanent adoption. Source: Yahoo Images

While the number of children in the system has decreased within the last two decades, there are still hundreds of thousands of children who will likely age out. As a foster care child gets older, their likelihood of being adopted into a family decreases. Younger children are more desired among prospective families, with children who are nine or older being much less likely to be adopted, according to the North American Council on Adoptable Children.

An effect of overcrowding is aging out, which occurs when a foster care child turns 18 when they are “emancipated” or no longer granted the protections and resources given to them by the system. Over 23,000 young people age out annually in the United States, which can cause them to be homeless, less likely to have access to educational resources, and often have problems with the transition to adulthood. Additionally, they may become more predisposed to a higher risk of substance abuse and teen pregnancy

This infographic shows various statistics pertaining the circumstances of young people who age out of the foster care system.
Statistics on young people who age out in the foster care system, provided by National Foster Youth Institute. Source: Yahoo Images

Addressing the problem of overcrowding requires several actions: policy changes and reform, improvements in the system as a whole, and public awareness and advocacy. Allocating appropriate funds to the child welfare and foster care system can ensure equal access to mental health services, supply improved technological systems to keep accurate and efficient data, and offer support services for foster parents. Each of these can benefit all entities involved. Public awareness of the system’s overcrowding issue can help recruit more prospective foster families and individuals seeking to permanently adopt a child.

The Connection Between Abortion Bans and the Foster Care System

In June 2022, Americans saw an overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court. Roe v. Wade was a landmark decision passed in 1973, which essentially granted the right to abortion across the country. The 2022 decision to strike down Roe v. Wade has had damaging effects on the already overcrowded foster care system. People who are pro-life and against the right to abortion will commonly use foster care as a proposed alternative to the abortion procedure. However, abortion restrictions have been found to cause a significant increase in the number of children who are put into the system, according to an analysis conducted by Harvard Medical School researchers. This results in more children having less of a chance of being adopted into permanent families and increases the number of people who will most likely age out in the system.

 

World Teacher’s Day: A Glimpse into the Persistent Opportunity Gap in America & How a Birmingham Startup is Trying to Close It

“I was always told that America is the land of the free, a land of opportunity. What no one told me was how difficult it was to achieve the American Dream itself. Perhaps that is why they call it a dream—realistic but out of reach. Every time you inch forward, you think you are getting closer to your goal when, in reality, you are getting closer to seeing your greatest hurdles with clarity.”

–Navin Mawani, my mother, an immigrant from Pakistan

Today, October 5th is World Teacher’s Day. Teachers are equivalent to front-line workers who continuously connect young people to opportunity in the forms of learning, employment, and emotional and physical health. So why are there policies in place that create opportunity gaps for teachers and students alike?  

I am a first-generation student in the United States, and I am fortunate that my family could afford to live in a zip code that did not discriminate against me. This article will expose you all to some information about opportunity gaps that prevent children from attaining a sufficient education and will speak about STRIVE Birmingham, an organization that is trying to mitigate the effects of social and economic policies that affect all people.  

A book and pen with leaves around it saying "World Teacher's Day"
A book and pen with leaves around it saying “World Teacher’s Day”; Source: Yahoo Images

 

The Problem 

In Birmingham and several other cities, the opportunity gap—the way social and economic factors result in lower rates of success in a variety of life aspirations—affects all people within society. I consider this limitation on opportunity to be a violation of the human right to attain an education and to sustain a livelihood. The Close the Gap Foundation defines this gap as “the way that uncontrollable life factors like race, language, economic, and family situations can contribute to lower rates of success in educational achievement, career prospects, and other life aspirations.” One example of an opportunity gap is the low reading proficiency among children in kindergarten to third grade within Birmingham City Schools. To combat this opportunity gap, the City of Birmingham established the Page Pals Reading Initiative, a volunteer opportunity for all to read and converse with third-graders at elementary schools.  

If the problem is starting as early as elementary school, there is a drastic need to close this gap. And if that is not convincing enough, these statistics do not lie: 

  • The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2012 study found that “while 6% of children who’ve never lived in poverty will drop out of high school, that number climbs to 22% for children who’ve lived in poverty, even temporarily during the time of the survey.” 
  • According to the U.S. Department of Education, high-poverty districts spend 15.6% less on each student than those in more affluent districts. This can result in less student retention, lower earning potential after graduation, and high poverty rates in adulthood. 
  • A 2020 survey by Global Strategy Group of college undergraduates revealed that 77% of students said they fear they will not be able to stay on track to graduate due to hardships caused by COVID-19. That is 3 in 4 college students fearing failure. 
A group of children smiling and hugging one another.
A group of children smiling and hugging one another; Source: Yahoo Images

 

What Creates These Opportunity Gaps?

Unfortunately, there are several factors that contribute to creating and encouraging opportunity gaps. As per the Learning Policy Institute, “these inequities result from growing income inequality over the past three decades and the failure of many states to invest equitably in schools that serve a diverse student population.” Providing equitable access to deeper learning opportunities is perhaps the major challenge of 21st-century education in the United States.

You might be asking yourself what does income inequality have to do with public education and opportunity gaps? According to extensive research conducted by the Economic Policy Institute, a child’s social class is “one of the most significant predictors—if not the single most significant predictor—of their educational success.” Socioeconomic gaps that originated in the 1980s still affect children today. Income inequality has not been reduced, which has kept the educational growth of multiple children stagnant and has widened the opportunity gap.

A person standing in front of a wall of a arrow
A person standing in front of a wall of a arrow; Source: Yahoo Images

 

Income inequality is also dictated by where you live. In a New York Times article in the “America We Need” series, multiple teachers from varying cities in the United States attest to how the opportunity gap is promoted by place of residence, starting with “pollution and the stresses of poverty and [extending] to economic segregation and inadequate school funding.” Not only do teachers have to work within these structural inequities that impede many students from achieving their potential, but they also have to accommodate their way of teaching and communicating knowledge in a way that gives the students the extra boost they need.

And the teachers are right: zip codes have too much influence on the success of students, who are the future leaders, innovators, and entrepreneurs of our world. So why is it okay for nonwhite school districts to get $23 billion less than white districts, despite saving the same number of students? Let me help you out here. It is not. It is unfortunate that even after landmark cases like Brown v. Board of Education (1954), racial and economic segregation created by gerrymandered school district boundaries continues to divide our communities and robs children of their right to a satisfactory education that helps them advance in life.

 

How is STRIVE Birmingham Helping Close this Opportunity Gap?

STRIVE Birmingham is a startup established in June 2023 that aims to bridge the opportunity gap by building a workforce and lifelong relationships. It helps those facing the toughest societal barriers to employment be able to access the training and support they need to build a career and escape social stratification.

STRIVE serves 92% of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), 41% of parents of minors, 44% of people who have been impacted by justice, 78% of people receiving public services, and 84% of formerly unemployed individuals. Since 1984, STRIVE has had more than 85,000 graduates and serves about 2,000 people annually at its locations in New York, Atlanta, and now Birmingham.

STRIVE Birmingham has partnerships within the Birmingham medical community and is able to get its students of all ages national certifications, has a 70% to 80% successful placement rate, and pledges a lifetime commitment to students. Once you are a part of STRIVE, you are able to receive professional development and essential employee skills, while having access to a network of professionals who are all rooting for your success.

A blue and white logo for STRIVE Birmingham
A blue and white logo for STRIVE Birmingham; Source: Yahoo Images

 

As a first-generation student, there is nothing more encouraging than knowing there are organizations like STRIVE Birmingham that exist to help bridge the opportunity gap that is so prevalent in communities like Birmingham’s through education. I am also comforted in knowing that there is no age limit on education; anyone can be an educator, and anyone can be a student.

As I reflect on who has influenced my educational journey on World Teachers’ Day, I am more aware of barriers to those who could not escape opportunity gaps. I am eternally grateful to my teachers and mentors for helping me excel, and I salute every teacher who has ever had to battle restrictions to their educational style because of policy-dictated opportunity gaps. Thank you, teachers, instructors, and mentors, for not giving up, even when the situations were not ideal. Thank you for not discriminating against your students, even if their ZIP code does.

 

Additional Information on the Opportunity Gap in Public Education

This TED Talk by Anindya Kundu summarizes the implications and other factors of the opportunity gap within U.S. public Schools, and I highly recommend it.

Some Resources for individuals with disabilities in the Central Alabama region

A word cloud around the word "disability" that includes the various positions that people with disabilities hold in their lives. Some are brothers and sisters, others are homeowners, still some are politicians and lawyers, while others are business owners and firefighters. Disability is only one part of the identity.
Source: Yahoo Images

These past few weeks, we have focused on the broader struggles that people with disabilities face in America. We also looked into the American Education system and explored the many obstacles children with disabilities face within it. This was a much-needed topic to explore, yet I recognize the heaviness and feelings of despair that can follow after reading such a blog series. So, in order to provide some hope, as well as meaningful resources to those struggling with these issues, I have compiled a list of local non-profit organizations that focus on providing services to children (and adults) with disabilities and their families. These organizations provide various services, including places to destress and socialize, and range from serving individuals with both physical disabilities and invisible disabilities. Please take a few minutes to look through this blog and find the resources that you or someone you know might benefit from.

Intellectual Disabilities and Neurodivergence

Oftentimes, people with invisible disabilities can be overlooked by their teachers, peers, and community members because their disability is not “obvious”. Many people with intellectual or learning disabilities struggle to have their needs met because people are either dismissive of them or completely refuse their lived experiences altogether. Navigating through life with an invisible disability can be difficult, especially for younger children, but there are resources in the local Birmingham area that can help children with invisible disabilities as well as their caregivers better prepare for their future. Some of the resources below address developmental needs, and workplace readiness, and offer a sense of community for both children and adults with intellectual and learning disabilities, while others focus on people with a range of disabilities of all ages.

An image that reads, "Invisible Disabilities: They don't all look the same"
Source: Yahoo Images

Mitchell’s Place

Located in two locations, (Southside, and Birmingham), Mitchell’s Place is a non-profit organization that works with children who may be on the autism spectrum. They provide research-based resources for children with disabilities and their family members. For parents and caregivers of children with disabilities, Mitchell’s Place provides education and resources on how to provide the best care for those under their care. They also provide many resources for children, such as helping them develop social skills, helping with feeding, speech, and occupational therapy, providing both psychological and psychiatric resources, and also early learning opportunities for preschool-aged children. Established in 2005 by parents who were unable to find resources for their child with autism, Mitchell’s Place has served over 2500 families and prides itself on being a supporter of diversity, equity, and inclusion. For those interested, their Southside location can be found at 2305 Arlington Rd. Birmingham AL, 35204, and the other one is located at 4778 Overton Rd. Birmingham, AL 35210.

The Arc of Central Alabama

The Arc of Central Alabama (ACA) is another great resource for people of all ages with intellectual and learning disabilities (IDD). Supporting individuals throughout Jefferson County and Blount County, the ACA is Alabama’s largest provider of disability services and prides itself on being the only non-reject program in the state. This means that as long as referrals follow the proper channel, no individual is rejected from being part of the program. A local chapter of The Arc of Alabama and the larger Arc of the United States, the ACA also serves as a crisis center for individuals with IDD, providing a safe space for individuals and their families in times of need. The ACA caters to individuals of all ages, and its various programs focus on these different age groups. Their early intervention programs provide support for infants and toddlers with IDD, along with education and resources for their caretakers and families. Their employment support program trains high school-age students with IDD to help them find better employment opportunities when they are ready to enter the job market. The residential programs focus on providing a safe space for adults of all ages, and a newer adolescent unit has also been created to address the growing needs within the Central Alabama region. Finally, their Community Day programs cater to adults of all ages, providing them with opportunities to socialize and engage with others within their community and develop daily living skills, from balancing their finances to helping with hygienic needs. These programs are tailored to each individual based on their needs, necessities, abilities, and interests. In addition to all these programs, the ACA also empowers its members by providing them with training in advocacy work, focusing on educating the public, following state and federal policies (and funding), and providing them avenues to advocate for their needs and rights. With four locations across Central Alabama – Birmingham, Blountsville, Cleveland, and Irondale – and lifelong opportunities for care and support, the ACA is an accessible and reliable resource for many across this region.

An image of two individuals with disabilities smiling at the camera in front of a microphone.
Source: Yahoo Images

The HANDS program/ the Alabama Autism Assistance Program (AAAP)

            Another resource for children with neurodivergent disabilities is the HANDS program, or the Alabama Autism Assistance Program (AAAP). This non-profit organization provides many services, including therapy (both clinical and home sessions), school services, summer programs for early childhood development, and also seasonal services. Their therapy services are individually catered based on assessments of the child’s needs, in which they provide two-hour, one on one sessions by licensed therapists that track the child’s progress to provide the best resources. Their school services provide additional support during the school year in both academics and behavioral areas. Their summer programs provide a structured environment for children to socialize, learn and play with peers and their seasonal services offer support for children interested in sports. For children with disabilities, socializing with peers can be stressful, so having a safe environment to be able to socialize and make friends can help them become more confident individuals in the future.

Alabama Easterseals Society

With over 50 facilities nationwide and 12 facilities throughout Alabama, the Easterseals Society was founded in 1934 to raise funds to provide services to people with disabilities and advocate for their “right to live a normal life.”  The organization challenges the narrative around disability as a burden and instead focuses on empowering individuals with disabilities with skills and resources. They have services for pediatric rehabilitation, which include speech therapy, feeding therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy. They provide services for workforce development, such as career classes which provide training for specific careers, and summer internships to prepare high schoolers for the job market. They also have recreational opportunities, with an emphasis on camping, which can be very therapeutic and great for your mental health. As with the ACA, the Easterseals also have an advocacy element, which spreads awareness about disability rights, supports the passage of legislation centered around disability rights, and provides the space to conduct solution-based workshops within their local communities. They provide additional assistance for elderly people with disabilities, veterans, and caregivers, with both resources and recreational opportunities. Some locations (such as the one in Tuscaloosa) even provide transportation services for those who are unable to drive themselves to work and other places.

Transportation Help

An image of an individual in a wheelchair being hoisted onto the bus, with the assistance of the driver.
Source: Yahoo Images

Of the many challenges that people with disabilities face, transportation is a key issue. Many people with disabilities who can drive require specially tailored vehicles to fit their needs, while others who are unable to drive have to depend on family members, friends, or community volunteers to help them get from one place to another. Due to the fact that many people with disabilities have to visit their healthcare professionals regularly, this can be especially challenging. ClasTrans, (which stands for Central Alabama’s Specialized Transit) serves people with disabilities within Jefferson and Shelby counties who require transportation to various places, including medical appointments, grocery stores, entertainment venues, and so much more. This service is available for those living in urban and rural areas, and they can plan their trips ahead of time to know exactly what they can expect for the day. ClasTrans drivers also provide riders with assistance during the ride, including boarding the vehicle and transferring into their seats. ClasTrans is available for elderly members and those who are able to verify their disability status. While the services are not for free, their rates are affordable, with one-way trips starting at $4. Regular riders can also purchase fare credits, which they can pay ahead of time to avoid carrying exact change on their person each time they use the service.

Therapeutic and Recreational Opportunities

An image of a person in a wheelchair taking care of their horse.
Source: Yahoo Images

Red Barn

An organization focused on incorporating Equine Assisted Services for low-income children with disabilities, Red Barn was founded in 2012 to serve the children in their local community. Equine Assisted Services (EAS) is a professional field of collaborative services that incorporate interaction with horses into therapy, learning, and development for children with disabilities. EAS has three areas of focus: Horsemanship, Therapy, and Learning. Horsemanship deals with activities such as learning how to ride a horse, taking care of the horses, and participating in other equine-related sports and activities. These services are conducted by specially trained individuals who are licensed to provide this training. The second focus of EAS, therapy, deals with counseling services, occupational therapy, physical therapy, psychotherapy, and speech-language pathology. All these therapy options are equine-based, incorporating interaction with horses and equine discipline within these sessions, which are led by licensed therapists. Finally, their third focus, learning, centers on equine-assisted learning in education (such as learning life skills, academic skills, and character development), organization (such as learning team-building skills, leadership skills, and participating in group activities), and development (such as learning skills pertaining to problem-solving, decision making, critical thinking, and communication). For children with disabilities, learning and developing while caring for horses can be a powerful, healthy way to become strong, independent members of their community. It can help encourage them to explore new avenues of interest and expand their opportunities for employment and life fulfillment.  

Exceptional Foundation

Founded in 1999, the Exceptional Foundation provides children (and adults) with disabilities with social and recreational opportunities that allow individuals in the Greater Birmingham region to engage with others on a socio-emotional level. At first, the Exceptional Foundation began meeting at the Homewood Park and Recreation Center but later grew to include a gym, office space, youth center, and other spaces to provide recreational opportunities for their members. Today, the Exceptional Foundation has branched out to include much of Alabama and even parts of Georgia, following the same foundations laid out by the Birmingham facility. They offer many afterschool and summer programs for their youth, including sports events (to both participate in and attend), clubs, and other activities to provide enrichment such as art and music lessons. For adults, there are a variety of daily activities that are offered, including cooking classes, dancing lessons, music classes, gym time, art classes, field trips, and many more. While many of the resources listed above focus on advocacy, education, and support, this organization provides the space for entertainment and enjoyment, encouraging a fulfilling lifestyle for its members. For many people with disabilities, recreational activities can be stressful, and opportunities can be rare. Having the space to engage with others and learn together can help improve social skills and life skills, and can foster a sense of community.

Resources for people with multiple disabilities and or sensory disabilities

An image of a visually-impaired child reading in Braille
Source: Yahoo Images

United Ability

Established in 1948 by concerned citizens, United Ability began as a place to offer help and resources for people with cerebral palsy. As it grew and expanded, United Ability became a place that offers a full spectrum of services for all people with various disabilities and prides itself as being the place that connects people with disabilities to their larger community.

They provide early learning and early intervention programs for children, that focus on encouraging children to learn, grow, and develop alongside other children, while also providing their families with the help and resources they may need. Additionally, United Ability provides a clinic that focuses on meeting the medical needs of individuals with disabilities, which includes various forms of therapy, evaluations, assessments, and any technical assistance they may need. Furthermore, they also provide adult programs for recreation and enrichment and even offer employment services to adults with disabilities. This includes their United Ability Enterprise, a large umbrella under which many people with physical, developmental, and intellectual disabilities are employed. The businesses under this umbrella include Gone for Good, an off-site paper shredding company, as well as Outsource Solutions, a company that offers a variety of projects, including sorting items, housekeeping needs, mailroom needs, and more. It is located in Birmingham for those who are interested in the organization.

Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind

One of the most respected institutions in the world for its all-inclusive approach, the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind (AIDB) spans all over Alabama, with campuses in Talladega, Birmingham, Mobile, Huntsville, Decatur, Montgomery, Opelika, and more. It was founded in 1858, by Dr. Joseph Henry Johnson, and his brother was among the first 21 hearing-impaired students he served that year. In 1932, AIDB was responsible for a project that employed 10 visually impaired seamstresses, a project that laid the foundations for the Alabama Industries for the Blind, Alabama’s largest employer of visually impaired individuals. Similarly, in 1968, a trade school for visually impaired individuals and audio-impaired individuals was created to provide adults who did not want to (or could not) attend college with the necessary skills to enter the job market. The AIDB provides services for visually impaired individuals, audio-impaired individuals, and those with multiple disabilities. AIDB serves children, as young as infants and toddlers, to adults of all ages, including seniors with sensory disabilities. Among the many services they offer is aiding children with sensory disabilities in schools. They focus on education and rehabilitation and provide a variety of services, including early intervention for children, and counseling, interpretation, and transportation for individuals of all ages.

Finally, students with disabilities that attend the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) are provided with support through the Disability Support Services (DSS) program. Some of the services provided are note-takers, sign-language interpreters, transportation around campus for mobility-impaired individuals, and specifically catered support such as time extensions on tests and assignments. UAB also provides ramps and sidewalk cuts for easy access to those using a wheelchair or walkers, and many accessible parking spots at the Hill Center for visitors. UAB empowers its students to advocate for themselves and provides the necessary support they need to have a pleasant educational experience.

Part Three: The Different Approaches to Disabilities and the Future of Disability Rights

An image of a woman with disability in a sunflower field with a banner that reads, "nothing about us without us!"

This blog is part three of the conversation around disability rights, especially as it applies to children within the American school system. If you have not read the first two blogs in this series, I suggest you do so. The first blog focused on the historical view of disability and the American school system’s approach to children with disabilities. The second part mainly focused on the struggles that children with disabilities face within the school system, and how these struggles have been exacerbated due to the recent pandemic. This final part will focus on some of the approaches that have been taken in the past to address people with disabilities, and how they differ from a human rights approach. We will also examine how we can help on various levels, whether we want to focus on our personal abilities or advocate for a larger movement.

The Rights of Children with Disabilities

What rights are protected?

An image depicting five children holding signs that read, "the right to be heard", "the right to a childhood," "the right to be educated," "the right to be healthy," and "the right to be treated fairly."
Source: Yahoo Images

Much of what we have established in modern society in terms of children’s rights comes from decades of struggles, from implementing child labor laws to fighting for the right to an education. Similarly, the fight to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was one sure way to protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination. These rights and more are protected under the United Nations, both in terms of people with disabilities, (Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, CRPD), and with children’s rights (Convention on the Rights of the Child, CRC). Yet, these developments have only occurred in recent years; the ADA and the CRC were passed in America and the UN respectively, in 1990, and the CRPD was not adopted internationally until 2006.

The ADA, passed in the United States, protected the rights of people with disabilities from being discriminated against in all aspects of society. This was the first major legislation that protected people with disabilities from being denied employment, discriminated against in places of business, or even denied housing. In addition to these protections, the ADA required industries to be inclusive of those with disabilities through (among other things) taking measures such as building ramps and elevators for easy access to upper-level floors and building housing units with people with disabilities in mind. While America had passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA (originally passed in 1975, and renamed in 1990) by this time, the initial form of this legislation allowed schools to place certain students with disabilities in special programs for no more than 45 days at a time. It was not until its improved form was passed in 2004 that provided the necessary financial and social infrastructure for its successful implementation.

The passage of the CRC, which applies to all individuals under the age of 18, focuses on non-discrimination, the right to life, survival and development, the State’s responsibility to ensure that the child’s best interests are being pursued, including ensuring that the child has adequate parental guidance. Additionally, it focuses on the child’s right to free expression, free thought, freedom to preserve their identity, protection from being abused or neglected, adequate healthcare and education, and includes certain protections the State is required to offer the children, including protection from trafficking, child labor, and torture. Article 23 of this Convention specifically focuses on the rights of children with disabilities, adding that these children have the right to the care, education, and training they need to lead a life of fulfillment and dignity. It also stresses the responsibility of the State to ensure that children with disabilities can live a life of independence and protect them from being socially isolated. Even though the UN passed this Convention in 2004, America is the only nation that has yet to ratify this treaty. This is why certain realities continue to exist, such as what is happening in Illinois.

Finally, we have the CRPD, which entered into force in 2008, only 15 years ago. Influenced by the ADA, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was passed to ensure that people with disabilities were fully protected under the law, including from discrimination, with the ability to function as fully pontificating citizens of their societies, with equal opportunities and the right to accessibility in order for them to lead a life with the dignity and respect afforded to their able-bodied counterparts. This convention had massive support and draws from both a human rights focus and an international development focus. What makes this convention unique is the implementation and monitoring abilities embedded within the treaty itself, and it includes non-traditional actors from communities (usually those with disabilities) with specific roles in charge of monitoring the implementation of this treaty. Unfortunately, the United States, while Obama signed the treaty and passed it to the Senate for their approval in 2009, has yet to fully ratify the CRPD treaty as well.

Some Approaches to Disability Rights

Upon understanding the various nuances of this conversation, we can now explore the three different approaches to defining disability in society. These approaches examine the issues that people with disabilities face and provide models influenced by differing fields of expertise. Many within society view disability as a medical issue and their solutions to the struggles faced by people with disabilities are medically focused. Similarly, others believe that disability is an issue of how society is structured, and their proposals for solving these issues lie within the realms of reshaping society to be more accessible to people with disabilities. Still, another approach built upon the foundations of human rights, focuses on the individual first, and the disability as an extension of their individuality. We will explore these three approaches and their pros and cons.

Approach 1: Medical Model of Disability

An infographic depicting what the medical model of disability stands for. At the center is an individual with arrows pointing to them to place the full responsibility of being disabled on the individual itself.
Source: Yahoo Images

            As mentioned above, some people view disability as a medical issue, and this approach can be categorized as the medical model of disability. This means that they believe that the “problem” of disability belongs to the individual experiencing it and that disability comes from the direct impairment of the person. The focus of this approach is to look for medical “cures” for disability, which can only be provided by medical “experts” based on the specific diagnosis. While it may be true that individuals with disabilities require medical help from time to time, their entire existence does not revolve around this notion of viewing disability as an illness. The focus here is to “fix” the person with disabilities, so they can become “normal” again. This approach also makes use of the “special needs” rhetoric, which can result in the isolation and marginalization of people with disabilities.  Media plays a big part in portraying people with disabilities as weak or ashamed of their disability, which can invoke fear or pity for people with disabilities within the larger society.

Approach 2: Social Model of Disability

A cartoon image to represent the social model of disability. In the image, there are many circular characters attempting to enter a square entrance, and cannot fit in. The gatekeeper informs them to change in order to fit into the system, and they reply back that the system could be changed instead to accommodate them.
Source: Yahoo Images

            Another approach that has been proposed is what is known as the Social Model of Disability. In this approach, the “problem” of disability is seen as a result of the physical and social barriers within society that exclude people with disabilities from fully participating in their society. Disability is seen as a political and social issue, and the goal of this model is to be more inclusive and recognize the prevalence of disability within our societies. This means looking closely at the ableist social institutions and infrastructures present within society and attempting to address these manmade challenges posed by people with disabilities. This model recognizes the social stigma around disabilities and recognizes people with disabilities as differently abled rather than viewing them as incapable of living an independent lifestyle. This approach places individuals with disabilities on a spectrum rather than the two categories of disabled and able-bodied. The goal of this approach is to be socially inclusive of all individuals, regardless of their disabilities.

Approach 3: The Human Rights Model of Disability

An image depicting various individuals with the saying, "Nothing about us, without us, is for us" around them.
Source: Yahoo Images

Finally, there is the Human Rights Model of Disability, which builds upon the foundations laid out by the Social Model of Disability and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). In this approach, the focus is on viewing the individual with a disability as a human first, recognizing that disability is a natural part of humanity that has existed as long as humans have been around. While it shares a lot of similarities with the social model, the human rights approach emphasizes not only the right of every individual to be treated equally before the law but also stresses that a person’s impairment should not be used as an excuse for denying them rights. This is essentially what the CRPD centers around, and the main goal of this approach is to ensure that people with disabilities have equal opportunities and protect their right to fully participate in society, politically, civilly, socially, culturally, and economically.

How Can We Help?

A cartoon image with EQUAL on the top, and many characters lined up with shirts that have individual letters on them that spell out "RIGHTS" below it. Below them is the phrase, "human beings are born free and equal - Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1947" on the bottom of the image.
Source: Yahoo Images

On the Internation Level

While the United Nations has a convention that focuses on protecting children’s rights, it is highly debated whether these treaties are being enforced around the world. Child labor is still common in various places around the world, including right here in Alabama. While it can be argued that the US has not ratified the treaty and that is why the UN cannot do anything about this issue, there are other places that have ratified the treaty that still places children in dangerous working conditions and face no real repercussions from these decisions from the UN. In 2019, many tech companies were sued for their use of child labor in other countries to mine the precious minerals they require to produce their devices. Many textile companies within the fashion industry use child labor in nations that have ratified the children’s rights treaty. While the United Nations is trying its best to protect and promote the rights of vulnerable communities, it has not been able to enforce these treaties and regulations, and as a result, atrocities against those vulnerable communities, (including children), continue to occur. How can we as human beings, ensure that all children are protected from harm, not just those able-bodied, living in wealthier nations? This is something that needs to be addressed, and it requires the cooperation of many different nations willing to put their differences aside and work together to find a solution.

On the Domestic Level

As we explored in the human rights model of disability rights, it is the responsibility of society to provide equal access to all its citizens. This includes its citizens who have disabilities, and not doing so would discriminate against those who have disabilities and violate the Americans with Disabilities Act. This means that both on a national and local level, our infrastructure needs to be updated with an inclusive mindset that makes the roads safer and more accessible to all the citizens using them. As a state, Alabama could not only fix the infrastructure, but also pass bills to ensure that people with disabilities receive the care they need, including employment opportunities, medical assistance, food assistance, and any financial help they may require. Furthermore, on a national level, the police (or another department focused on social work) can be better trained to recognize the various disabilities, both visible and invisible, so people with disabilities are not wrongfully imprisoned for “behavioral” issues. This training would help erode the school-to-prison pipeline that has replaced disciplinary standards in American schools and make way for a brighter future for children with disabilities. Finally, the United States can, at the bare minimum, ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, signed into existence in 1990 by member states of the United Nation. As we mentioned earlier, the United States is the only nation in the world that has yet to ratify this treaty.

On the Individual Level

We can all be more mindful of our actions and our ableist mindsets. Next time you walk down the street, pay attention to the roads and sidewalks. Are there any sidewalks for people with disabilities to use safely? Are there curb cuts, and are those curb cuts freely accessible or are they blocked? How accessible are public buildings such as restaurants, storefronts, or even the DMV? Are there enough parking spots allotted to people with disabilities, and are those spots easily accessible, or blocked off by other vehicles? Thinking outside of an ableist mind frame is the first step toward being more inclusive of people with disabilities. It might seem like a powerless and pointless step to take, but the more you start to notice the ableist structures within society, the more you will want to speak up about these issues the next time you have the opportunity. You will also be more mindful of your own ableist actions and how they may have unintended consequences. If you are a parent, you have the ability to question your school’s practices concerning children with disabilities and offer support to the children and their parents. As an individual, you can also contact your representatives to pass legislation that would empower people with disabilities to live independently. As a society, we need to get past the stigmatization of this group and normalize disability being an innate part of being human.

 

 

Disabilities and the American Education System: From the Past to the Present

A cartoon image depicting students of various backgrounds and disabilities grouped together around the phrase, "We are all wonderfully made"
Source: Yahoo Images

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

An image depicting a child sitting with his head in his hands, next to a pile of books, with various phrases listing different learning disabilities.
Source: Yahoo Images

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

A cartoon image showing the relationship between schools and the legal system, showcasing the school-to-prison pipeline that has become so prominent in the American School System.
Source: Yahoo Images;

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

An infographic depicting the prevalence of mental health issues among the youth. In this infographic, it states that 13% of youth face mood disorders or depression, 32% deal with anxiety disorders, 9% with ADHD, and 3% with eating/feeding disorders.
Source: Yahoo Images

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?

An image of a child sitting in front of a computer trying to learn virtually during COVID-19.
Source: Yahoo Images

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.

 

 

The American Education System and The Treatment of Disabilities in America: A History

An image with characters with various disabilities holding hands forming a circle around the words, "Diversity, Difference, Disability".
Image 1 – Source: Yahoo Images;

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

An image depicting young children posing in front of the heavy machinery they worked with inside the textile mills.
Image 2 – Source: Yahoo Images

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.

An image with two side-by-side photos of the same three indigenous children before and after being forced into boarding school to be assimilated.
Image 3 – Source: Yahoo Images;

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

A black and white image depicting young children with disabilities outside of their school, with a sign that reads, "School Days at Eastwood, 1949."
Image 4 – Source: Yahoo Images

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?

An image depicting a man who is audio-visually impaired, being held down as a priest performs an exorcism on him to "free" him from the demons possessing his body. This was a popularly held belief about people with disabilities.
Image 5 – Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting a man who is audio-visually impaired, being held down as a priest performs an exorcism on him to “free” him from the demons possessing his body. This was a popularly held belief about people with disabilities.

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

An image depicting an asylum, where people with disabilities were forcibly committed. In this image, there is a bed, and a wheelchair in the room big enough for one person, but many facilities were not as fortunately funded or furnished.
Image 6 – Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting an asylum, where people with disabilities were forcibly committed. In this image, there is a bed, and a wheelchair in the room big enough for one person, but many facilities were not as fortunately funded or furnished.

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.

An image of a patient bound with straps, a barrier in his mouth, and hooked up to an instrument that administered electroshock therapy. This "treatment" and others were used upon patients within the sanatariums to "cure" individuals with disabilities.
Image 7 – Source: Yahoo Images

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.

Deinstitutionalization

An image of a patient in a mental institution being dragged out by two staff members.
Image 8 – Source: Yahoo Images; When the institutions closed without much warning, many of the patients were left stranded to fend for themselves with no help from the government.

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

An image depicting the disability movement, with many people with disabilities gathered to fight for their rights. They hold a banner that reads a quote from Martin Luther King Jr., "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
Image 9 – Source: Yahoo Images;

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.

A cartoon image of people standing together calling for equal rights with the words, "all human beings are born free and equal," quoted from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights passed in 1948.
Image 10 – Source: Yahoo Images

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.

 

Attack on Gender-Affirming Healthcare in Texas

After decades of systemic and societal discrimination, an array of hope burst through the clouds of despair for transgender individuals. Recently, greater acceptance of transgender individuals in modern culture has opened doors to accessible and evidence-based transgender healthcare. Budding healthcare infrastructure has helped transgender individuals transition and care for their changing bodies providing relief for the marginalized community. Healthcare professionals and teams of scientists worked for decades through societal judgement and the subsequent roadblocks to ensure that the transgender community had an improved chance at a healthy life as non-transgender individuals. However, increasing vitriol exacerbated by politicians has tightened restrictions for gender affirming healthcare across the United States. 

Cube beads spelling the word “transgender”; Source: Unsplash

Introduction

In February 2022, Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton released a directive stating that gender transition therapies including hormone therapies, puberty blockers, or surgery given to minors can be investigated as child abuse and given criminal penalties. Officials, teachers, parents, nurses, and anyone involved in direct contact with children were required to report suspicions of such therapies, framing the act more as concern for children’s safety and innocence. Anyone found supporting or prescribing such treatment, including parents or healthcare providers, would be subject to child abuse investigations by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. The agency was instructed to prioritize cases in which parents who provide their transgender children with gender-affirming care above all other child abuse cases. Strangely, the caseworkers were told to investigate regardless of whether the standard of sufficient evidence was met and to not record their investigation in writing. 

Days after the directive was announced, the Texas Department of Protective and Family Services launched an investigation into a federal employee, a mother of a transgender daughter, after she inquired when the directive would be made effective. A federal judge blocked the investigation only 2 days later. In the immediate weeks following the directive‘s release, at least nine families were already facing child abuse investigations for supporting their transgender children in obtaining gender-affirming care. This past spring, the clouds in an otherwise tranquil sky began to blot out blossoming hope as intimidated healthcare providers canceled hormone prescriptions and the few existing transgender youth treatment facilities closed. Families clamored to find alternative sources of hormones and puberty blockers for their children. Some became afraid to claim the transgender label, many moved out of the state, and hundreds more were at home, fighting for their right to exist as their gender identity and as themselves.  

Image of protest with posters listing "Transgender Healthcare"
Image of protest with posters listing “Transgender Healthcare”

Medical Evidence 

In a statement to the Texas Tribune, U.S. Surgeon General stated that this directive interferes with the physician-patient relationship which has no place for religion, beliefs, or politics. Abbott’s directive and Paxton’s following opinion sparked intense backlash from the medical community for blatantly ignoring decades worth of research supporting early transitional care.  

When children first learn that they are transgender, they face a physical and mental health disorder known as gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria is a condition where individuals experience severe dissonance between the gender they identify as and the physical manifestations of their biological gender. Depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts often follow this sense of “not self” that plagues many adolescents as they begin to come out to the world with their new name and pronouns. To significantly improve the outcomes of transgender individuals, all major medical organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Physicians, and American Psychiatric Association support gender transition as an effective therapy. Transitioning includes gender-affirming hormonal therapy and puberty blockers. Hormonal therapy begins and allows for a smoother transition into the opposite gender while puberty blockers suppress the body’s natural maturation process to increase the amount of time children and their bodies have to transition into a new gender. In the meantime, individuals receive mental health support and preparation for a successful transition and in unfortunate cases, wait for legislation to increase access to gender affirming treatments.  

Overhead view of medications and hormone therapy. Source: Unsplash

The most prevalent medical reason for opposing gender transition is the possibility that a transgender individual will have regrets, because what is done cannot be undone easily. Although it is a valid concern, puberty blockers exist for children and individuals who are uncertain about their gender, because they provide ample time for the individual to choose not to change genders, if that is later realized. In addition, regrets are “extremely rare” and can be attributed to adverse social climates more than personal attitude. Proper mental health support and preparation are also important for a successful gender transition to recognize behavioral changes and tackle the paradoxical shared sentiment that transgender people are no longer welcome in conservative society.  

Alabama and Florida Response

Governor Abbott’s attempt to restore conservative values in Texas is not a new phenomenon. Texas has seen several bills criminalizing medical care for transgender children which is reflective of a broader trend across the United States. In the past year alone, 21 states drafted bills to deny transgender medical care. Arkansas passed a bill making it illegal to prescribe puberty blockers and for insurance companies to cover transgender care. Other conservative states, such as Alabama, have taken Abbott’s directive as a green light and are preparing legislation to discourage transgender healthcare and marginalize the LGBTQ+ within their borders. Taking a slightly different approach, Governor DeSantis of Florida introduced what is commonly referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill (House Bill 1557). Also known as the Florida Parental Rights in Education Act, the bill was signed into law and passed by the Florida Senate in March 2022. This bill would effectively prevent gender identity and sexual orientation education in classroom discussion in Florida. Experts worry that the vague descriptions in the law indicate that it be used it to suppress all actions that remotely fall under the literal definition of sex and gender, leading to a dangerous slippery slope that may open a dark path of minority discrimination. 

Black and white image of a protest with the phrase "No Body Is Illegal" centered.
Black and white image of a protest with the phrase “No Body Is Illegal” centered.

On April 8th 2022, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed into law two bills preventing medical professionals from providing gender-affirming care and forcing individuals to use the restroom of their biological gender. In an unprecedented move, the Vulnerable Child Compassion and Protection Act makes arranging gender-affirming treatment including puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, and surgery for children under 19 a felony with a possible sentence of up to 10 years in prison if convicted. The second bill is culturally similar to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” Bill. This bill prohibits teaching or using words related to “sex” and “gender.” 

Current Status

A lawsuit filed by families of transgender children weeks after Abbot’s directive was announced resulted in an injunction from federal courts. Abbott vs Doe reached the Supreme Court in May 2022 during which the court ruled that Abbott had no authority to control child welfare officers and direct them to investigate providing transgender healthcare. The country released a sigh of relief, but the fight is not over. Stopping Abbot’s directive seems more akin to a pause on the right’s crusade against the transgender community than a stop.

Recent reports from The Washington Post also suggest that Attorney General Paxton attempted to collect gender marker changes and other transgender identifying information on driver’s licenses from the Texas Department of Public Safety in early 2022. Human Rights Campaign reports that Paxton’s office requested the names and license plates of these individuals later in the inquiry, as well. This news comes as a new shackle for transgender Texans. Some have changed back their gender identity on their licenses to the way it was prior. If not, police or other government officials would know of their transgender identity with the search of their name during traffic stops or unrelated incidents which could lead to dangerous discrimination.  

To support the fight for transgender safety in Texas, support politicians and lawmakers who oppose legislation limiting transgender healthcare. Advocate for the reopening of the University of Texas’s youth transgender clinic, the only one of its kind in the southwestern United States, that closed last November. People in Texas and across borders can also donate Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which are organizations working to keep the injunction in place on Governor Abbott’s directive after AG Paxton filed an appeal against the federal court decision. They, in conjunction with the Transgender Education Network of Texas and Equality Texas have also assembled the LGBTQIA+ Student Rights Toolkit which is a set of explanations and guidelines to understand Texas’s current plight as well as additional resources such as TX Trans Kids.  

Remembering Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as we Celebrate Human Rights Day

by Chadra Pittman

“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”   Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr                                            
photo of MLK making a speech
Source: Yahoo Images

On this day, January 16, 2023, we remember a man known as the champion of human rights, Civil Rights Leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who would have been 94 years old had he lived. As the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King dedicated his life to advocating against racial discrimination and injustice. Through multiple death threats, the bombings of his family home, enduring physical attacks and being stabbed, until his assassination on April 4, 1968; Dr. King remained committed to the principle of non-violence. He was only 39 years old when he was killed.

Dr. King believed in the universality of human rights for all and acknowledged that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  What better way to begin a blog about “Human Rights Day” and the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”, than on the day we commemorate the birth of a man who used his voice, and ultimately risked his life in pursuit of equal rights for all of humanity,

The UDHR document
Source: United Nations

Seventy-five years ago, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948, at a General Assembly meeting in Paris. The UDHR was created to formalize a global standard for human rights across the world. Annually, on December 10th, a day which commemorates the passing of the UDHR, the UN acknowledges this day as Human Rights Day.

What is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

In less than half a century, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) has come to be regarded as possibly the single most important document created in the twentieth century and as the accepted world standard for human rights. Referred to as a milestone document in the history of human rights, the UDHR is a collaborative effort of experts from the legal and cultural fields from around the world. The goal was to create a document which rights would be acknowledged globally and would serve as protection for all people living within any nation across the world. 

As the most translated document in the world, the UDHR is available in 500 languages, which speaks to the efforts made to ensure that all humans across the world are aware of their human rights, can access them in their native language and know that those rights are acknowledged by the United Nations and the world. It was Former First Lady of the United States, Eleanor Rooselvelt, who served as Chair of the Human Rights Commission (HRC),  who advocated for the declaration to be “…written in clear accessible language so that it might be readily embraced by peoples of the world. She exerted similar pressure on the U.S. State Department, arguing that for the declaration to have any impact it must not be seen as an American or western dominated document.” She also recognized that the U.S. would receive criticism for advocating for human rights across the globe, when the racist policies of Jim Crow were plaguing the lives of African Americans within the United States.  Even so, the Commission forged onward and the UDHR was born.

UN Poster that reads "Stand Up for Human Rights"
Source: United Nations

Timeline for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

On April 25, 1945, on the heels of World War II, representatives from fifty nations met to “organize the United Nations” in San Francisco, California. On June 26, the representatives adopted the United Nations Charter, Article 68. The purpose of this article was for the General Assembly  to “set up commissions in economic and social fields and for the promotion of human rights.” 

In December 1945, Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was appointed by then President Harry S. Truman to the United States delegation to the United Nations. UN Secretary-General Trygve Lie, appointed Roosevelt to the commission and with the task of creating the formal Human Rights Commission (HRC).

In February 1946, a “nuclear” commission on human rights was created by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and its job was to recommend a “structure and mission for the permanent Human Rights Commission (HRC)”.  

In April 1946, Roosevelt was nominated to be the chair of the HRC. The ECOSOC gave the HRC three tasks to complete: “a draft International Declaration, a draft covenant, and provisions for the implementation.” 

On December 10, 1948, after convening with “representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, the Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris (General Assembly resolution 217 A). 

photosearch/Getty Images
photosearch/Getty Imagesj

Roosevelt led the way to ensure that the declaration was inclusive and advocated that when considering human rights that the State Department make sure that, it must not be seen as an American or western dominated document… advocating that they “…expand its concept of human rights from a concept of merely political and civil rights to include economic, social, and cultural rights.” 

What are the Human Rights Concerns of 2022?

One might think, we have come far in our efforts to afford equitable attainment of human rights to all people across the world. While we, collectively have made strides, we still have a long way to go to free the world of human rights violations. According to the Institute for Human Rights and Business, listed below are the top 10 human rights issues in 2022.

  • Redesigning supply chain
  • Personal Data Tracking & Tracing
  • Stranded at Sea
  • Wage Abuse
  • Office and Work Place
  • Forced Labor
  • Climate Change
  • Racial Matters
  • Standards Fragmentation
  • Transition Finance

These issues are reflective of the ongoing and unprecedented impact of COVID-19.

On December 10, 2023, the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will be celebrated. However, on Human Rights Day, December 10, 2022, the United Nations will launch a year-long campaign to showcase the UDHR by focusing on its legacy, relevance and activism.” The 2022 slogan is “Dignity, Freedom, and Justice for All.”

How to Participate in Human Rights Day on December 10th and beyond

Your college experience is full of opportunities to grow and learn, academically, socially and even politically. You will meet people from varying backgrounds and having lived experiences which may be foreign, pun intended, to you. So on Human Rights Day, what can you do to support the initiative? Well, the college interns at the United Nations Association, came up with 10 Ways to support Human Rights Day. Hopefully, you will be inspired to do one.  

1. Pass a student government resolution: Work with a member of your student government or student council to pass a resolution in honor of Human Rights Day.

2. Write an op-ed or article in your school’s newspaper: School newspapers can be a great place to talk about the importance of human rights around the world.

3. Stage a public reading: Set up a microphone in your student center or, if the weather’s right, outside and read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in full.

4. Set up a free expression wall: Set up a blank wall or giant piece of paper and encourage your friends to write about what human rights mean to them.

5. Make a viral video about human rights day: Film your UNA chapter kicking it Gangnam style to celebrate human rights and put the video online: it’ll go viral in a matter of minutes.

6. Start a Facebook campaign: Encourage your friends to change their profile pictures to an individualized Human Rights Day banner.

7. Hand out t-shirts and other gear: If you have the funds, buy t-shirts, sunglasses, or even 90’s-style sweatbands featuring a slogan about human rights to give to your classmates.

8. Coordinate an extra-credit lecture: Work with professors in the history department, the law school, or the international relations program to host a lecture about human rights, and work with other professors in the department to get attendees extra credit—trust us, your friends will thank you.

9. Hold a candlelight vigil or other commemorative event: While it’s important to have fun, human rights are serious business. Consider holding a vigil or other event to commemorate those who have suffered human rights abuses and those whose human rights are still violated.

10. Hold a talent show, dance, or party: Big social events are a great way to bring awareness to an issue, so why not have a human rights-themed party? Free admission if you dress up like Eleanor Roosevelt or Ban Ki-Moon. Also, here are two organizations you can support: Free and Equal and He for She.

Former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela once said that, “To deny people their human rights is to deny their very humanity.” For the past 75 years, the UDHR has existed to ensure that our human rights are not violated, and if they are that there is accountability on a global stage.  We all deserve the right to live freely and uninhibited, the freedom to love who we want and practice the religion of our choice. We must work together as a humanity to ensure that protecting our human rights continues to be a priority. 

For Dr. King, protecting, and advocating for human rights and speaking out against injustice was his priority. On August 28, 1963, officially called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom… some 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, and more than 3,000 members of the press covered the event. On that historic day, Dr. King said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” 

Let us work together to transform his dream into reality. Beyond this nation of the United States, let us work collectively to ensure equal and equitable rights for ALL women, men, and gender nonbinary humans.  Protecting human rights was a priority for Dr. King. On November 3, 1967, just a few miles away from this campus of UAB, Dr, King wrote his infamous ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to the Clergymen.

Martin_Luther_King_Jr_in_Jefferson_County_Jail_Birmingham_Alabama_November_3_1967

Martin Luther King Jr. in Jefferson County Jail, Birmingham, Alabama, November 3, 1967 Fair use image“While confined here in the Birmingham jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely… I am in Birmingham because injustice is here…  Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Dr. King reminds us that “The time is always right to do what is right” and that we as a humanity must ensure that the single garment of destiny is threaded with equal rights for all humans for this is the only true way forward. In the spirit of Dr. King, we must work to ensure that the rights of ALL humans are acknowledged, respected and protected by law, and not just on Human Rights Day, but every day, and everywhere across the globe.

 

Book Bans in the United States: History Says it All

My mother is the youngest of 5 Indian daughters, all of whom are PhDs, professors, researchers, and educators. My grandfather, a lawyer, raised her, and like clockwork, he repeated that knowledge is akin to clay, a necessary foundation for anyone’s house of decisions, thoughts, ideologies, and actions. Because of this, nothing was more important than my education and, later, my brother’s education.

The right to knowledge that my upbringing revolved around is synonymous with the right to choose, the freedom of expression, and the right to read – all rights outlined directly or indirectly in the United States Constitution and subsequent Supreme Court decisions justified by the First Amendment.

Despite the First Amendment’s protection, book bans in schools are threatening this right to knowledge for students. Within the last 2 years, books of all literary and historical acclaim, including modern literature, have been banned at an unprecedented rate in an alarmingly organized manner in public school districts.

When people lose their right to this knowledge and succumb to political pressure, it will be a day in history representing humanity losing its most powerful tool to stand up for justice.

Woman looking through book spines in a bookstore.
Woman looking through book spines in a bookstore. Source: Unsplash

History of Book Bans

Book bans are a form of censorship that allows institutions to remove texts from classrooms, libraries, or bookstores because they disagree with the texts’ content. American history, let alone world history, has demonstrated that literary censorship aims to suppress equity movements as a powerful method of ostracizing minorities.

Like all examples of institutional limitations, the most influential books, which have the potential to cause revolutions, are also the most restricted. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe was banned in the Southern United States in 1852 and is traced back as the first example of a book ban. Stowe, a ferocious abolitionist in the North, wrote this book prior to the Civil War to rally abolitionists and swing individuals against the South’s slavery. Since the Constitution was written, Northerners decried the South’s defense of slavery. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a powerful tool that amplified the voices of abolitionists across the country; they believed that slavery was a legal injustice in the Constitution that needed to be removed. Plantation owners, however, were able to pull strings and remove the book from circulation in the South, fearing the loss of economic and racial security that slavery gave them.

A hand fisted upward with a rope wrapped around the wrist. This is a symbol of Juneteenth, the national celebration of the emancipation of slavery.
A hand fisted upward with a rope wrapped around the wrist. This is a symbol of Juneteenth, the national celebration of the emancipation of slavery. Source: Unsplash

One of the first instances of controlling students’ access to books was after the Civil War. The Southern United States restricted access to textbooks that painted the South’s intentions and actions poorly amid the Civil War. An advocacy group in the South referred to as The United Daughters of the Confederacy felt that the control of what information their children were learning during school was beholden to the rights of parents. In 1954, they removed The Rabbits’ Wedding, a novel centered around a black rabbit marrying a white rabbit. They feared it would normalize interracial marriages, a taboo act at the time. 

In direct opposition to school censorship, the Supreme Court ruled that school boards “cannot remove books from school libraries just because they dislike the ideas contained in those books” in the landmark 1982 Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico case. The Island Trees Union Free School district removed titles it deemed “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy.” In conjunction, the Supreme Court also ruled that students retained their First Amendment rights to the freedom of speech and expression in school in the Tinker v. Des Moines case. If we follow the court, censorship is illegal in the U.S.

Young students listening to a teacher or speaker in their school classroom.
Young students listening to a teacher or speaker in their school classroom. Source: Unsplash

Current Statistics on Book Bans

PEN America, a non-profit dedicated to protecting freedom of expression, keeps a running record of books removed from school libraries, reading lists, or public libraries in each school district. Every year, to honor the lessons and values of the diverse perspectives in these books, the United States celebrates Banned Books Week. This year, held during the week of September 12th, PEN America released startling statistics detailing the exponential increase of banned books in a record-setting number of school districts.

Over 1600 books have been banned nationwide. Most of them are fiction and illustrate the lives of the LGBTQ+ community and people of color. In the past, book bans originated from a small scattering of parents making personal requests to remove a few books from circulation or restrict their children from reading them. Today, the opposition is still a minority, but they are organized with structured advocacy groups taking center stage at school board meetings demanding specific books to be removed from circulation. Some of the most banned books, like The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, is a novel centered around a black teen who witnesses her black friend get shot by a white police officer. Another is The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, which discusses the life of a Native-American teenager aspiring to be a cartoonist in an all-white school. Essentially, the most targeted books discuss life outside the white picket fence of middle-class white suburbia.

A collection of books that have been banned or proposed to be banned on a wooden shelf.
A collection of books that have been banned or proposed to be banned on a wooden shelf. Source: Flickr

What do supporters of book bans hope to achieve?

Ellen Hopkins, the author of the Young Adult poetry verse book Crank, is one of the most banned authors in the United States. She feels that parental rights and concern for children’s safety are a smokescreen behind anti-book advocacy groups’ motivation. Hopkins implores that books provide kids with the opportunity to solace in information about their identity and find consolation that they are not alone. They also prepare children for life in the real world by exposing them to situations they might otherwise encounter. Thus, books are a tool for the development of holistic decision-making skills. Removing these opportunities leaves kids with little chance to make better decisions when confronted with situations they are not familiar with. If the child is BIPOC or queer, removing books that have become championed narratives from the respective community isolates them and invalidates their experiences.

Parents often find these books on lists circulating online and present them to their children’s school districts claiming there is offensive or inappropriate content that compromises their children’s innocence. PEN America has found that parents who appear at the board of education meetings en masse and are armed with arbitrary lists of books have rarely even read the books to understand their significance. Descriptions of “obscenity” are affixed to titles as a fearmongering tactic to cultivate reprobatory characterizations of these books as they quickly make their way through advocacy groups’ websites and Facebook to radicalize those that come in contact with these types of posts. Such inflammatory language, which is not considered legally acceptable, elevates a small minority of individuals into a vocal majority to force school boards to comply.

A group of adults in a meeting with notebooks listening and taking notes on the speaker.
A group of adults in a meeting with notebooks listening and taking notes on the speaker. Source: Unsplash

Solutions to Book Bans

Banned Books Week stands as a beacon of hope against the dark wave of censorship. This week celebrates suppressed voices in literature and amplifies authors’ messages through community outreach, and fosters national collaborations. However, progress is made in consistent steps, not leaps.

On a smaller scale, there are many tools you can use in your community to combat literary censorship. Community members, feed off each other’s ideologies, and to mellow the extreme views of this vocal minority, the first step is to provide outlets for conversation. The vocal minority advocating for book bans can be confronted and overcome when faced with the majority opposed to them or their thinking. You can make your presence felt at school board meetings. Show up and voice your opinion and advocate for others to do so over social media. Vote for your local boards of education, library boards, and city council elections. If you want to, run for these board positions yourself or directly appeal or lobby your legislative representatives and defend the importance of all content in books. Unite Against Book Bans also provides communities with toolkits that include essential questions and moderate answers that consider the argument of parental rights while protecting the First Amendment.

In all, I am grateful for the circumspection that my mother and my family’s push for education provided me with. Not only hard skills, but also the ability to think for myself, to derive my own opinions, and to be mindful of how I act and react to new information. My freedom to read and speak gave me a powerful voice that must be available and fostered in everyone.