Mental Health, Autonomy, and Psychosocial Disability
In 1887, Elizabeth Seaman—better known as Nellie Bly—published Ten Days in a Mad-House, a collection of articles she had previously written for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. Along with cementing her status as a World journalist, her raw, unfiltered reporting offered thousands of readers a rare glimpse into a mysterious frontier: American mental asylums.
A Pennsylvania native, Bly’s anonymous newspaper pieces championing women’s rights soon evolved into a career based on investigative journalism. However, complaints from her subjects resulted in newspaper executives assigning her to less controversial topics. After years of rejection and gender discrimination, Bly made a last-ditch attempt to save her career by approaching Pulitzer directly and weaseling her way into a novel undercover assignment. Critics had called her insane her entire life for her risky stories, and now she had to play the part.
Bly’s articles quickly garnered attention for numerous reasons. For one, the story itself was sensational. After successfully feigning insanity with odd mannerisms and facial expressions, Bly found herself in New York City’s Women’s Lunatic Asylum after a medical professional declared her clinically insane. There she remained for ten days despite immediately dropping the act. During this period, staff allegedly attributed her every move, including normal behavior, to her supposed mental illness. This would have perpetually prevented her release had outside contacts not stepped into vouch for her sanity. By this time, Bly had risen to minor celebrity as New York questioned where this “pretty crazy girl” had even come from.
Sanitation was poor. Disease was rampant. Food and potable water were scarce, and the staff frequently resorted to physical and verbal beatings when dealing with those under their care. Upon her exit, Bly stated that she believed many women there were as sane as herself. If anything, the asylum’s treatment of already vulnerable women caused insanity.
Despite Bly’s work sparking outrage over a century ago, inhumane treatment of those with mental health disorders—or psychosocial disabilities—continues today. According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 8 people live with mental health issues. Without adequate support and resources, these conditions can quickly become disabling. Psychosocial disabilities share strong correlations with higher poverty rates, increased medical discrimination, occupational inequity, and other factors contributing to a generally lower quality of life.
In 2020, Human Rights Watch released 56-page document reporting rights violations of the mentally ill. “Shackling,” a recurring theme, was found in 60 countries across six continents.
Shackling is an involuntary type of hyper-restrictive housing. Although it does not include shackles specifically, restraints such as ropes, chains, and wires are commonplace methods in keeping the victim in extremely close quarters. These areas can be sheds, closets, or even caves. Similar to the asylums in Bly’s era, sanitation is a luxury. The detained person often eats, drinks, and defecates in the same space with little ability to prevent contamination.
The motives and background around shackling is a complex cultural issue. Some offenders tend to be family members who, despite loving the person, lack the resources and/or education to deal with mental health crises. Keeping the person confined can appear to be the safest option when confronted with the possibility of them hurting themselves or others.
Additionally, social stigma can create even more danger for the family as a whole as well as the mentally ill individual. Instead of risking exile or ostracization from the community, families may seek alternative healing methods at home, such as herbal remedies, that lack significant medical backing. This, in turn, can intensify psychosocial disability, leaving the family overwhelmed and confused with few options.
Abuse at the Systemic Level
However, abuse does not just occur at the familial level. Mistreatment and abuse flourish in large institutions. The institutions go by many names: asylums, mental hospitals, psychiatric healing centers, etc. These are establishments, often state-funded, purposefully keeping those with psychosocial disabilities away from the general population. Although the institutions usually operate under the pretext of healing and protecting the mentally ill, many criticize the asylum system for blatant human rights offenses.
Paul and his companions walked in chains—literal shackles—and were not allowed clothing. His restroom was a bucket.
In the USA, a wave of deinstitutionalization in the 1970s shuttered many mental asylums, and psychiatric facilities still operating do so with varying levels of success. New York City’s mayor Eric Adams recently announced an expansion of a law allowing months-long involuntary commitment to hospitals for those who, due to mental illness, failed to acquire “basic needs” such as shelter and food. Hospitalization would, in theory, provide the psychosocially disabled with the time and education to recover and start anew.
Opponents quickly pointed out flaws in this process.
As with shackling, involuntary hospitalization represents a loss of autonomy. In a 2022 article in The Guardian, Ruth Sangree reflects on the USA’s changing legislation by connecting it to her own experiences. She describes the monotonous isolation, undercurrent of fear, confusion resulting by the sudden loss of control over her own life. As a nineteen-year-old with no idea of when she would be “set free,” Sangree focused on appearing normal in fear of indefinite hospitalization, regardless of the effectiveness of treatments.
There stands the argument of many critics of institutions: the system is ineffective at best and traumatic at worst. Still, rebuttals exist. In one Times piece, retired employees from a California asylum vouch for the happiness of their patients, stating they “blossomed” when provided with regimen and shelter. This view forms the defense for New York’s law revision, which frames involuntary hospitalization as a compassionate action for the patient’s own well-being.
Objectively, both sides claim to want the same thing: a better quality of life for those with psychosocial disabilities. It has always been the how that stirs debate.
The Future of Mental Health Care
One factor in the corruption of institutional systems lies in language. Terms like “healing center” and “asylum” have historically protected potential perpetrators from legal action. Nellie Bly’s work helped lift the veil around mental health and disability, peeling away the euphemisms to reveal the abuse of a vulnerable population.
Today, watch groups exist for this reason. Organizations such as the Alabama Disability Advocacy Program (ADAP) examine the care of people with disabilities in facilities like hospitals, nursing homes, and schools, where caregivers can easily take advantage of those under their care. If rights violations are found, they can work with the facility to improve conditions or take legal action. These organizations exist on a state and national level in the USA.
Individuals can make a difference by simply learning about mental health and advocating for equal treatment of those with mental health conditions. #BreakTheChains is a movement led by Human Rights Watch with goals of educating communities to prevent the chaining of men, women, and children with psychosocial disabilities.
Additionally, awareness is key—October is recognized as mental health awareness month, and invisible disabilities week is in late October. Psychosocial disability month specifically takes place in July.
“It will help me live a full life — to vote, to marry, and to go to church. It will help people with disabilities to live their own lives and speak for themselves.” – Colby Spangler.
How the Colby Act Began
The Colby Act is named after Colby Spangler, a Shelby County resident who was born with cerebral palsy.
Kim Spangler, Colby’s mom, remembers when she and Colby attended the Spring concert for Colby’s high school band. Colby had been in the school’s band for a year as a freshman. At this concert, the seniors stood up and declared where they would be attending college.
This prompted Colby to ask his mom where he would be going to college, which is something she had yet to consider.
Throughout Colby’s high school career, they began researching colleges that he could attend. Through this research, they learned that Colby’s individualized education plan (IEP) had to reach a certain degree for him to qualify to attend college. They also learned that most college programs preferred or even required that the student was their own guardian rather than being under guardianship by someone else, which was important to note since guardianship is a common occurrence as young people with disabilities become legal adults in Alabama at the age of nineteen. Some critics have called this the “school to guardianship pipeline.”
According to Kim, many people do not realize how many rights people sign away with guardianship, such as the right to vote, marry, and even where you can live.
Through this knowledge, combined with Kim’s advocacy as Colby went through high school, the Colby Act was born. Kim introduced the act in 2022, sponsored by Senator Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) and Cynthia Almond (R-Tuscaloosa). After being unanimously passed on April 20, 2023, the bill was signed into law by Governor Ivey and later went into effect on August 1, 2023. I will discuss this in further detail later, but the Colby Act proposes a legal alternative to guardianship known as supported decision-making. This is an important improvement for disabled people and elderly people since it will preserve their autonomy.
History of Disability Advocacy in America
In the United States, people with disabilities have historically had their rights ignored or entirely removed. While I will not go into explicit detail here, my colleague, James DeLano, recently wrote an article about the atrocities of institutions for disabled people. Though institutions in the context of James’s discussion are far from the only instances where disabled people face being stripped of their rights, I found the brief history to be exceedingly informative as I wrote this article.
Legally and socially, disability rights have not always been viewed as civil rights but through a lens of charity, especially in the case of developmental and intellectual disabilities. Beyond that, legal action to protect disabled Americans came exceptionally slowly.
In 1977, President Carter’s new HEW (Housing, Education, and Welfare) Secretary, Joseph Califano, formed a review board to consider an act that would protect disabled people under federal law. Unfortunately, the board did not include anyone from the disabled community, so many people were concerned that the law would have critical aspects of it removed before being passed. The American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities (ACCD) pushed for the signing of the regulations as they were, with nothing removed by the review board. They stated that if the piece was not signed by April 5, they would respond.
As the date passed with no action, protests began. In April of 1977, around 150 disability advocates staged a sit in a federal building in San Francisco. They remained there for 25 days, refusing to leave until the Carter Administration signed the law that promised to protect people with disabilities. Similar protests broke out across the United States, but most only lasted a few days, making San Francisco one the most impactful.
These are known today as the Section 504 protests. They were a significant turning point because disabled people publicly rejected the pity and charity sentiments and held the Carter Administration accountable for giving them the same protections as every other American.
“Through the sit-in, we turned ourselves from being oppressed individuals into being empowered people. We demonstrated to the entire nation that disabled people could take control over our own lives and take leadership in the struggle for equality,” said activist Judith Heumann.
Through the protests and meetings with the Carter Administration, Section 504 was passed. Beyond that, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 laid the groundwork for the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), which prevented any institution receiving federal funds from discriminating based on ability.
Considering the history of disability advocacy in the US, we have come a long way. Despite that, there is still a lot of work to be done, especially for people with intellectual disabilities.
Distinction of Conservatorship and Guardianship in Alabama
Before diving into what the Colby Act does for Alabamians today, I want to address the elephant in the room and make an important distinction.
Over the past couple of years, there have been a few cases where conservatorships have come under fire, most notably with US pop star Britney Spears. Her father, Jamie Spears, became the conservator of her financial estate and personal life in 2008. One of the more significant outcries from this was when Britney Spears commented that she could not get married and have kids due to her conservatorship. More specifically, she claimed that they would not allow her to have her birth control removed. Many aspects of this conservatorship were considered abusive by much of the general public, sparking the Free Britney movement in 2021. I bring this up to clarify an essential distinction in discussing conservatorships.
Other stories like this have been brought to the public’s attention recently, bringing awareness to conservatorship abuse. With that being said, not all of them represent how conservatorships function in Alabama. In California, where the Spears conservatorship was established, conservators have jurisdiction over the ward’s financial estate and personal life decisions, which would not be the case in Alabama. In Alabama, a conservator has jurisdiction over the person’s estate. In contrast, a guardian would have jurisdiction over a person’s decisions, including the ability to get married or have children.
To put it simply, a guardian makes decisions for a person’s everyday life, and a conservator makes decisions for their financial estate. So, in the state of Alabama, for a person to have the control that Jamie Spears had, they would have to obtain two distinct approvals from a Probate Court: one for a conservatorship of the person’s estate and the other for a guardianship of the person’s decisions in their personal life. With that distinction in mind, we will look at how guardianships impact people with disabilities.
Guardianships for Disabled People in Alabama
In Alabama, the primary way for parents of people with disabilities to help protect their children and young adults as they transition into adulthood at the age of nineteen is by getting guardianship over them.
Guardianship is used when a court proceeding finds a person to be incapacitated. According to the Alabama Disability Advocacy Program (ADAP), Alabama law defines an incapacitated person as “any person who has one or more of the following impairments: mental illness, mental deficiency, physical illness or disability, physical or mental infirmities accompanying advanced age, chronic use of drugs, chronic intoxication, or other cause (except minority), and lacks the ability to make or communicate responsible decisions.”
In essence, guardianship allows another person to make decisions if a court determines someone is incapacitated. Similarly, conservatorship enables another person to make decisions about a person’s estate if a court determines that someone is incapacitated.
The important thing I want to note here is that to be legally declared incapacitated, the person must have one of the listed impairments and lack the ability to make responsible decisions. The person petitioning for guardianship or conservatorship must prove to a judge that the person is incapacitated based on these criteria.
Many people have guardians for a variety of reasons. For example, many older adults struggle to make responsible decisions and keep themselves and others safe as they grow older, so guardianship is sometimes needed so that family members can help with medical appointments and make decisions about other fundamental aspects of the person’s life.
While guardianships are necessary for some people who are disabled, they have been used as a one-size-fits-all solution, which fails to account for the varying abilities and needs of different people with disabilities.
Guardianship also proves problematic if a guardian decides they no longer want to have the responsibilities of being a guardian. More commonly, the guardian dies, which can result in a delay in decision-making for the ward (the person for whom the guardianship is for).
Often, it takes time for a new guardian to be set up. In many cases, the ward will become a ward of the state, which means that a judge, or, in some cases, even a sheriff, can become the ward’s guardian. State wards are often overworked and underfunded. Beyond that, they have little personal connection to the ward, which increases the risk of the person’s quality of life declining significantly.
Autonomy vs. Protection
One concern for people who have disabilities, especially intellectually disabled people, is the fear of people taking advantage of them. Commonly, guardianships have been established to protect the person from harm, even though they don’t always give parents the protection they seek for the adult.
For example, suppose a young adult has a past of being a victim of domestic abuse. In that case, guardianship may not necessarily protect them from that. Still, it is often viewed as a sort of legal footstep for the guardian to step in if things go wrong. Unfortunately, this is not always effective and is still extremely limited in its ability to prevent harm.
While some disabled people may require guardians, the one-size-fits-all approach of guardianship has been seen as the only option for far too long.
The Colby Act defines supported decision-making as “The process of supporting and accommodating an adult in the decision-making process without impeding the self-determination of the adult. This term includes assistance in making, communicating, and effectuating life decisions.” More specifically, the act states the following: “In lieu of a guardianship, an adult may enter into a supported decision-making agreement with supporters who may assist and advise the adult with making certain decisions without impeding the adult’s self-determination.”
This is a critical option for a disabled person who may need assistance making decisions but is not incapacitated as defined by the state, in which case a guardianship would unnecessarily strip them of their autonomy. This can also be a helpful option for aging adults since setting up an SDM agreement can prevent the need for guardians or conservators as they become elders.
The Colby Act defines a supporter as “An individual at least 18 years of age who has voluntarily entered into a supported decision-making agreement with an adult and is designated as such in a supported decision-making agreement.” It also establishes criteria for supporters and limitations on them, such as not obtaining information about the person for purposes beyond their role as a supporter.
Another significant piece of the act is the subject can revoke the SDM agreement at any time by notifying each supporter in writing. This is important because it preserves the adult’s agency and autonomy, allowing them to change the agreement or revoke it if it does not facilitate their ability to live a full life as anyone else would.
The Colby Act is a big deal because it provides a law for something that has been happening informally for a long time. Due to the passing of the Colby Act, people who create supported decision-making agreements will now have additional protections behind the law. Though supported decision-making may not be an effective alternative for every instance where a family is considering guardianship, it is a substantial step in providing an alternative for disabled people who could benefit from a less invasive approach.
What Are Institutions for People with Disabilities?
In this post, I focus on the institutions that were, and remain, facilities operating for the purpose of housing people with disabilities. The National Council for Disability (NCD) defines these institutions as “a facility of four or more people who did not choose to live together.” They summarize a report made by a consortium of self-advocacy organizations based on their experiences with institutionalization. The NCD list of criteria to define an institution, as synthesized from various self-advocacy groups, is that they:
Include only people with disabilities,
Include more than three people who have not chosen to live together,
Do not permit residents to lock the door to their bedroom or bathroom,
Enforce regimented meal and sleep times,
Limit visitors, including who may visit and when they may do so,
Restrict when a resident may enter or exit the home,
Restrict an individual’s religious practices or beliefs,
Limit the ability of a resident to select or remove support staff,
Restrict residents’ sexual preferences or activities,
Require residents to change housing if they wish to make changes in the personnel who provide their support or the nature of the support,
Restrict access to the telephone or Internet,
Restrict access to broader community life and activities.
Historically, these kinds of institutions have primarily included people struggling with mental health and people with intellectual or developmental disabilities.
What Were America’s First Institutions for People with Disabilities?
Mental institutions in America predate the reality of an American nation. The earliest hospital for the mentally ill, the Publick Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds, was founded in Virginia in 1773. It was closer to a prison than what we would now call a hospital; patients were kept chained and shackled, physically abused, intentionally fed rotten food, and bathed in ice water. Inmates were rarely released. Many were placed or kept in prisons prior to or after their evaluation as being “insane.” This began to change in the 1840s; a new medical director attempted to use more humane approaches to treatment. Those included treatment that was consented to and largely removing chains and shackles.
The first modern institution for disabled people was founded by Samuel Gridley Howe in 1848 in Boston, Massachusetts. It was considered experimental, despite others’ previous endeavors taken elsewhere, but Howe had experience in a similar environment, having founded the Perkins Institution for the Blind twenty years earlier. A contemporary article sings praises of the institution. Despite that, the electronic catalog of annual reports by the institution, renamed the Walter E. Fernald State School, ends abruptly in 1973 with a report on identifying child abuse and neglect.
John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy (JFK) played an important role in the early reform of institutions for people with disabilities. Many people know that Kennedy’s sister, Rosemary, was lobotomized, leaving her permanently disabled and confined to a psychiatric institution. Lesser known is that Kennedy established the President’s Panel on Mental Retardation in 1961, the first government committee on the topic. The committee’s recommendations led to numerous regulations being changed and legislation being passed. One Panel member, Eunice Shriver, who was also Kennedy’s sister, went on to found the Special Olympics.
Institutions for People with Disabilities in Alabama
The first mental hospital in Alabama was the Alabama Insane Hospital, founded in 1859 and renamed to Bryce Hospital in 1900. Ricky Wyatt, at the time 15 years old, was committed by a court to Bryce in 1969. He was not mentally ill.
Wyatt’s institutionalization led to a widespread deinstitutionalization movement. His guardian, a former employee of the hospital, sued Bryce Hospital on his behalf. During the discovery process, Wyatt’s lawyers discovered numerous preventable deaths in the facility, as well as a complete lack of plans in case of a fire; there was no way to contact the Tuscaloosa fire department after 5:00 PM, and the fire hydrants on the property were decades old and incompatible with modern firefighting equipment.
That lawsuit, Wyatt v. Stickney (1972), was part of the beginning of a legal deinstitutionalization movement. It created a minimum standard for care at Alabama institutions for the mentally ill.
Willowbrook State School
Willowbrook was a state-funded institution in Staten Island from the 1940s until the late 1980s. The school was over its capacity in only a few years; in 1965, Robert Kennedy described Willowbrook as a “snake pit” with “rooms less comfortable and cheerful than the cages we put animals in a zoo.” The few changes that resulted from Kennedy’s visit were insubstantial and short-lived.
Another infamous incident in Willowbrook’s history was the hepatitis experiment conducted on the children in residence. The exact rate of hepatitis infection in children at Willowbrook is unknown; I have seen estimates ranging from 30% to 90% of children becoming infected during their time at Willowbrook. At the time, many specific details of hepatitis were unknown. Willowbrook had a local strain of hepatitis that was reputed to be less lethal than strains common elsewhere. Saul Krugman, funded in part by the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office, began conducting a study on hepatitis in Willowbrook – initially starting with an epidemiological focus, then shifting to a more involved study. Krugman intentionally infected 60 children at Willowbrook with the hepatitis virus by feeding them live samples of the hepatitis virus. Krugman “watched as their skin and eyes turned yellow and their livers grew bigger.”
Willowbrook left the public consciousness almost entirely until 1972, when Geraldo Rivera created a bombshell documentary that exposed the conditions at Willowbrook State School and institutions like it. In March 1972, residents’ parents filed a class-action lawsuit alleging violations of the constitutional rights of Willowbrook residents. Just three years later, as a result of the lawsuit, the Willowbrook Consent Decree created standards the institution would be Willowbrook open, however; Willowbrook State School formally closed “officially and forever” on September 17th, 1987.
Despite the promise made in the wake of the Willowbrook scandal, alumni are still mistreated today. In 2020, The New York Times published the results of an investigation conducted into recent abuses in a group home in New York where some Willowbrook alumni resided. They describe physical abuse and neglect, including injuries caused by scalding water, deaths caused by neglect, and ant infestations. The investigation made allegations against 13 employees, nine of whom still worked for the agency, and seven of those still worked in group homes at the time of the article’s publishing.
Institutions for People with Disabilities Today
In 2018, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), along with other federal agencies, published a report on group homes, which have largely succeeded large institutions like Willowbrook or Bryce. They found that, in 49 states, health and safety procedures were not being followed.
“OIG found serious lapses in basic health and safety practices in group homes. OIG made multiple referrals to local law enforcement to address specific incidents of harm.”
Between 2004 and 2010, 1,361 people with disabilities died in Connecticut. 82 of those deaths were caused by neglect or abuse. The causes were found to be due to “abuse, neglect, and medical errors.” The OIG found that “State agencies did not comply with Federal waiver and State requirements for reporting and monitoring critical incidents.” These “critical incidents” include deaths, assaults, suicide attempts, and missing persons.
While we, as Americans, often like to think our country has advanced for people with disabilities, the reality is disappointing. Willowbrook alumni are still being abused forty years later. Group homes have been found to have widespread abusive and neglectful practices.
State Protection & Advocacy agencies exist as a legal protection for people with disabilities. In Alabama, the Alabama Disability Advocacy Program provides legal assistance to people with disabilities in cases involving civil rights violations and has the ability to investigate said cases in hospitals, group homes, schools, and any other facilities where abuse or neglect of people with disabilities occurs.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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
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.
This blog is part three of the conversation around disability rights, especially as it applies to children within the American school system. If you have not read the first two blogs in this series, I suggest you do so. The first blog focused on the historical view of disability and the American school system’s approach to children with disabilities. The second part mainly focused on the struggles that children with disabilities face within the school system, and how these struggles have been exacerbated due to the recent pandemic. This final part will focus on some of the approaches that have been taken in the past to address people with disabilities, and how they differ from a human rights approach. We will also examine how we can help on various levels, whether we want to focus on our personal abilities or advocate for a larger movement.
The Rights of Children with Disabilities
What rights are protected?
Much of what we have established in modern society in terms of children’s rights comes from decades of struggles, from implementing child labor laws to fighting for the right to an education. Similarly, the fight to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was one sure way to protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination. These rights and more are protected under the United Nations, both in terms of people with disabilities, (Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, CRPD), and with children’s rights (Convention on the Rights of the Child, CRC). Yet, these developments have only occurred in recent years; the ADA and the CRC were passed in America and the UN respectively, in 1990, and the CRPD was not adopted internationally until 2006.
The ADA, passed in the United States, protected the rights of people with disabilities from being discriminated against in all aspects of society. This was the first major legislation that protected people with disabilities from being denied employment, discriminated against in places of business, or even denied housing. In addition to these protections, the ADA required industries to be inclusive of those with disabilities through (among other things) taking measures such as building ramps and elevators for easy access to upper-level floors and building housing units with people with disabilities in mind. While America had passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA (originally passed in 1975, and renamed in 1990) by this time, the initial form of this legislation allowed schools to place certain students with disabilities in special programs for no more than 45 days at a time. It was not until its improved form was passed in 2004 that provided the necessary financial and social infrastructure for its successful implementation.
The passage of the CRC, which applies to all individuals under the age of 18, focuses on non-discrimination, the right to life, survival and development, the State’s responsibility to ensure that the child’s best interests are being pursued, including ensuring that the child has adequate parental guidance. Additionally, it focuses on the child’s right to free expression, free thought, freedom to preserve their identity, protection from being abused or neglected, adequate healthcare and education, and includes certain protections the State is required to offer the children, including protection from trafficking, child labor, and torture. Article 23 of this Convention specifically focuses on the rights of children with disabilities, adding that these children have the right to the care, education, and training they need to lead a life of fulfillment and dignity. It also stresses the responsibility of the State to ensure that children with disabilities can live a life of independence and protect them from being socially isolated. Even though the UN passed this Convention in 2004, America is the only nation that has yet to ratify this treaty. This is why certain realities continue to exist, such as what is happening in Illinois.
Finally, we have the CRPD, which entered into force in 2008, only 15 years ago. Influenced by the ADA, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was passed to ensure that people with disabilities were fully protected under the law, including from discrimination, with the ability to function as fully pontificating citizens of their societies, with equal opportunities and the right to accessibility in order for them to lead a life with the dignity and respect afforded to their able-bodied counterparts. This convention had massive support and draws from both a human rights focus and an international development focus. What makes this convention unique is the implementation and monitoring abilities embedded within the treaty itself, and it includes non-traditional actors from communities (usually those with disabilities) with specific roles in charge of monitoring the implementation of this treaty. Unfortunately, the United States, while Obama signed the treaty and passed it to the Senate for their approval in 2009, has yet to fully ratify the CRPD treaty as well.
Some Approaches to Disability Rights
Upon understanding the various nuances of this conversation, we can now explore the three different approaches to defining disability in society. These approaches examine the issues that people with disabilities face and provide models influenced by differing fields of expertise. Many within society view disability as a medical issue and their solutions to the struggles faced by people with disabilities are medically focused. Similarly, others believe that disability is an issue of how society is structured, and their proposals for solving these issues lie within the realms of reshaping society to be more accessible to people with disabilities. Still, another approach built upon the foundations of human rights, focuses on the individual first, and the disability as an extension of their individuality. We will explore these three approaches and their pros and cons.
Approach 1: Medical Model of Disability
As mentioned above, some people view disability as a medical issue, and this approach can be categorized as the medical model of disability. This means that they believe that the “problem” of disability belongs to the individual experiencing it and that disability comes from the direct impairment of the person. The focus of this approach is to look for medical “cures” for disability, which can only be provided by medical “experts” based on the specific diagnosis. While it may be true that individuals with disabilities require medical help from time to time, their entire existence does not revolve around this notion of viewing disability as an illness. The focus here is to “fix” the person with disabilities, so they can become “normal” again. This approach also makes use of the “special needs” rhetoric, which can result in the isolation and marginalization of people with disabilities. Media plays a big part in portraying people with disabilities as weak or ashamed of their disability, which can invoke fear or pity for people with disabilities within the larger society.
Approach 2: Social Model of Disability
Another approach that has been proposed is what is known as the Social Model of Disability. In this approach, the “problem” of disability is seen as a result of the physical and social barriers within society that exclude people with disabilities from fully participating in their society. Disability is seen as a political and social issue, and the goal of this model is to be more inclusive and recognize the prevalence of disability within our societies. This means looking closely at the ableist social institutions and infrastructures present within society and attempting to address these manmade challenges posed by people with disabilities. This model recognizes the social stigma around disabilities and recognizes people with disabilities as differently abled rather than viewing them as incapable of living an independent lifestyle. This approach places individuals with disabilities on a spectrum rather than the two categories of disabled and able-bodied. The goal of this approach is to be socially inclusive of all individuals, regardless of their disabilities.
Approach 3: The Human Rights Model of Disability
Finally, there is the Human Rights Model of Disability, which builds upon the foundations laid out by the Social Model of Disability and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). In this approach, the focus is on viewing the individual with a disability as a human first, recognizing that disability is a natural part of humanity that has existed as long as humans have been around. While it shares a lot of similarities with the social model, the human rights approach emphasizes not only the right of every individual to be treated equally before the law but also stresses that a person’s impairment should not be used as an excuse for denying them rights. This is essentially what the CRPD centers around, and the main goal of this approach is to ensure that people with disabilities have equal opportunities and protect their right to fully participate in society, politically, civilly, socially, culturally, and economically.
How Can We Help?
On the Internation Level
While the United Nations has a convention that focuses on protecting children’s rights, it is highly debated whether these treaties are being enforced around the world. Child labor is still common in various places around the world, including right here in Alabama. While it can be argued that the US has not ratified the treaty and that is why the UN cannot do anything about this issue, there are other places that have ratified the treaty that still places children in dangerous working conditions and face no real repercussions from these decisions from the UN. In 2019, many tech companies were sued for their use of child labor in other countries to mine the precious minerals they require to produce their devices. Many textile companies within the fashion industry use child labor in nations that have ratified the children’s rights treaty. While the United Nations is trying its best to protect and promote the rights of vulnerable communities, it has not been able to enforce these treaties and regulations, and as a result, atrocities against those vulnerable communities, (including children), continue to occur. How can we as human beings, ensure that all children are protected from harm, not just those able-bodied, living in wealthier nations? This is something that needs to be addressed, and it requires the cooperation of many different nations willing to put their differences aside and work together to find a solution.
On the Domestic Level
As we explored in the human rights model of disability rights, it is the responsibility of society to provide equal access to all its citizens. This includes its citizens who have disabilities, and not doing so would discriminate against those who have disabilities and violate the Americans with Disabilities Act. This means that both on a national and local level, our infrastructure needs to be updated with an inclusive mindset that makes the roads safer and more accessible to all the citizens using them. As a state, Alabama could not only fix the infrastructure, but also pass bills to ensure that people with disabilities receive the care they need, including employment opportunities, medical assistance, food assistance, and any financial help they may require. Furthermore, on a national level, the police (or another department focused on social work) can be better trained to recognize the various disabilities, both visible and invisible, so people with disabilities are not wrongfully imprisoned for “behavioral” issues. This training would help erode the school-to-prison pipeline that has replaced disciplinary standards in American schools and make way for a brighter future for children with disabilities. Finally, the United States can, at the bare minimum, ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, signed into existence in 1990 by member states of the United Nation. As we mentioned earlier, the United States is the only nation in the world that has yet to ratify this treaty.
On the Individual Level
We can all be more mindful of our actions and our ableist mindsets. Next time you walk down the street, pay attention to the roads and sidewalks. Are there any sidewalks for people with disabilities to use safely? Are there curb cuts, and are those curb cuts freely accessible or are they blocked? How accessible are public buildings such as restaurants, storefronts, or even the DMV? Are there enough parking spots allotted to people with disabilities, and are those spots easily accessible, or blocked off by other vehicles? Thinking outside of an ableist mind frame is the first step toward being more inclusive of people with disabilities. It might seem like a powerless and pointless step to take, but the more you start to notice the ableist structures within society, the more you will want to speak up about these issues the next time you have the opportunity. You will also be more mindful of your own ableist actions and how they may have unintended consequences. If you are a parent, you have the ability to question your school’s practices concerning children with disabilities and offer support to the children and their parents. As an individual, you can also contact your representatives to pass legislation that would empower people with disabilities to live independently. As a society, we need to get past the stigmatization of this group and normalize disability being an innate part of being human.
In the last blog, we covered the contextual history of the American Education System, primarily, who was allowed education, who was not, and even the differences in the quality of education that children in America received. We also explored the historical treatment of people with disabilities, both in the larger society, as well as in children with disabilities within the school system. Understanding the past is crucial to analyzing why certain events occur as they do in the future. That is what we set out to do in this continuation of the conversation about disabilities and the American education system. In this second part, we will focus on the realities children with disabilities witness within the education system, including the challenges they face, the school-to-prison pipeline that exists, and how this impacts their development (both mentally and physically). We will then explore how the recent pandemic exacerbated these conditions, and what sort of rights the children possess in this post-pandemic world.
Children with Disabilities in the Education System Today
The many challenges faced by students with disabilities in the classroom
Children with disabilities today face many challenges within the classroom even without taking the pandemic into account. These challenges vary from physical barriers to socio-emotional ones. One thing that needs to be recognized is that not all disabilities are alike, and with various disabilities come various challenges. I don’t want to appear to be generalizing the struggles that children with disabilities face in the school system, because each individual’s experiences vary, even between different places. Some states within the United States may be very inclusive, while others may place the responsibility of accessibility on the people with disabilities themselves. Regardless of which state you live in, my goal here is to spread awareness of the various challenges that children with one or multiple disabilities face as they maneuver through their primary academic journey.
With that being said, one of the most common barriers that children with disabilities face is on the social level. Throughout history, children with disabilities have been separated from the rest of the able-bodied society, and this is also true within the school system. Many schools, when they began to accept children with disabilities into the school system, would educate them separately (in the basement or another room) from the other children. Even today, many children with learning and speech disabilities require additional help from trained professionals, which requires these children to spend extra time on their academics, and less time socializing with their peers. This naturally distances them from able-bodied children their age and can lead children with disabilities to become victims of many instances of bullying and harassment. A crucial element to consider is that while many children their age are dealing with the various emotions that come from development, children with disabilities have to deal with additional fears and insecurities surrounding their disabilities, as they learn to accept and adapt to life with disabilities. This can be challenging in and of itself, without having to deal with the social pressures from peers.
Additionally, while schools receive federal funding to meet the required measures for the children with disabilities within their institutions, this funding is limited, covering less than a quarter of the expenses needed to fulfill the required services for each student. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) we covered in the previous blog allows Congress to allocate up to 40% of the average funding per student, but unfortunately, this has never been exercised by Congress, and funding for special education programs continues to be miserly. Schools receive 15% of the funding they are allocated, but they are still required to fulfill all the mandated regulations simply for receiving federal funding. This means that they have to come up with the remaining 85% of the expenditures on their own, in place of the 55% they would be responsible for covering if Congress secured the full 40%. This can place additional strains on these schools that are already struggling for funds.
Furthermore, children with learning disabilities require trained professionals to provide them with additional support throughout their academic journey. Someone who is hearing impaired may require additional resources to combat the auditory issues they face, or someone who is visually impaired may require additional lessons on how to read in Braille. Others with learning disabilities such as dyslexia (which is a disorder in which someone has difficulty reading and processing language), may need additional patience and support to process the information they are learning. Public schools, by law, are required to provide assistance to children with disabilities and those who have been through traumatic experiences. Licensed professionals that focus on educational needs for children with learning disabilities can be hard to find, and this has only worsened due to the pandemic. As many as 44 states experienced this shortage even before the pandemic, and this number continues to grow due to the issues of limited funding discussed earlier. Without the necessary help that students with learning disabilities require, they continue to fall behind their peers academically.
Many of these challenges can be addressed with more funding allotted to the education system as a whole, and professions within the field of special education can be incentivized by the government (by for example, making the training programs free and accessible to those who are interested) to address the shortage of licensed professionals. The education being taught in the schools can be more inclusive of children with disabilities, with opportunities for the children to share their experiences with their peers and help remove the stigma associated with disabilities by normalizing helpful conversations around disabilities. While these challenges can have a great impact on the learning abilities of children with disabilities, there are some challenges that can have drastic impacts on their futures as a whole.
The school-to-prison pipeline
Unfortunately, along with an increase in school shootings within the educational system, another phenomenon that has become all too common is the use of law enforcement to discipline children. More and more stories have been reported regarding children with disabilities and children of color being subjected to drastic disciplinary measures by school systems. When a child “acts out” or showcases any behavior not supported by the schools, the educators have resorted to involving the law instead of following disciplinary protocols within the schools (such as contacting parents, placing students in detention, or for more serious issues, using suspensions). Police are called on these students, and educators watch as young children are punished for their misdeeds by being harassed by the police. In many instances, these incidents have turned deadly, as police officers have used full force on young children, to force them into complying, at times jeopardizing the children’s well-being. Children as young as 7 years of age have been placed in handcuffs and threatened jail time, for childish behavior such as spitting or throwing tantrums. This can be especially dangerous when children with disabilities are involved because they are accused of “misbehaving” when they are simply reacting differently to situations than their able-bodied peers. The police, with little to no training on the different ways to approach people with disabilities, only escalate the already tense situations.
According to a CBS News analysis of data from the Education Department in 2017-2018, children with disabilities are four times more likely to be arrested than their able-bodied counterparts. Another research conducted by Cornell University reports that 55% of Black men with disabilities have been detained before they reach the age of 28. Young African American children with disabilities, therefore, are the most at-risk demographic to face legal repercussions for “behavioral” issues common among most children their age. This phenomenon, known as the school-to-prison pipeline, which disproportionately targets students of color, (and children with disabilities), involves the use of the criminal and justice systems as a tool to discipline children. Unfortunately, these disciplinary attempts remain on the permanent records of the targeted children and can have lifelong implications that determine their future.
An example of this school-to-prison pipeline is clear when looking into some of the instances where law enforcement is used to discipline children. Jacksonville, Illinois is home to a particular school that makes use of its law enforcement officers for behavioral issues. Garrison School, a public school where children with disabilities in that region attend, has been in the news recently for the staggering number of arrests made within a single school year. Although the population of this school is an average of 60-70 children, the police, who are located less than 5 miles from the school, have been called over 100 times for “behavioral” issues, such as throwing tantrums and spraying water. An investigation into this school found that in the school year 2017-2018 alone, more than half of the entire student body was arrested. As the only public school for children with disabilities in that region of Illinois, caregivers are limited in choices of schools for their children. In addition to having disabilities, the children at this particular school have also experienced immense trauma and violence in their past. Arresting these children for their “behaviors” continues to place these children in traumatic situations, further impacting their development.
Impacts on children with disabilities’ development
Using the criminal and justice systems to punish or “discipline” children with disabilities can have lasting impressions on the children’s futures. For one, especially children such as those from Garrison School, who deal with personal trauma and violence from their past, experiences with law enforcement can deteriorate their mental health even further. Even those without previous trauma can have lasting impressions on their academic success, meaning that children who have been disciplined with the use of law enforcement are even more isolated from their peers and can experience breaks in their educational journeys. Studies have shown that children who have their needs met are more likely to outperform those students who do not have their needs met. Linking back to the school-to-prison pipeline, those students who have been arrested and imprisoned as young adults are more likely to continue down this path of criminality. Additionally, students with disabilities that have been imprisoned have to face the added struggles of maneuvering the prison system with disabilities, and these struggles are increased with multiple disabilities, especially with invisible disabilities, in which case, many people may not even believe the existence of these disabilities. Studies have shown how incarceration can worsen issues of mental illness within the prison population, and when translated to the impact imprisonment has on people with disabilities, these conditions are exponentially worse.
How it impacts children with disabilities’ professional futures
In addition to the harm this causes to the development of children with disabilities, the practice of using law enforcement to discipline school children has far-reaching consequences. For one, the children who are constantly “othered,” bullied, or harassed by both students and teachers can internalize their experiences and react to them, increasing their chances of being disciplined again for behavioral issues. In addition to that, being imprisoned, even for a few days, can be a traumatic experience that can shape your worldview, and as a result, your future. For young, developing children, these experiences can be impressionable, and coupled with the isolation that many children with disabilities experience, this can be a devastating combination, resulting in the deterioration of the children’s physical and mental well-being. Furthermore, many of these zero-tolerance policies that end in the arrests of children happen due to the faculty members pressing charges against the children. These charges, though they can be sealed for juvenile offenses, can lead to more charges in these children’s future into their adulthood. A criminal history into your adulthood can result in slim educational and employment options. Research conducted more broadly on this subject has been reported by the Prison Policy, and it showcases how increasingly difficult it is to find decent employment upon exiting the prison system. The report adds that even when formerly incarcerated people do find employment, they are often paid fewer wages than their co-workers.
Applying this research to children with disabilities who are disciplined through the legal system, can be an even bigger challenge for their futures. People with disabilities experience many barriers to obtaining employment even without imprisonment on their records. Studies have shown how incarcerating children does not deter them from engaging in criminal behavior in the future; it might actually have the opposite impact. Finally, children who are incarcerated experience large gaps in their education, and this can impact their ability to successfully enter the job market. This issue is exponentially worse among children with disabilities because they are more likely to be imprisoned for “behavioral issues”, and expands the academic gap felt by so many children with learning disabilities who are already facing many social and learning barriers.
How did COVID make things worse for children with disabilities?
The pandemic was a time of uncertainty, and many of us were scrambling around not knowing what to do. Even as more and more information came out about the virus itself and how to safeguard it, there was a lot of anxiety and misinformation being spread around. Children with disabilities had to navigate not only their personal lives with their unique experiences but also the larger society that was falling apart around them in the face of a virus. Many businesses and schools shut down in the beginning, which meant that children had to adjust to different learning styles, something that may have been easier for some, but widened the academic gap for others. Children with disabilities as a whole had to be mindful of the threat that the virus posed on their lives. This virus was especially deadly to those with pre-existing conditions and for those who were immunocompromised, both of which apply to many children and adults with disabilities. So, constantly having to live with the anxiety of whether or not they might contract the virus would have been stressful enough without the masking and vaccine debates that have politicized this medical crisis. What is worse, COVID-19 vaccines for children were not available for over a year after the pandemic first began, leaving this population vulnerable to infections with no way to protect themselves against them.
Additionally, along with their children, parents, and caregivers of children with disabilities faced new challenges as everyone attempted to adapt to the “new normal”. While the mandated quarantine helped with transportation issues for some, it opened up a whole new set of issues for many. Children with learning disabilities who received additional help from professionals either had to go without it or transition to seeking their help through zoom. For some, accessing help through Zoom and Telehealth was extremely helpful in addressing the medical needs of people, and this had a positive impact on people with disabilities as a whole. However, accessing Zoom and Telehealth was a challenge on its own for many who lived in rural areas or marginalized areas where internet services were very minimal or nonexistent, or simply unaffordable. The pandemic was a time when many people also lost jobs, so children faced additional financial repercussions from the pandemic. These instances further widened the academic gap among children with disabilities.
This blog mainly focused on the struggles that children face within the American school system. Part three of this series will focus on some of the approaches that have been taken historically when addressing disabilities, and some ways in which we can take action, on a personal level, on a local or national level, and even on an international level.
Even though 1 in 6 people around the world experience disabilities, they are often among the forgotten groups within our society. While people with disabilities today are living under better conditions than their ancestors, there is still a lot of progress needed to be had to ensure that people with disabilities can lead a life of dignity and independence, free from the stigma and failures of society’s ableist mindset. In this two-part blog, we will focus specifically on children with disabilities within the American education system, but before that, it is necessary to frame the historical context surrounding the American education system, and how disability in America has been treated as a whole. As a result, part one of this series will focus on setting the historical context, exploring the American Education System as well as the treatment of people with disabilities throughout American history. The second part of this series will focus on exploring the contemporary issues faced by children with disabilities and their families within the American Education System and learn about a human rights framework for disability rights.
History of America’s Education System
The Unequal Distribution of Knowledge
Since the founding of this country is rooted in capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy, many groups of people have been historically denied access to education. Traditionally, children from poor backgrounds were expected to help their families on the farm or work in their family businesses to make ends meet. As the industrial revolution took hold, child labor transferred from the farms to the factories, and many industries, such as the textile industry preferred to employ children to exploit their minuscule features. The petite features of the children came into use when they were needed to get into tight spots, or when operating machinery that required smaller extremities. Child labor in America was not outlawed until 1938, meaning that many children from poor families were illiterate and disadvantaged in comparison with children from wealthier families, who could afford to educate their children instead.
In addition to the absence of child labor laws, the patriarchal structure of American society deemed it more important for boys and men to be educated than their female counterparts. While poor families were denied access to education on the whole, even among wealthier families, the education of boys was prioritized over educating women. Women were expected to be homemakers and child-bearers in the private sphere, and the public sphere was reserved for their male counterparts. Many women were denied access to education, were not permitted to participate in politics and were limited to feminine jobs (such as teaching, nursing, and domestic work) when they did participate economically in the larger society. It was not until the 19th century that women were given more flexibility in their pursuit of higher education. Of course, not all women shared the same experiences, and white women were better able to receive education than women from other races, and as expressed earlier, wealthier women had more opportunities to educate themselves than did women living in poverty.
Furthermore, the foundations of white supremacy upon which America was built denied people of color access to education. Education provides the key to empowerment, and the status quo did not want to empower those they deemed to be inferior. Due to the hierarchical nature of this supremacist mindset, people from different groups were “dealt with” in different manners. For immigrants, access to education depended on their country of origin. Some immigrants, such as those from Asian countries, were barred from receiving education in America until the 1880s and were instead used for hard labor, like constructing railroads. European immigrants, on the other hand, were well-received by many in America, (with the exception of the Irish), and were granted many of the rights shared by American citizens at the time. There was however, a difference in treatment between the Old immigrants, (which were members from wealthier backgrounds with skills and education levels from the Southern and Eastern parts of Europe that came to America in the early 1800s), and the New immigrants (who were mostly impoverished, unskilled laborers from Western and Northern Europe who migrated to America in the late 1800s).
In addition to immigrants, the indigenous population of America also received access to education with a different approach. In an attempt to force them to forget their rich cultural histories and erase the cultural differences between the indigenous population and the larger (White) American society, children from different tribes were kidnapped and forced into boarding schools where they would learn to be assimilated into the American culture. Indigenous children were punished for speaking their language, engaging in their cultural practices, or even wearing cultural clothing (whether it was casually or for cultural practices). This is one of the reasons that today when people appropriate Native American culture (and attire), it can be very insulting, as they were punished for practicing their culture and wearing their traditional clothing.
Furthermore, during the enslavement of African Americans, who were deemed to be on the lowest level on this racial hierarchy, access to literacy was denied to them and outlawed, making it punishable by law for African Americans to be literate. This law was another way in which racist leaders of the time maintained control over the enslaved population. Following this period, there were many racist laws and social barriers to education for African Americans over time, and it was not until the famous passage of the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that African Americans were given the right to equal education. With all that being said, there is still an ongoing struggle to bring equity, inclusion, and diversity into the American education system.
There can be a whole blog dedicated to the housing market, its impacts on funding for the local schools, and how this influences the level of education the children within those districts experience. As mentioned in previous blogs on similar topics, this funding practice tied to the housing market is, yet another way racism has seeped into American institutions. Transforming the American Education system into a more inclusive one will be a difficult fight ahead, as cries against teachings with an anti-racist approach are molding the current curriculum within the education system today.
The Historical Struggle to Secure the Right to Education for People with Disabilities
This exclusive approach to education also historically denied access to disabled individuals as well. American society has been structured with an ableist mindset, and people with disabilities have been stigmatized and marginalized by the larger society. In the past, many states prevented children with disabilities from attending school, choosing to place them in state institutions instead. Some wealthier families with disabled children could afford to home-school them, but the rest of the children with disabilities within society were not given that opportunity.
Even after education was required for all children, many states refused to provide accommodations for their students with disabilities, and the responsibility of securing access and mobility was placed on the children and their families, rather than the state. Judith Heumann, a well-known disability rights activist, was denied entry to her elementary school during the 1950s because the school district deemed her a “fire hazard” for being mobility impaired and having to use a wheelchair. It was not until the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHC; later known as the Individuals with Disabilities Act or IDEA) in 1975 that educational rights were protected for groups in need, including children with disabilities. While education access was protected under this law, the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 was needed to ensure that people with disabilities are protected from discrimination in all aspects of society.
The Horrific History of Disability in America
How were People with Disabilities Viewed in the Past, and how has that changed today?
Understanding the historical context behind the American education system is only one part of this conversation. Outlining the lens through which disability is viewed today, and in the past, is necessary to comprehend the treatment of children with disabilities within the American education system. Today, people with disabilities are viewed in four ways. For one, following the traditional views of disability, most people with disabilities are simply ignored by society, both as a population, as well as systemically. You can see this is the case by simply looking at some of the ableist framings of our infrastructure. Needless to say, being an invisible group within society comes with its own challenges.
Another common way society approaches people with disabilities is to view them as the “super-crip” (which is extremely insulting) and look at their achievements as “inspirational.” People who believe this highlight people with disabilities in a supernatural sense, similar to how many African Americans were portrayed as supernatural beings with superhuman strength and abilities. This troupe was not helpful to the African American community then, and it is not helpful to people with disabilities today. Some may argue that this troupe seems to be a positive outlook of the group, but upon closer inspection, it is important to recognize the stress and burden of success this places on people with disabilities to feel accepted by society. It also encourages the mindset that these people who achieve extraordinary things are superhuman and that their achievements are highlighted because there is a general conception that this is abnormal for the group. Additionally, for a person with disabilities, it can be insulting and demeaning to hear the phrase, “if a person with a disability can achieve this, so can you!”
Another tactless way in which people with disabilities are regarded, as inferior to the rest of the population. Many able-bodied individuals either view them as a burden to society or simply objects to be pitied. This can have the impact of treating people with disabilities as second-class citizens and making them feel as if they are lacking in some way or another. Those who show pity toward people with disabilities may have good intentions, but their actions treat people with disabilities as victims of fate, rather than with dignity and humanity.
Finally, some people within society treat people with disabilities as if they have undergone a tragic event (whatever led to their disability), and people require “saving” or “treatment” to be “cured” of their ailments. This too is not the case. People with disabilities adapt to living their lives with their disabilities, and they don’t require anyone to “save” them from their disabilities. This is extremely insulting and rude to even think that, and it has the same connotations as would a “white-savior complex” within the context of race. The underlying belief in both of these situations is that the person doing the “saving” believes that the person that needs to be “saved” cannot do this for themselves and that they require the help of the “savior”.
While it is important to understand the contemporary views of people with disabilities, it is equally relevant to familiarize ourselves with the ways in which people with disabilities have been treated in America in the past. Until the 19th century, people with disabilities were separated from participating with the rest of the larger society. During colonial times in America, people with disabilities were treated in a similar light as the Salem witches, either burned or hanged. Others viewed disability as a sign of God’s disapproval of the colonists, and people with disabilities were treated as though they were possessed. Still, others felt that people with disabilities were a disgrace to their family and their community, and many were shunned from their homes. The larger society lumped criminals, poor people, mentally ill people, and people with disabilities under the same roof, labeling them as outsiders. This practice evolved into the many horror stories that we may be familiar with today regarding asylums and their treatment of their patients. An important note: as it is with other American institutions, racism, and sexism disproportionately impact the lives of people of color and women within these institutions, and this translates into how they are perceived and treated by the larger society as well. This remains true for people with disabilities with identities that are not aligned with the patriarchal, white society.
The mistreatment and abuse of people with disabilities within asylums
People with disabilities, along with other vulnerable groups that were stigmatized by society, were pushed into asylums. These were large “hospitals” stocked with medical equipment and personnel in which the goal was to provide care and treatment for the patients that resided within these asylums. The reason I placed hospitals in quotations is that many of these asylums were simply places to house all the people society did not want. These patients were experimented on, abused, neglected, and had almost no rights to defend themselves. Some patients that were from wealthy families were able to be treated at home, but others that came from meager backgrounds were not as fortunate. Many of the staff working within these institutions were unsympathetic towards their patients, feeling burdened by their very existence. Many people (within the institution and outside in the larger society) believed that people with mental illness and people with disabilities were “acting out” on purpose, to make life harder for those “upstanding” citizens of society. Many of the patients were misdiagnosed, and the institutions went from trying to care for the patients to “cure” the patients of their disabilities. The stigmatization of these groups within the asylums meant that their needs and wants were ignored. In addition to that, because it did not require a professional recommendation from a medical practitioner to admit patients into the asylums, many people were wrongly admitted to these institutions (because of personal grudges or disapproval of their behavior) for years without the right to defend and protect themselves.
Of course, it is not wise to lump every institution together and generalize about their treatment of their patients. While some were genuinely trying to take care of their wards and research ways to help “cure” them, others were less sympathetic to the plights of people with disabilities, both visible and invisible. For one, similar to the issues that American prisons face today, asylums were overcrowded, understaffed, and underfunded. This meant that each individual residing within the institutions was not given the personal care they required, and instead, they were all lumped into groups to receive generalized treatments. This was problematic in so many ways, but the most obvious is that disability takes many shapes and forms, and each individual had different needs that had to be met. Approaching a group of people with disabilities with generalized treatments meant that the doctors and nurses never took time to understand the details of each person’s disability, much less how best to approach them. As a matter of fact, because many believed disabilities to be a spiritual problem (a person being possessed by the devil), early “treatments” for mental illnesses and disabilities came in the form of exorcisms. When medical professionals finally were able to understand that this was a bodily illness, not a spiritual one, they then proceeded to conduct various experiments on the patients without having any knowledge of how to treat their patients. This is where the tortures began.
Medical personnel proposed many treatments to “cure” people with disabilities, including inhumane procedures that involved drilling holes into the patient’s skull in an attempt to bleed out the disease in question. While it is easy to judge in retrospect, in the beginning, many of the doctors truly believed that they were “curing” their patients with the various treatments they provided them, even as many recognized the inhumane nature of their treatments.
Other various treatments were administered to the patients, which can be defined as abusive and torturous today. Many women with disabilities were abused sexually, both by other patients and their caregivers. In addition to these incidents, many states (through the support of the law) practiced forced sterilization of disabled individuals in these institutions. The justification for this practice was expressed as cleansing humanity of these various illnesses and disabilities. Inspired by the American practice of eugenics, Nazi Germany expanded upon this practice to include everyone that did not fit their description of the “Aryan” race. To this day, America has not acknowledged this practice, and forced sterilization continues to be legal in the United States because of a Supreme Court ruling in 1927. The case in question, Buck v. Bell maintained that the sterilization of Carrie Buck (a woman who was raped and accused of “feeblemindedness”) was not in violation of the Constitution. This ruling permitted the forced sterilization of thousands of people with disabilities and other traits deemed “unwanted” by the general public. While the Supreme Court has outlawed forced sterilization as a form of punishment, it has never overturned its ruling made in Buck v. Bell. As a result, this practice is technically still supported within the legal framework.
With very little funding, the living conditions within the institutions also proved to be dangerous. The asylum itself was built to be uncomfortable because there was a belief that comfortable living would encourage patients to stay there forever. This meant that there was poor insulation, keeping the buildings cold. Due to the shortage of staff, many patients were restrained or locked up, while others were neglected altogether. These conditions, along with the “treatments” they received, exacerbated the patients’ conditions and were detrimental to their mental and physical health. Finally, as a result of society’s exclusion of this vulnerable population, many people outside of the institutions were not aware of what was taking place within. The patients inside these asylums were all but forgotten, invisible to the rest of society.
In an attempt to expose these terrible conditions to the larger society, journalists and activists spread accounts about the conditions within the asylums. Many were able to do this by investigating these institutions firsthand, and images (and videos) of the ill-treatment of the patients began circulating. As people started learning about the horrific conditions in which their loved ones were being kept in, the asylums faced a lot of backlashes. Amid all the backlash, in 1946, President Truman passed the National Mental Health Act to begin research on neurological issues. It would not be until 1955, however, that things changed drastically for those suffering from mental illnesses. Thorazine, a psychoactive medication that was introduced as a way to treat mental illness, and the population within the institutions peaked around this time. In the 1960s, there was an attempt to take a community-based approach to treat mental health, but it lacked the funding to progress in any substantial way. In 1981, Ronald Reagan takes a drastic step to stop government funding to help with mental health, forcing institutions to close their doors and leaving the patients on the streets.
This dramatic change provided no cushion for the patients to fall on, and much experienced homelessness as a result. With nowhere to go and no help from the government, many people with disabilities lost their lives because of this policy shift. These individuals never received any compensation for their ill-treatment, nor were they given any transitional housing or aid to help restart their lives. Of those that did not end up dead, many people with disabilities were imprisoned for causing “public disturbances.” Unfortunately, this practice continues to exist today, especially impacting people of color, and people living in poverty disproportionately. Of course, the imprisonment of people suffering from physical and mental disabilities exacerbated their conditions, and the lack of care and treatment resulted in many deaths. With nowhere to go, and no rights to protect this vulnerable population, people with disabilities continued to suffer due to systemic failures.
The movement for disability rights
Eventually, following the lead set by the Civil Rights Movement and many other movements such as the Women’s Rights movement, and the sexual revolution that fought for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities came together to stand against discrimination toward them from the larger society, and fight for their rights to exist and prosper like any other groups. People with disabilities wanted to challenge the practice of institutionalization and employed many of the tactics that were used during the Civil Rights Movement. They staged sit-ins in governmental buildings like the FBI building, challenged the mobility norms of society by blocking busses (that denied accessibility to people with disabilities) from moving, and they protested on the streets, able-bodied allies and people with disabilities alike, fighting for their rights.
People with disabilities were also exhausted with the ableist society they lived in and began to challenge the many barriers within society that kept them from living as independent individuals. They did not need someone to hold the doors for them; they wanted the doors to remain open automatically long enough for them to pass through. They wanted accessible sidewalks on which they could move their wheelchairs, walkers, and other walking devices (if applied) safely, and independently, without having to depend on others to take care of them. People with disabilities and their caregivers began to challenge the largely held view by society that people with disabilities were a burden to society. They argued that societal barriers made them dependent on others and implementing disability-friendly solutions can provide the community with the independence to live their lives freely.
In 1973, with the passage of the Rehabilitation Act, specifically, Section 504, people with disabilities, for the first time, were protected by law from being discriminated against. This act recognized that the many issues faced by people with disabilities, such as unemployment, transportation, and accessibility issues, were not the fault of the person with the disability, but rather, a result of society’s shortcomings in failing to provide accessible services to the group. While this was a major win for this community, this law only applied to those who accepted federal funding, meaning that the private sector, and even many of the public sector, could still discriminate against people with disabilities. Following the passage of this act, many people with disabilities were instrumental in ensuring its enforcement. Many of the sit-ins referred to above happened at this time, as an attempt to keep governmental offices accountable. Protestors would block the entrances into the government buildings, or stay in the buildings past close time, refusing to leave until the necessary changes were agreed to be made to the buildings (such as including ramps to the building or elevators inside the buildings) to meet the Section 504 requirements. This continued until Ronald Reagan issued a task force to stop the regulatory attempts made by supporters of Section 504, and the protections secured by the IDEA, an act that protected the educational rights of children with disabilities. Over the following years, his decision resulted in hundreds of frustrated parents and people with disabilities alike questioning the justification for stopping the regulatory actions of Section 504. This backlash, accompanied by the tireless leaders of the community meeting with White House officials, ended in Reagan reversing his crackdown on Section 504, allowing regulations to continue on businesses that refused to incorporate practices outlined in Section 504.
Additionally, following the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, people with disabilities, along with other protected groups such as race, gender (and sex), and religion, were protected from discrimination in housing. The first passage of the act initially only included race, religion, national origin, and color, as the protected groups. It was not until 1974 when sex (and gender) were added to this list, and not until 1988 when the disability community was added. Still, this act was especially important for people with disabilities because it required home builders to provide reasonable accommodations necessary for the inhabitants to live comfortably and move around the housing unit.
Following these many small victories came the biggest one of them all, the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 (ADA). This law was the first general law protecting people with disabilities from discrimination in all aspects of society, including in housing, employment, healthcare, transportation, and many other social services that impacted the lives of this protected group. The passage of the ADA focused on four main themes: full participation, equal opportunity, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency. Full participation focuses on the ability of people with disabilities to participate in all aspects of their lives, including having access to transportation, entering and exit buildings without issues, being able to vote on inaccessible sites, and enjoying life without social barriers that prevent them from being able to do so. Equal opportunity centers on being able to be employed without facing discrimination due to their disability and being able to take advantage of other such opportunities free of discrimination. Independent living brings attention to the ableist framework that society is structured in and recognizes the need for a more disability-friendly society, with access to handrails, ramps, curb cuts, and other options such as disability-friendly online sites (that for example, speak the menu out for you if you are a person with visual imparities) to raise the living standards for people with disabilities. The basis of this pillar is to empower people with disabilities with tools they can use for themselves in order to live independent life. Finally, the economic self-sufficiency piece mainly concentrates on the economic security of people with disabilities. This includes access and accommodations to receive higher education, better employment opportunities (including training, transportation access, and mobility within the workspace), and other such necessities to promote economic self-sufficiency within the disability community.
Many communities across the United States are brainstorming innovative ways to be more inclusive, but we are far from being a fully inclusive society. People with disabilities remain among the invisible groups within society, not because their advocates are not loud enough, but because their cries are being ignored by lawmakers and their local representatives. Globally, the United Nations established the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities(CRPD) in 2006, working to shift the mindset of people’s views on disability as a whole, as well as protect and promote the rights of individuals with disabilities by empowering them to fully participate in society with the dignity and humanity they deserve.
While this blog mainly focused on the historical context of the American Education System and the perception of people with disabilities in the past and today, the next blog will focus more on the treatment of children with disabilities within the American education system today, the many challenges they continue to face, how the pandemic has impacted their learning and development, and the human rights framework necessary for disability rights to do what we can to be more inclusive and less ableist as a society.
“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
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,
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.
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).
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
Office and Work Place
These issues are reflective of the ongoing and unprecedented impact of COVID-19.
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.
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 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.
Over the summer, I had the chance to be part of an amazing program, a program that at first, I believed would be a way for me to serve my community, but instead, I found community within. This program, known as Breakthrough Birmingham, is one of many Breakthroughs located in various cities across the country, serving communities with a mission and vision to bridge the academic gap produced by the pandemic and the larger systemic inequalities that exist in educational systems nationwide. Breakthrough is a nonprofit organization that commits to ensuring that all children, regardless of their socioeconomic status, have a chance to pursue higher education and find a passion for learning along the way. They aim to do this while also mentoring future leaders and teachers to be better prepared for their teaching careers and leadership roles. With 24 different locations around the nation, Breakthrough is slowly trying to bridge the opportunity gap in America while retraining future educators to teach through the lens of inclusion, diversity, equity, and anti-racism. Before diving into Breakthrough and its many accomplishments, it is important to understand the purpose that nonprofit organizations like Breakthrough serve in their communities and why they are necessary in the first place.
Background About the American Education System and Breakthrough as a Whole
So, what is a nonprofit organization, and why are they important to have? Nonprofit organizations are created with a specific goal, or mission in mind, which aims to address a specific need in the community. The public sector (the government and its agencies) aims to address the needs of the majority voters, leaving behind many issues that impact minority voters. The private (business) sector, on the other hand, focuses primarily on its bottom line, which is making a profit. As a result, the private sector caters to those who are deemed customers, leaving behind those who cannot afford their goods and services. This is where nonprofit organizations come into play. Nonprofits stick to a vision, form a mission statement, and have a double-bottom line of staying true to their mission while also making a profit to put back into the organization. While they may be focused on a single issue, each nonprofit organization aims to address a particular issue being neglected by the public sector and left behind by the private sector. Nonprofits are – by law – non partisan and non-political. This means they are inclusive in their services and do not deny service based on the ability to pay. Breakthrough is one such organization addressing the shortcomings of our country’s education system, which provides endless opportunities to those who can afford them, and leaves behind the rest with the equivalent of the bare minimum in education.
This of course has to be looked at through a historical framework, and as we know all too well, Birmingham’s educational system has historically been one of the most segregated and underfunded school systems in the nation. Even when the rest of the nation began desegregating their school systems after Brown v. Board of Education was passed, Birmingham was one of those cities that resisted and refused to comply. As Birmingham finally began desegregating, the school systems had to deal with funding issues, and in response, local officials began to redraw district lines to ensure that certain well-to-do (white) families were positioned inside well-funded school districts. A topic that can be a blog in and of itself, because of racially inspired redlining efforts that were supported by the federal government during the 1930s, to this day, the funding that school systems receive is directly impacted by the housing values in America. As a result, students from lower-income households are zoned to attend schools with low funding, while students from higher-income households attend schools with higher funding. Due to the inequalities brought about by this phenomenon, there exists an educational gap between the students from low-income families and those from high-income families, and this opportunity gap further impacts the students’ decision to pursue higher education or not. To get a better understanding of the legacies of racial segregation on our education system, read this article by Nekole Hannah Jones.
While Breakthrough’s mission was a necessity, to begin with, its need has amplified due to the chaotic school years brought about as a result of the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the education gap between low-income students and those who come from high-income families. Many students who didn’t have the resources to access the online modules were neglected as a result of switching to online classrooms. Research showed that by the end of the school year in 2021, many students across the nation were behind on math and reading skills by several months. Additionally, trauma and instability can be discouraging academically and can severely impact the students’ development process.
As such, Breakthrough is an organization that aims to bridge the opportunity gap in vulnerable cities across the nation. After conducting tremendous research and tailoring programs to fit the community’s needs, Breakthrough Birmingham became one of their local branches, serving the Birmingham City Schools (BCS) District and partnering with local universities to empower the future educators of tomorrow with a holistic approach to teaching the next generations. Breakthrough offers year-long academic services to underprivileged scholars in their community, and their summer programs specifically aim to slow the “summer slide,” (which is the tendency of scholars to lose some of their academic skills from the lack of academic practice over the summer). Interestingly, Breakthrough serves a specific age group, mainly middle schoolers, and even employs a specific academic group during the summer, undergraduate students.
Breakthrough as an organization focuses on its middle school age group for many reasons. Middle school can be a very stressful time for a young student, and researchers wanted to understand why. Upon further inspection, scholars at Portland State University found that young adolescents between the ages of 10-15, experience many waves of development during this period of their lives. They develop physically, both externally in terms of height and weight, and internally, in terms of muscular and skeletal structures, but also chemically, in the form of changes in hormone levels. This can lead to a lot of discomfort in body image/self-esteem issues, as well as uncertainty around their sexuality. Additionally, students develop emotionally, meaning that they may need more guidance on processing certain emotions and feelings. Furthermore, students in this age group are developing morally, and as such, are beginning to develop a strong sense of right and wrong. This can have lasting impacts on their ability to ethically judge situations. Students are also developing socially, meaning that they can sometimes be socially awkward until they find a peer group they fit into. While all these developments are taking place, students at this age also undergo developments in their intellect and depending on the guidance they receive, this characteristic can determine their interest in higher learning. This can mean that without proper mentorship, many students will fail to see the importance of higher education, or, students who come from families where they are first-generation scholars, may not even be aware of the opportunities at hand if they are never introduced to them. Recognizing these factors, Breakthrough created a summer program particularly aimed at ensuring middle schoolers in the community can have a safe, fun-filled learning environment that can guide their scholars through the various developments they experience in this age range.
Additionally, Breakthrough employs undergraduate teaching fellows during their summer program to provide their middle school scholars with mentors who are closer in the age group to the middle schoolers than their traditional teachers at school. This helps scholars build meaningful relationships with teaching fellows, and as such, scholars are more receptive to information and direction. Furthermore, representation is key, and employing undergraduate teaching fellows provides middle schoolers with adults who look like them, and who share commonalities with them. Studies show that there is an overwhelming number of teachers who are predominantly from one particular race, and gender, (white, women) teaching primary education. Seeing someone that looks like them in a teaching position is powerful in encouraging younger scholars to pursue their academic dreams. This includes the fact that throughout history, the teaching occupation has been held by mostly women. Being able to see male teachers can additionally empower young boys to perhaps pursue teaching careers in their future. Finally, Breakthrough ensures that teaching fellows approach the scholars from anti-racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion standpoints, making sure to provide weeks-long training sessions to familiarize teaching fellows with the local history and major concepts of anti-racist teachings, as well as introduce teaching fellows to multiple professional speakers for further guidance on such topics. Teaching fellows are also expected to understand the social, economic, political, and environmental context from which their scholars come, so as to be aware of some of the outside forces at play that influences the scholars’ behaviors. Operating under a “high expectations, high support” system, Breakthrough expects nothing but the best from its teaching fellows, while providing resources and a strong support system to teaching fellows to ensure that no scholar is left behind.
The Three Pillars: Exposure, Relationships, and Growth Exposure
One of the three pillars that Breakthrough Birmingham is founded upon is the pillar of Exposure. This exposure piece applies to scholars and teaching fellows alike, and at times, because of the dynamic of the working environment found at Breakthrough Birmingham, it also applies to the staff and administration as well. During the summer program, scholars are exposed to students that come from various parts of the BCS district and meet as one cohort, sharing similar experiences. Having friends from different backgrounds can expose students to different cultures and lifestyles, and as such, can be a healthy addition to their development. This also fosters a sense of belonging among the Breakthrough community, and as such, encourages a safe environment for the scholars to learn and grow.
Additionally, scholars are exposed to information regarding their future, including preparing for high school, visiting college campuses, and even learning about various career fields and interview etiquette at a career day fair. Scholars are also exposed to the community around them, and learn about topics through an inclusive lens, focusing on equity, diversity, and anti-racism. With daily advisory classes that focus on culture building, elective lessons three days a week that give scholars a chance to explore new areas of interest, and all school and/or all-grade meetings held daily in an attempt to strengthen the newly formed friendships and relationships, every activity at Breakthrough is intentionally crafted to expose scholars and teaching fellows alike to new experiences.
Furthermore, teaching fellows also benefit from this exposure pillar in many ways. Teaching fellows (TFs) are hired from all over America, so TFs are provided with the opportunity to work closely with students that come from various backgrounds, and who share a common work environment. TFs go through various training sessions together, where they are exposed to inspiring community leaders, and get the chance to explore the local community’s history together. The TFs are therefore exposed to different ideas, people, and cultures, and are given the opportunity to form friendships that can last a lifetime. TFs are also exposed to roles of leadership and are expected to work in committees that teach teamwork and communication skills.
The working environment at Breakthrough fosters a sense of community, as staff and administration work alongside the TFs on a daily basis to ensure the smooth and effective operation of the day. This model emboldens the relationship between TFs, scholars, and staff, and strengthens the sense of trust within the organization. This, in essence, embodies the second pillar of Breakthrough: Relationships. TFs get to build lifelong connections and relationships with each other and the management team. With a healthy work environment that encourages TFs to “exhale from school” and prioritize self-care, Breakthrough is a workplace with high expectations and high support. Scholars are also able to make meaningful relationships with each other as well as with other TFs. Many scholars find lifelong mentors in teaching fellows, and as a result, can have a positive role model to look up to.
Breakthrough’s third pillar, Growth, provides the results of the hard work exerted by scholars, TFs, and management alike. Breakthrough has some serious results. Not only can scholars improve their academic skills tremendously, but they are also able to weave through various social, emotional, and cultural experiences by learning how to approach situations holistically. These socio-emotional improvements are just as important as the academic ones and can actually have a positive impact on their academic abilities.
From my own experience at Breakthrough Birmingham, my scholars in my writing class were able to improve their writing skills from novice to proficient, and some were even distinguished. This was determined by providing pre-assessments before the start of the summer program and post-assessments towards the end and comparing the results from the two assessments. While many of my eighth-grade scholars came into my class with a bare-minimum understanding of what an essay was, by the time they took their post-assessments almost a month later, they were able to demonstrate their knowledge of the different parts of an essay, were able to write decent thesis statements, and many were even able to craft a standard five paragraph essay, even though they were only required to write three. As for the socio-emotional improvements, I witnessed the scholars growing more confident in their self-image and in their ability to present the knowledge they had gained. I witnessed their improvements in maturity and helped them exercise their patience. Even though the program lasted a month, I could see measurable improvements from my scholars.
I also witnessed some growth within myself. Breakthrough’s structure emphasizes the importance of reflection, and this is practiced starting from the pre-work that TFs are required to complete as part of the orientation process and continues to the very last day of closing. From daily reflections to interpretations of norms, to admin check-ins periodically, to the end-of-summer presentations of learning, reflection and review are a big part of Breakthrough’s culture. This practice ensures that ideas and actions remain mindful and intentional, and places importance on the growth mindset. TFs can truly see for themselves just how much they have grown over the summer. Also, Breakthrough introduces a network of resources and opportunities for TFs to pursue, including opportunities to be employed by Teach For America for those pursuing a future in education.
How to get involved
For those of you who may be interested in the scholar programs at Breakthrough Birmingham, they offer various year-round programs for 7th-10th grade scholars, and during the summer, they offer a six-week summer program for rising 7th, 8th, and 9th graders. Additionally, those who want to support the organization can do so through donations, volunteer work, or simply spreading awareness of the program to others who may benefit from a program like Breakthrough, both scholars and teaching fellows alike. The right to an education is one of the fundamental rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and one that should apply to all children everywhere. Furthermore, education can be a powerful tool for ending oppression. Students’ ability to think critically and ask questions empowers them with the necessary tools to question unlawful or immoral behavior, recognize corruption, lies, and deceit, and provide holistic solutions to complex problems. Without these tools, students will continue to live in poverty and under oppressive conditions, not knowing how to change the world around them for the better.
Though the right to vote was codified as a fundamental human right in Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the 20th century, voting has been a cornerstone of American democracy since the nation’s founding in 1776 (though it took a while to realize this right for everyone). In order to call itself a representative democracy, the United States must represent its citizens through laws and elected officials, which is executed through free and fair elections with equal access to participating in the voting process. In this article, we will be covering the importance of ensuring voter accessibility, some upcoming voter issues from a human rights standpoint, and, of course, how your vote matters!
Please scroll to the end of this article for information on voter registration, aid in accessing the polls, remote voting options, and how to find your local candidates and docket items.
What are Midterms?
Midterm elections are held in the middle of Presidential terms. In midterm elections, eligible citizens vote for the House and Senate candidates that, if elected, shape national laws and policies. The 2022 midterm elections take place this year on Tuesday, November 8, 2022, and will have a major impact on citizens’ rights on both the state and national level. These elections determine which political party will hold the majority in the houses of Congress for the next two years, which can affect everything from the federal budget to national and international policy. Check the current midterms forecast here to see how the House, Senate, and your state elections are predicted to go.
Each Vote Matters
The most common response I receive when asking why my peers choose not to vote is the thought that, “one vote cannot make a difference”. History disagrees. The 2020 presidential election saw a record voter turnout, with nearlytwo thirds of all eligible voters (158.4 million people) showing up to the polls. However, midterm elections historically have10-20% lower voter turnout than presidential elections. For example, the 2018 midterm elections only saw 113 million votes, which is roughly53% of the eligible voter population; and that was still the highest voter turnout for a midterm election in four decades with a historic average of roughly 40%. That means the elected officials who vote on crucial national policies like minimum wage, education, housing and healthcare are only representative of less than half of Americas eligible voters.
In addition, following the Supreme Court’s decision of Dobbs vs Jackson in June 2022, we have seen a large change in voter demographics as historically conservative states like Kansas, Ohio and Alaska observe spikes in young, female voters and Democrat registrations. On September 13, 2022, Democrat Mary Peltola was sworn in as the first Alaskan Native to be elected as an Alaskan representative in Congress. States that have been dependably Republican for decades are now facing a new population of politically active citizens flocking to all forms of civil engagement in order to change their states, for the present and the future.
The Voter Issues
As we get closer to the midterm elections, it is important that we recognize both the dangers and the potential solutions that could be determined by the vote this upcoming November. Below you will find some of the largest human rights realms that will be affected by the outcome of the midterms.
Voter Issue: Abortion Rights
In the wake of Dobbs v Jackson, the right to elective abortions has become a prioritized and contentious voting issue for the 2022 midterms. Currently, 26 states are likely, planning to, or have already restricted access to elective abortions following Dobbs. The Pew Charitable Trusts used recent data to create the map below:
For the first time in five decades, local and state representatives will now determine whether women and people who can get pregnant in your state will have access to what was considered a nationally protected right under Roe v Wade. Beyond the simple matter of legal access, those elected to your state governments have the ability to further restrict or protect the right to abortion in your state. On the national level, those elected to Congress this November will be voting on policies like theWomen’s Health Protection Act; a piece of federal legislature that would protect abortion access nationwide.
While we are still two months away from elections, there are many signals that abortion will be one of the largest voter issues this election season. The very demographic of voter registrations has shifted following the Dobbs decision in June, with a rise in female, young, and Democrat voter registrations nationwide. In Kansas, a state with a long history of voting red (56% of Kansas voters cast their ballots for Donald Trump in 2020), an anti-abortion referendum was struck down by 59% of votes. This is the first time since Dobbs was decided that restrictive abortion legislation was struck down by voters. It was also a clear display of voter participation shifting the partisan norm as a deeply conservative state was met at the polls by voters, impassioned with protecting reproductive rights.
Voter Issue: Climate Change
The United Nationspassed a resolution in July of 2022 that declares a clean, healthy environment is a universal human right. In addition, the recently passedInflation Reduction Act plans to tackle both economic and environmental issues by majorly investing in clean energy production and creating jobs in the industry. Unsurprisingly, thePew Research Center found that energy policy and climate change are two predominant issues voters will consider when casting their votes in November.
Voter Issue: Healthcare
The right to health is an inclusive right,defined by the United Nations as encompassing accessibility, quality, and availability amongst other qualities. While the aforementioned Inflation Reduction Act plans to lower drug costs for Medicare recipients, America still stands alone as the only developed nation in the world that does not have Universal Healthcare.
With chronic, severe or uncommon conditions, constant full-time employment may be the only way to gain affordable insurance that provides access to vital drugs and treatments. Insulin and Epi-Pens are two life-saving essential drugs that American citizens experience being denied access to because they cannot afford out of pocket costs. A simple ambulance ride can cost upwards of $1,200, an amount many Americans could not pay without incurring debt. With bankruptcy and extreme medical woes being legitimate fears for American citizens without health insurance, it is easy to see why60% of voters say that healthcare policy is very important to their vote in the midterm elections.
Voter Accessibility And Suppression
Voter suppression, whether passive or active, is a real issue in 2022. It is crucial that we recognize the ways in which voter accessibility is inhibited, especially in the discussion of voter turnout and how that affects who is truly represented in the US Government. Lack of accessibility and excessive voter registration requirements are detrimental to our voter turnout, and contribute to feelings of helplessness and voter apathy.
One of the largest inhibitors of active voters is pure accessibility. TheUS Justice Department states that, “Title II of the ADA requires state and local governments… ensure that people with disabilities have a full and equal opportunity to vote. The ADA’s provisions apply to all aspects of voting”. While some cite mail-in voting as a solution to physically inaccessible polling locations, the DOJ continues to specify that, “Any alternative method of voting must offer voters with disabilities an equally effective opportunity to cast their votes in person,” meaning that simply offering a mail-in vote option is not just insufficient; it is illegal. Despite this, theAmerican Bar Association has found that “persons with disabilities made up one-sixth of eligible voters in the 2016 election, yet only 40 percent of polling places were accessible.” Both persons with disabilities and the older population are greatly impacted by this lack of accessibility.
While accessibility at physical voting locations is a major issue, the voter process begins with voter registration; a procedure that can be incredibly inhibiting. Voter ID requirements are one of the primary obstructions across the board when citizens attempt to register to vote. Burdensome voter identification restrictions are explained as necessary security measures, but their policy outcome is that citizens who are eligible to vote are unable to due to the expensive and time-consuming process necessary to obtain government IDs. While the average percent of eligible voters who lack a government-issued photo ID is roughly 11% per theBrennan Center’s research, that amount is significantly higher amongst minority groups, low-income people (15%), young voters 18-24 (18%) and old voters 64 or above (18%). The highest category though is African-American citizens, who reported a staggering 25% of voting-age citizens without eligible IDs. In a nation with a history of civil rights abuses, institutional racism and voter suppression, modern voter ID laws must be re-evaluated in order to uphold the integrity of the electoral system in America.
Additionalvoter restriction issues include lack of public transportation to polling sites, deceptive practices, racial and partisan gerrymandering, employers not providing time off, long lines, prolific jailed, previously jailed and ex-felon disenfranchisement. A representative democracy must represent its people, and to do that its people must be able to vote.
Please click HERE to register to vote. If you are interested in absentee or mail in voting options, please check out this page where you can speak to an agent if you have any additional questions!
VoteRiders is an amazing nonprofit that helps voters to obtain their necessary documentations, and can help provide rides to the DMV to obtain photo IDs and rides to the polls through their volunteer service! Their organization will also cover any fees necessary in the ID process, so please check them out if their resources would be helpful to you or if you are interested in volunteering with them! You can also reach their help line at 888-338-8743
Rock the Vote provides helpful information on voting in your state, walks you through the registration process and provides helpful reminders for upcoming voter deadlines!
To learn more about voter suppression or to join the fight against voter ID restrictions and voter suppression nationwide, please check out the ACLU and the Brennan Center today!
Find the forecast for your State’s midterm election results here
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