Freddie Gray was killed as he was being transported in a police vehicle because the police did not take appropriate safety measures. Gray’s encounter with the police undoubtedly involved racial biases held by the officers due to their perceptions of African American men. However, another aspect of Gray’s identity, which lead to him being disproportionately impacted long before his encounter with the police, played a role in his untimely demise at the hands of an unfair system. Gray had a developmental disability as a result of growing up in a house with lead paint, which meant he was unable to understand multi-step instructions. This, however, was not identified early enough for Gray to receive accommodations in school. Due to this lack of support, Gray had a difficult time in school, ultimately leading to suspensions and dropping out of high school. Since then, Gray came in contact with the criminal justice system multiple times. Gray’s story displays the complex, intersectional impact of various factors that lead to an individual being disadvantaged by our society, including race, socio-economic status, and disability. Moreover, it displays how lack of appropriate identification and accommodation for students with disabilities increases their likelihood of entering the school-to-prison pipeline.
My previous post investigated accessibility of the criminal justice system to people with disabilities. This article will focus on the factors that lead to individuals with disabilities being incarcerated at a disproportionate rate, with a special focus on individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. This disproportionately impacts children and individuals with developmental disabilities, both through the school-to-prison pipeline and through either exploiting or ignoring them in proceedings.
The School-to-Prison Pipeline for Individuals with Disabilities
It has been shown that dropping out of high school increases the likelihood of a child encountering the criminal justice system. This tendency is reflected in the prison and jail population as well. A paper by Respect Ability on disability and criminal justice reform reported that high school completion rates amongst incarcerated individuals is low – two-thirds of people in state prisons and seven out of ten people in jail have not completed high school. The literacy rates of incarcerated individuals also demonstrate the connection between education and incarceration. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy Survey, carried out by the U.S. Department of Education in 2003, reported that prison inmates had lower literacy rates than their counterparts that have not been incarcerated. While disparities found in the survey have decreased since the 1990’s, there were significant differences in literacy.
People with Intellectual and Developmental Disorders
People with intellectual and developmental disorders (IDD) are further disadvantaged in the criminal justice system due to multiple reasons, often leading to the person with the disability being ignored or coerced in proceedings. One of the foundational issues is that people with intellectual and developmental disorders are not appropriately identified. The determination of whether an individual has an IDD varies by state, with a judge making the decision in some states and a jury in others. One commonality, however, is that the evaluators chosen to assess the status of developmental or intellectual disability are often not qualified to do so. They lack a nuanced understanding of the conditions they are to assess – for example, they are not aware that people with IDD sometimes deny their disability. In the Hall v. Florida case, the supreme court made the important ruling that individuals cannot be diagnosed solely based on the results of an IQ test, but more needs to be done to ensure IDD is accurately identified. False stereotypes about the abilities of individuals with disabilities systematized through unqualified evaluators often means people with disabilities do not receive the full protections offered to them by the law.
However, an accurate determination alone is insufficient to guarantee that the rights of people with IDD are upheld in the criminal justice system. During the judicial proceedings, individuals with IDD may be coerced or left out completely, both of which are problematic. Individuals with IDD may be forced or manipulated into making false admissions of guilt, at times due to their desire to please the questioner. Individuals with IDD may also waive their rights, such as when the Miranda warnings are read out by police officers, without fully understanding their privileges because the information was not presented in a comprehensible manner. The inappropriate assessment discussed in the previous paragraph also applies to deeming individuals with IDD competent to stand trial when they do not have an understanding of the proceedings. This offers further opportunities for individuals with IDD to be exploited. On the other hand, individuals with disabilities are left out of proceedings when they are capable of participating and when their testimonial is crucial. The silencing of competent individuals with disabilities is particularly detrimental when they are the victims of crime, who are seeking justice.
People with IDD are denied opportunities for redress due to stereotyped views of their disability, leading to higher likelihood of incarceration. They are also denied opportunities to correct the behaviors that lead to incarceration because they are not allowed alternatives to incarceration, such as rehabilitation. Once incarcerated, individuals with IDD cannot make use of the same opportunities to reduce their sentencing, as the process for doing so is not communicated in an understandable way. The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities advocates for the full participation of individuals with IDD in proceedings, as well as the provision of accommodations that allows them to do so. They also recommend that an advocate specialized in disability be present at all times, in addition to the person’s lawyer, to bring a better understanding of the condition to the proceedings and ensure that the rights of the individual with IDD are upheld.
Fortunately, advocates are working to secure the rights of people with disabilities and ensure fair treatment in the judicial system. The Alabama Disability Advocates Program is one of 57 federally mandates protection and advocacy (P&A) programs which provide legal services and representation for people with disabilities. However, systemic efforts need to be taken to correct currently existing, crucial shortcomings like inadequate methods of identifying disability in courtrooms and schools. Accurate identification of disability and provision of accommodations is crucial in a society where schools are not doing enough to set all students up for success and the criminal justice system does not enforce the protections that people with IDD are entitled to. As mentioned in my previous article on the criminal justice system, it is possible, and necessary, for all of us to create change in this space by contacting local legislators and making our priorities as constituents clear to those who represent us.
As Brady Mistic got out of his car, he was immediately met with the blinding glare of police lights. Being a person with deafness, Brady relied mostly on his sight to interact with the world around him, so the bright light was confusing to say the least. He moved towards the light to inquire about the disturbance. Within the next seven seconds, Brady would find himself shoved to ground and tased by the police as they barked commands that were completely inaccessible to him, even as he tried to communicate that he was deaf. Within seven seconds, Brady acquired three charges, including resisting arrest, and was sentenced to four months in prison. Within seven seconds, the police officers’ inability to identify the need for, and establish, alternate forms of communication lead to a physical altercation and incarceration. Although these charges were waived after almost two years, Brady’s story is indicative of a widespread, disproportionate impact of the justice system on people with disabilities.
In fact, while only 20% of Americans have disabilities, 32% of federal inmates and 40% of jail inmates report at least one disability. The difference in these numbers is no coincidence. In this and a subsequent article, we will see that people with disability are not only overrepresented in prison and jail systems, but also treated unfairly at every step in the process of incarceration and reintegration into society. This article connects Mistic’s inaccessible encounter with the police with a broader, systemic lack of accommodations in the criminal justice system; the second will focus on the school-to-prison pipeline for kids with disabilities and the experiences of people with intellectual and development disabilities.
Mistic and Accessibility in the Criminal Justice System
Mistic’s encounter with the police was not the only incident of law enforcement getting into a violent altercation due to their inability to communicate with a disabled individual. In 2017, Oklahoma City police fatally shot Magdiel Sanchez, an individual with deafness, after he failed to respond to verbal commands to drop the stick in his hand and get on the ground. He was later found to have not been involved in the hit-and-run case for which the police were called. Witnesses who were present at the time of the event were even yelling to the police officers, saying that Sanchez was deaf and could not understand their spoken words. The lack of appropriate communication and the haste in action which is evident in both of these cases points to an underlying deficit in police training. Despite the fact that individuals with any type of disability are legally entitled to receive the same access to legal enforcement services as people without disabilities, most of the training around disability and crisis intervention training programs are not mandatory and are focused on psychological disabilities. Law enforcement training is not comprehensive with regards to disability and fails to equip officers with the necessary skills to interact with people who have intellectual, developmental, or other types of disabilities, which can potentially lead to fatal consequences.
Sadly, the lack of access in Mistic’s interaction with the criminal justice system did not end at his encounter with the police. Mistic was denied an interpreter when interacting with his lawyer while in jail. Like other aspects of Mistic’s case, this too points to an institutionalized barrier that prevents people with disabilities from being treated justly. Inaccessibility in the court and prison system is rampant. This was evident in the case of Abreham Zemedagegehu, an Ethiopian man with deafness whose first language was Ethiopian Sign Language. He was not allowed an interpreter during his six weeks in jail, making it very difficult for him to hear announcements for meals, contact his friends and family, and receive medication for his back pain.
Through multiple lawsuits over the years, prisoners with deafness reported not being able to understand the prison-wide safety instructions, to take part in classes in prison, and to defend themselves in disciplinary proceedings because a sign language interpreter was not present. In 2010, a prison in Virginia became the first in the country to have a videophone after it settled a lawsuit by a group of deaf inmates. It is difficult to imagine that this basic mode of accessible communication for people with deafness was unavailable at one point in any prison in the US and is still not available in many prisons. The lack of accessible communication methods impacts the success of people with disability as they reintegrate into society as well. One individual with blindness had the opportunity to enroll in community college courses but did not receive appropriate accommodations during classes. Another individual with a disability sought to find out how to apply for social security benefits but was denied information by their counselor, who believed they should apply for a job instead.
Access to Health Services
Decreased access to medication and health services in prisons, as Zemedagegehu experienced, disproportionally impacts people with disabilities, risking the deterioration of health problems. When 91% of jailers report they have in their facilities individuals with serious psychological disabilities who are at risk of committing suicide, it becomes imperative – a matter of life or death – to ensure adequate health services are delivered in time. The status of accommodations is no better, as many prisons deemed essential accommodations (including wheelchair, prosthetics, exercise equipment, other assistive technology) as no longer “medically necessary” in order to cut costs. Health services are placed further out of the reach of inmates due to exorbitant co-pay rates, which can be as high as a month’s labor, and additional fees incurred by prosthetics and other accommodation. The results of these factors is best portrayed in a Bureau of Justice System study which looked into health issues of prisoners and jail inmates. Only two-thirds of participants reported receiving necessary medical treatment, whereas 11% reported that their illness was not being treated because they were not being given medication. While the overrepresentation of people with disabilities in jails and prisons may largely be attributed to unjust treatment of people with disabilities, it is possible that the conditions within the jails and prisons, including the lack of access to health resources, are contributing to the development of disabilities in inmates.
Perhaps the most shocking experience of Zemedagegehu during his time in jail is that he was forced to receive an injection, which he later found out was a tuberculosis test, after refusing to sign a medical consent form because it was not presented in a way that he could comprehend. This blatant human rights violation, of forced medical procedures and ignorance of patient autonomy, underscores the necessity of sweeping changes in the jail and prison system’s treatment of individuals with disabilities.
Inaccessibility in the justice system, however, is an issue not only for arrested and incarcerated individuals with disabilities, but also to citizens seeking justice. According to a Bureau of Justice study, people with disabilities are victims of violence at twice the rate as people without disabilities. Clearly, individuals with disabilities stand to benefit from the services offered by the court system, services which they are entitled to but cannot always access due to the failure of the criminal justice system in being inclusive to all members of the community.
The issues of inaccessibility discussed in this article violate the rights afforded to all individuals, including article seven of the Human Rights Declaration which promises that everyone is “entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law”. Reforms to the criminal justice system need to take into account the needs of people with disabilities at every level, from law enforcement to court systems to jails and prisons. Individual citizens can contribute to pushing for such reforms as well. Find your local legislators and advocate for issues of access in the criminal justice system by writing to or phoning their office. Recent prison reforms in Alabama, including a bill allocating approximately $800 billion to the construction of two new facilities that will reduce overcrowding in prisons, offer hope for progress. Whether or not accessibility becomes a priority in the future depends on you and I to organize, stand as allies, and demand change.
Recently, I was able to witness the refugee camp conditions myself. In July 2017, I traveled to Amman, Jordan, where I volunteered at three refugee camps. Speaking to the refugees and listening to their stories was heartbreaking. Many did not have access to food, water, or medicine unless given to them by various organizations. I also met a few people who were physically disabled due to the conflict; they explained how the current condition of their camp did not help them at all. Many had to escape Syria by foot or crammed in the back of a truck. This is neither safe nor accessible to many disabled persons. Many individuals did not have access to essential resources that we use daily, especially disability-accessible resources. The effects of COVID-19 have only worsened the situation. Since the pandemic began, the UN refugee agency has reported that eighty-four percent of refugees with disabilities cited food insecurity as their biggest concern in Lebanon.
“Too often invisible, too often forgotten, too often overlooked,” is how Light for the World describes refugees with disabilities. With the population of refugees increasing, the concern for their protection and access to resources is left unknown. Refugees and displaced persons are individuals fleeing from war-torn countries, poverty, and hunger. They are often neglected and not provided with the proper care and resources, especially those with disabilities. Many have had disabilities on their way to escaping or were born with some form of disability. In the aftermath of the Syrian war and current conditions in Afghanistan and Haiti, many individuals attempt to flee to find protection and asylum. It’s essential to recognize that many displaced individuals, especially those with disabilities, cannot access the necessities they need to live adequately.
Disabilities within the Displaced Communities
Article one of the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) classifies that “persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual, or sensory impairments, which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society.” It’s been noted that more than sixty percent of Syrian refugee households contain at least one person with a disability. Additionally, it has also been reported that twenty-eight percent of persons with disabilities list illnesses or diseases as the primary cause of their disability. These illnesses are brought by the vulnerable conditions they are living in. Although there have been reports of disabilities from birth, most statements have been stated to have disabilities caused by conflict.
Individuals with disabilities are already a vulnerable group of people, and refugees with disabilities have even less access. Disabled women are the most vulnerable as they experience “psychological, sexual or physical abuse in natural disasters and conflicts.” Organizations such as the Human Rights Watch (HRW) have urged world leaders providing aid to take more action in funding at-risk groups, such as individuals with disabilities. Emina Cerimmovic, a senior disability rights researcher at HRW, stated that even with all the commitments to better reach persons with disabilities, “displaced people with disabilities continue to struggle even to get basic services.” An international call for action is needed to ensure displaced persons with disabilities can access the necessities required to survive.
Conditions of Refugees with Disabilities
It comes as no surprise when learning how fragile and inaccessible conditions in refugee camps are. Most of these camps are created by the displaced persons themselves. World leaders and governments have shown commitment to protecting refugees and displaced people by providing aid, asylum, and new areas to live. However, these support systems do not take the needs of people with disabilities into account.
Assessing the conditions many refugees with disabilities live in and ensuring that their needs are met is imperative. As the situation grows more dire, what can the world do to better the conditions and resources for refugees and displaced persons with disabilities? The main problem is the lack of and slowness of implementation of aid from world leaders. The information of what is needed has been provided to countries around the world and NGOs, but resources are yet to be delivered. The international community needs to provide aid specifically for those with disabilities, accessible camps need to be built, and medical attention needs to be supplied more. NGOs currently operate only under donations, so provisions are limited by a lack of funding.
What Can You Do?
As we have access to many daily necessities such as food, water, disability-accessible bathrooms, and resources, many worldwide do not. It is essential to learn and educate ourselves about the current situations that hinder many lives. Check the resources below to donate or learn about organizations providing aid to refugees and displaced persons with disabilities.
Imagine being confined to your home. Imagine not being able to go to work or attend school or play sports. Over the course of the past year, individuals across the world have experienced such limitations. While many are inching closer towards glimpses of life before these restrictions, for Afghans with disabilities, particularly women with disabilities, this is more likely to become an enduring reality.
Almost twenty years after their first regime, the Taliban is back in control of Afghanistan, raising concerns that the same violations of the rights of women and other minorities will be committed again (for a brief history of Afghanistan and the Taliban, visit a previous article on the IHR blog linked here). While no longer a minority in terms of numbers, the 80% of adults in Afghanistan who are disabled are already seeing these concerns materialize. Disability rights advocates are being targeted, with many fleeing the country out of a fear for their lives and many more desperately trying to do the same. In light of these events, this article explores the status of individuals with disabilities in Afghanistan before and after the Taliban came into power, and how their future might look.
Disability in Afghanistan
The war in the 1990’s devastated health systems in Afghanistan, leading to individuals with disabilities being neglected. After the Taliban was overthrown by the U.S. in 2001, there was an influx of international funding to help rebuild the infrastructure of the country. NGOs and other international organizations attempted to fill the gap in the health system by offering medical services, although the demand did, and continues to, exceed the supply. Moreover, reconstruction efforts in the country were not inclusive of people with disabilities, as bus transports, buildings and bathrooms were inaccessible which made it difficult for individuals with disabilities to navigate their daily lives outside of their homes. Afghanistan ratified the Convention on Rights of People with Disability in 2012 and even passed legislation in 2013 that was meant to safeguard the rights of individuals with disabilities to be included in society. Although awareness regarding disability has increased over the past two decades, and disability rights have been named a priority by the former government, much of the work towards this end has been carried out by NGOs, international organizations, and dedicated activists.
In addition to systemic barriers, the societal attitudes and stigma pertaining to disability is also a significant factor impacting the lives of disabled individuals in Afghanistan. Different kinds of disability are viewed differently, receiving varying degrees of negative attitudes. Congenital disability, or developmental disability, is considered a punishment to the parents for their past deeds. This problematic perception leads to discrimination against the individual with the disability, as well as their family, to such an extent that the parents tell others that their child acquired the disability as a result of the war. Amputees, on the other hand, do not face the same discrimination because they are assumed to be war veterans. One individual with a physical disability described to the Human Rights Watch her experience of this stigma: “Some time ago, my friends and I decided to go to the market in our own wheelchairs and shop ourselves. But people called us ‘grasshoppers,’ which is why we decided to stay at home.” Such accounts depict how the freedom and independence of individuals with disabilities is being curtailed not only by structural barriers, but also by regressive attitudes.
Disability under the Taliban
Benafsha Yaqoobi, a blind disability rights advocate and a commissioner at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), stated in multiple interviews that individuals with disabilities will be discriminated against under the Taliban rule, experiencing severe neglect and even death. She is concerned about their access to basic human rights like food and shelter. Yaqoobi had to flee Afghanistan when the Taliban takeover seemed imminent. She described her traumatic experience in attempting to escape, as she heard gun fire but could not see where the guns were pointed or who got shot – or if it was her husband who was wounded. Her experience also highlights just one way in which war can have a disproportionate psychological, and physical, impact on people with disabilities.
Isabella Hodge, executive director of the United States International Council on Disability (USICD), told The Nation that there is also concern that stipends will no longer be provided to individuals who were disabled in war and that rehabilitation centers will close. Hodge strongly believes that individuals with disabilities will not be valued by the Taliban, saying that the “Taliban wouldn’t think twice about killing someone with a disability.” These concerns are reflected in reality when considering that 80% of suicide bombers of the Taliban had either a physical or psychological disability of some kind. Dr.Yusef Yadgari of Kabul Medical University attributed this statistic to societal stigma, due to which people with disabilities struggle to find employment to support their family. Out of both necessity for money and resentment, according to Dr.Yadgari, they are more likely to become suicide bombers. However, one cannot help but question how much value that the Taliban attributes to the lives of people with disabilities when they were willing to sacrifice so many for their cause.
With the Taliban’s rise to power, people with disabilities will likely have less opportunities to flourish. One stark example of this is that Tokyo 2020 Paralympic athletes from Afghanistan almost lost the opportunity to participate in the event because of the dearth of flight transport created by the turmoil in August. Fortunately, with the help of the international community, these athletes did manage to finally make it to Tokyo, although one athlete missed the event he was preparing for. Opportunities and freedom of people with disability does not seem to be a priority. Afghanistan’s National Sports Director for the Special Olympics Mohammad Jawed Hashmi echoed similar concerns in an interview with Reuters – that people with disabilities will be confined to their homes and isolated from the rest of society due to the loss of programs and initiatives like the Special Olympics (which works specifically with people with intellectual disabilities). Sports for individuals with intellectual disabilities is a great way to develop essential life skills like walking and eating. Zala Hashmi, a women’s coach in the country’s special Olympics organization, believes that the Taliban does not care enough for the success of these individuals to ensure the continuation of such programs. The grim situation is put best in Jawed’s own words: “we cannot support them, we lost them.”
Women with Disabilities
Women with disabilities experienced intersectional discrimination in Afghanistan long before the Taliban came into power. They are often considered a burden to the family and are considered not fit for marriage, consequently increasing their likelihood of being subject to violence both in and outside the household. Women with disability are also more likely to be sexually harassed when seeking government assistance or employment. One individual in an interview with the Human Rights Watch said, “the ministry employee told me that I can get this certificate only if I agree to be his girlfriend”. The status of education of girls with disabilities is not any more promising. In a Human Rights Watch report, a disability rights advocate describes the pushback from schools in accepting girls with disabilities: “The schools do not want girls [with disabilities] to go to the classes. Usually, they argue that they are not normal people so they cannot sit in the classrooms and learn like other students.” In addition to this stigma, public schools are not wheel-chair accessible, leaving some kids out of the classroom and other school related activities, while few private schools enroll people with disabilities at all. Moreover, schools are also often far and difficult to reach without dedicated transportation, which is often not available.
These inequities for women with disabilities are likely going to be exacerbated under the Taliban. While the Taliban promises that they will uphold the rights and freedom of women, their actions so far have not conveyed the same message. Women have been removed from their jobs, which has been particularly devastating in cases where they are the sole earners in the family. Women have already been told to stay at home for security reasons, an excuse that sounds eerily similar to the one they provided during their time in power in the late 1990s as they imposed oppressive restrictions on women. This confinement will be particularly detrimental for women with disabilities, compromising their access to rehabilitative services and other beneficial activities like sports. Nilofar Bayat, a women’s rights activist and captain of national wheelchair basketball team, expressed deep concern about girls with disabilities not being allowed to play sports, saying their disability will become more severe without the activity. In addition to this, the barriers to education for women with disabilities will also increase under the Taliban, who completely banned education for women during their previous regime.
Support for People with Disabilities
Disability rights activists in Afghanistan are being targeted due their association with the United States, leading to a decline in supportive services offered to individuals with disabilities. The United States International Council on Disability (USICD) reported that around 50 disability rights advocates are currently in danger of being attacked by the Taliban and are in urgent need of evacuation. Many of them participated in a conference on disability rights organized by USICD and the Afghanistan embassy in 2017 and received grant funding from the U.S., putting them in a precarious position. One advocate describes severe persecution, being forced to move from one house to another to avoid being captured after the Taliban launched a grenade into his house and attempted to find him at his organization’s office. He told The Nation that the Taliban believes advocates are spying for the US because they received grant funding from the U.S. The evacuation plan of the US did not account for the needs of people with disabilities either, as multiple disability rights advocates were unable to make their way around Kabul airport. One amputee had to return home due to extreme pain. Afghanistan’s National Sports Director for the Special Olympics Mohammad Jawed Hashmi believed the Taliban was searching for them as well, coming to their offices and damaging their property. All this points to the fact that disability advocates will find it increasingly difficult to play their crucial role in supporting the disabled community. For example, initiatives to make bathrooms more accessible, to provide rehabilitation, to conduct vocational training, and to provide trauma care service for land mine victims all are at risk of being lost. The champions of the rights of individuals with disability are being silenced.
Disability rights activists are not the only ones facing difficulties in continuing operations – humanitarian organizations too are struggling to continue providing their essential services. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) reported that approximately three-quarters of organizations faced challenges in providing aide since August. The Taliban has a history of actively clamping down on organizations providing humanitarian aid and health services as well, banning the Red Cross and WHO in 2019 from operating in its territories after claiming they were carrying out “suspicious” activities and not sticking to their mission. They have since lifted the ban, and Red Cross is providing services currently, but this incident sets a chilling precedent to the relationship we can expect to see in the future between the Taliban and international aid organizations. In addition to this, a Human Rights Watch review reported that the increase in conflict since 2016 has led to increased difficulty in collecting data from rural areas. This is likely to be the case in Afghanistan’s current state of turmoil, making it difficult to assess the needs of people with disability and whether they are being addressed.
In a recent report, the International Committee of the Red Cross stated that health systems in Afghanistan are on the brink of collapse, partly due to a decrease in funding. While the services provided by aide organizations and advocates are far from being able satisfying the immense demand, and by no means replace systemic efforts to rectify the situation, the role of advocates and aide organizations is undoubtedly more important than ever to ensure people with disabilities are not neglected.
The Taliban take-over might deconstruct the existing structures, but there is no guarantee that that they will build them back, let alone build them back better. It is disheartening to know that the violations minorities experienced under the Taliban occurred for more than five year and would have continued for longer if the US did not invade in 2001. My point is not to comment on the merit of the “war on terror” but to point out the more prolonged, devastating consequences that could have occurred in the past, and that very well may occur in the foreseeable future, due to insufficient action by the international community. The international community needs to mobilize resources to aid those who are disproportionately impacted by this transition. You and I can contribute to bettering the situation in Afghanistan as well. Consider donating to trusted humanitarian aid organizations, like the Red Cross, UNICEF, and UN Women, that are doing essential work on the ground. Humanitarian aide itself, however, is insufficient – foreign governments need to increase pressure on the Taliban to guarantee the rights and well-being of marginalized communities.
The Autism Society of America, the United States’ oldest leading grassroots autism organization, is celebrating Autism Acceptance Month (AAM) in April 2021. This month was previously known as Autism Awareness Month, but this year, the Autism Society is taking to social media to assist it in changing the title to Autism Acceptance Month.
In 1970, the organization launched an ongoing national effort to promote autism awareness and to assure that all autistic people are able to achieve the highest quality of life possible. The first annual National Autistic Children’s week commenced in 1972, which evolved into AAM. This year’s campaign is titled “Celebrate Differences,” and it is “designed to build a better awareness of the signs, symptoms, and realities of autism.” The 2021 focus is to “provide information and resources for communities to be more aware of autism, promote acceptance, and be more inclusive in everyday life.” With the prevalence of autism in the United States rising from being 1 in 125 children (2010) to 1 in 59 children (2020), the need for AAM is greater than ever.
So why the shift from Autism Awareness Month to Autism Acceptance Month? Christopher Banks, President and CEO of the Autism Society of America, puts it like this: “While we will always work to spread awareness, words matter as we strive for autistic individuals to live fully in all areas of life. As many individuals and families affected by autism know, acceptance is often one of the biggest barriers to finding and developing a strong support system.” The shift in terminology fosters acceptance to ignite change through improved support and opportunities in education, employment, accessible housing, affordable health care, and comprehensive long-term services. Acceptance is so integral that the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) has been referring to April as Autism Acceptance Month since 2011, expressing that accepting autism as a natural condition is “necessary for real dialogue to occur.” The Autism Society of America is also advocating the federal government to officially designate April as “Autism Acceptance Month” since there has never been a formal designation for AAM.
The United Nations has, however, designated April 2nd as World Autism Awareness Day that is commemorated internationally. This year, the UN plans on hosting a virtual panel discussion titled “Inclusion in the Workplace: Challenges and Opportunities in a Post-Pandemic World” on April 8, 2021. The panel will consist of individuals on the autism spectrum who have personally experienced challenges in the employment market, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Acceptance is something the global population has been and continues to struggle with, but engaging in conversation and learning about one another’s perspectives, we can individually become accepting. And if the global population decides to embrace such a philosophy, our world can be filled with more love and acceptance and less hatred and stigmatism. Let us all aim to be aware and accepting of the global autism community as well as others. It starts with you and educating yourself.
Social work is a field in which professionals are intended to do their best to help connect members of vulnerable populations with the resources necessary to allow them to live with their rights and general well-being safe. However, on October 12 of this year, during a meeting between the Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council and the Texas Board of Social Work Examiners, a section of the social workers’ code of conduct was altered. A section which previously stated, “A social worker shall not refuse to perform any act or service for which the person is licensed solely on the basis of a client’s age; gender; race; color; religion; national origin; disability; sexual orientation; gender identity and expression; or political affiliation.” During the meeting, the words “disability; sexual orientation; gender identity and expression” were taken out. They instead replaced that phrase with the word sex, making the social workers’ code match the Texas Occupations Code.
This is concerning for a few reasons, the most glaring one being that it leaves members of the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities in Texas, two populations that are already seriously vulnerable, even more vulnerable than before, as social workers can now turn away potential clients from those communities.
This led to an uproar among advocates for the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities, as at puts their ability to access important resources that are related to their basic human rights directly at risk. There is an increasingly serious concern that members of these populations will face even more obstacles in accessing the things they need than they already do.
The Human Rights Connection
It’s important to recognize that is an issue of human rights, even outside of the clear issue of discrimination against these groups that is involved. Consider some of the jobs of social workers. They include therapists, case workers, workers for Child Protective Services, and much more. In addition to working with people with disabilities and members of the LGBTQ+ community in general, many social workers specialize in work with children and older adults, two groups which overlap with the former. Then these vulnerable populations are unable to get the support they need in order to access the tools, programs, and resources that exist specifically to help them live life and access their basic needs, they are by extension often kept from being able to access their basic human rights.
One clear example of this is when people with disabilities require financial aid to support themselves do to an inability to be a part of the general workforce. Social workers are an important part of the process of connect the people affected by this issue with the resources and government programs they need. Without the aid of social workers, they might have significant difficulty accessing their “right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control,” as recognized in Article 25 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The fact that this allows social workers to discriminate certain groups in accepting clients is human rights issue in itself, as according to Article 7 of the UDHR, all are entitled to equal protection under the law and,“All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.”
The Purpose of Social Work: Helping Vulnerable Populations
Another reason this change in the Texas social workers’ code of conduct is problematic is that the field of social work is inherently meant to involve professionals helping vulnerable populations (such as the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities). According to the National Association of Social Workers’ (NASW) Code of Ethics,“The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well–being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.” A vulnerable population is a group or community “at a higher risk for poor health as a result of the barriers they experience to social, economic, political and environmental resources, as well as limitations due to illness or disability.”
Social work is also built a set of core values: service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, competence. It is the job of a social worker to do what they can to uphold those values by helping vulnerable populations access the resources they need. Therefore, social workers’ turning away members of the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities, particularly vulnerable groups, goes against the social work code of ethics.
The ethical principles of social work also bar social workers from participating in acts of discrimination on the “basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, or mental or physical ability.”
There is a meeting set for October 27, 2020 so that the Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council can discuss the issue of discrimination as it applies to the changes that were made to the Texas social workers’ code of conduct. It is vital that we do not underestimate the significance of this situation and the serious harm that it can cause.
“I used to be chained around the waist and one ankle. My waist used to hurt because the chain was so heavy. My leg used to hurt, I would scratch it and cry. I felt relieved when the chain was removed.”
An estimated 792 million people globally – that is 1 in 10 people, including 1 in 5 children – have a mental health condition. Despite this irrefutable fact, governments spend less than two percent of their health budgets on mental health. The absence of proper mental health support and knowledge of how to cope with a mental health condition has lead to thousands of people being shackled in inhumane conditions.
“People in the neighborhood say that I’m mad [maluca or n’lhanyi]. I was taken to a traditional healing center where they cut my wrists to introduce medicine and another one where a witch doctor made me take baths with chicken blood.”
—Fiera, 42, woman with a psychosocial disability, Maputo, Mozambique, November 2019
This brutal practice is an open secret in many communities, according to Kriti Sharma, the senior disability rights researcher at the Human Rights Watch. Sharma and her team compiled a 56-page report titled “Living in Chains: Shackling People with Psychological Disabilities Worldwide,” shedding light on the conditions in which people with mental disabilities are bound by families in their own homes or in overcrowded and unsanitary institutions against their will. This is due to the widespread stigma and taboo of mental health issues within governments and health institutions in several countries. In state-run, private, traditional, and religious institutional “healing centers,” people with mental health conditions are often forced to fast, take medications or herbal concoctions, and face physical and sexual violence.
The Human Rights Watch’s study of 110 countries unveiled evidence of shackling people with mental health conditions across age groups, ethnicities, religions, socioeconomic levels, and urban and rural areas in about 60 countries. Countries that indulge in these types of practices include Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, China, Ghana, Indonesia, Kenya, Liberia, Mexico, Mozambique, Nigeria, Palestine, Yemen, and several more.
Though a number of countries have started to acknowledge mental health as a real problem, the inhumane act of shackling remains largely out of sight. There is no data or coordinated effort at either international or regional level to eradicate the binding of people who are mentally ill. The act of shackling impacts both the mental and physical health of someone who is already ill. Some effects include post-traumatic stress, malnutrition, infections, nerve damage, and cardiovascular problems, not to mention the loss of dignity. The #BreakTheChains Movement is an organization devoted to bringing awareness of shackling to nations and increasing access and awareness of mental health services in countries where shackling is a common problem. The movement has been successful in Indonesia where its country-wide interviews and advocacy led the government of Indonesia to deepen its commitment to #BreakTheChains. Over 48 million households in Indonesia now have access to community-based mental health services.
Laymen can also assist the movement by following two easy steps: sign the pledge, and share the movement on social media to promote awareness. It is time to acknowledge that mental health is a real issue that affects millions of people, and shackling and ignoring the issue will not resolve any issues, nor will it reduce the stigma associated with mental health. If we, as global citizens, have learned anything from this pandemic, it is how deathly and dangerous the invisibility of a disease is. Mental health is invisible like COVID-19, but there are always symptoms. Make an effort to educate yourself, and take the opportunity to check in on people by simply asking how someone has been. It really is that simple.
In 1954, the United States Supreme Court overruled the “separate but equal” clause of Plessy v. Ferguson with the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, declaring that “separate” educational facilities are inherently unequal. While Brown v. Board was aimed at addressing racial segregation, it is worth noting the implications of this view of separate educations because students with learning disabilities are often educated separately from their peers. Our current education system divides students into different categories and programs based on their perceived levels of academic ability under the assumption that this is the best way to help students reach their fullest potential. This is problematic and leads to students’ missing the benefits of an inclusive classroom. Though it would not be a simple task, students who have learning disabilities should be educated alongside students who do not, using cooperative classwork, where students work together to complete an assignment or task, whenever possible.
The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a person with a disability as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.” For this blog, I will be focusing on learning disabilities, particularly those that do not completely inhibit functions that are vital in a traditional classroom, such as communication. However, I do recognize that the line that I am drawing between which disabilities/experiences of disabilities my proposal would apply to and those it would not is not completely clear, as no two people with the same disability have the same experience. The degree to which a person is able to participate in inclusive and cooperative learning would have to be determined on a case by case basis.
Article 26 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that everyone has a right to an education. Article 24 of the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) states that all people with disabilities have the right to “an inclusive education system at all levels and lifelong learning.” The use of cooperative classwork among students with and without disabilities would hopefully help more effectively access these rights for both parties. Additionally, by helping the members of each group become more accustomed to interacting and being part of a common social group, this can also help individuals with the types of disabilities that are focused on in this blog to access their right to employment (which is given in article 23 of the UDHR and article 27 of the CRPD) and their right to participation/inclusion in their communities (article 27 of the UDHR and article 19 of the CRPD).
Our Current System
When discussing whether students who have disabilities should be educated separately from students who do not, it is helpful if we begin by considering why we use the system we currently have. A literature review titled “Implicit Assumptions in Special Education Policy: Promoting Full Inclusion for Students with Learning Disabilities” was published by Moira Kirby in the Child Youth Care Forum in 2016. In the review, Kirby aimed to find special education trends relating to “inclusive practices, Response to Intervention (RTI), and student achievement.” She argues that the educational system currently used in the United States, while meant to increase access to education, perpetuates certain students’ isolation from others, as it is based on problematic assumptions about disabilities. The first assumption is that disabilities are deviant conditions that should be “eradicated.” The second is that “all special services should be delivered in a separate environment.” These assumptions inform the implicit biases about degrees of educational ability. Kirby also argues that these assumptions must be changed in order to “promote access and equality for students with learning disabilities.” In her article, she states, “The question is not, how can we fix a disability, but how can we make our classroom environments a place where all students can learn, regardless of their need.”
The educational system that is currently in place in the US involves separating students with learning disabilities, “low-performing” students, students who meet “average” expectations, and “high-performing” students. This system is well-intentioned, theoretically giving each group of students the unique resources they need to reach the height of their personal capabilities. In practice, however, this system is quite flawed. It is a system based on expectations (typically informed by assumptions and implicit bias), which become harmful to many students, especially those with learning disabilities, due to stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is “the risk of confirming negative stereotypes about an individual’s racial, ethnic, gender, or cultural group” and the effect that that risk can have on the individual’s performance. Many people assume that students with disabilities will do poorly in school, and when students with disabilities know this, they often adopt those same expectations for themselves. If academic success seems unlikely or even impossible, this can become a barrier to the motivation and access to resources that can lead to it. Stereotype threat also leads students with learning disabilities to underestimate the quality of their academic performance overall, even at times when they are doing well. They can start to assume that they simply cannot do well in school.
Another problem that comes with stereotype threat is that it takes up precious cognitive resources. Students spend part of their cognitive resources thinking about the expectations they are held to, distracting them from the work they are trying to do, and preventing them from using all of their resources to their advantage, which contributes to a decreased ability to perform well.
In her research, Kirby found that teachers who had been asked about inclusion in the classroom tended to attribute the success of attempts at inclusion to the students’ physiological traits rather than the value of inclusive practices. She points to this belief as one that could potentially lead a teacher to believe that students with disabilities could be taught only separately from others. They were also often found to lack confidence in their abilities to teach students with disabilities. Parents also either had negative or neutral views on the impact of inclusive education.
In 2015, “68.2% of students with learning disabilities spend 80% or more of their day in the general education classroom, while 24.1% spend 40-70% of their day in the general education classroom.” This in no way aligns with the idea that students with learning disabilities need to be educated separately from other students, and it highlights a point of concern. If many general education teachers do not feel like they are able to teach students with disabilities, and most students with disabilities spend a large part of their day in general education classrooms, what implications do these things have regarding those students’ education? Ideally, students would be educated by someone who felt they were qualified to teach them rather than someone who is uncertain about it. If students with different educational needs were consistently taught in the same classroom, teachers would all need to go through the training necessary to teach students with special educational needs, allowing them to better support their students.
An Inclusive Educational Environment Can Be Beneficial For All Students
The negative impact that a segregated educational system can have on students with disabilities is not the only reason to move towards a more inclusive system. Evidence that suggests that inclusive classrooms can lead to positive outcomes for all of the students involved.
In their article “The challenges of implementing group work in primary school classrooms and including pupils with special educational needs,” Ed Baines, Peter Blatchford, and Rob Webster review the results of two research projects: the SPRing (Social Pedagogic Research into Group-work) project and the MAST (Making a Statement) project. Realizing that most studies regarding collaborative work in education that had previously been performed had been on a small-scale and short-term basis, the authors reviewed the results of these two projects to come to a better, more reliable understanding of the challenges of inclusive group-work in primary schools.
The SPRing project was a five-year-long project that aimed to “develop and implement with teachers a programme of principles and activities that incorporated group work into curriculum and everyday school activities” and “to evaluate this programme relative to a control group in terms of academic progress, behavioral interaction and dialogue, and attitudes and motivation towards learning.” The developed program included a handbook and six training sessions where teachers could develop the skills that they need to incorporate group work into their lessons. The four main areas covered by the program included “preparing the classroom and group context for group work,” “preparing lessons and group-work activities,” “preparing adults to support pupils and groups,” and “preparing pupils for group work.”
The results of the SPRing project show that, relative to the control group, the students that participated in the program made more progress in general science tests, “were more actively engaged in task interactions,” had more sustained interactions, and “engaged in more high-level reasoning talk.”
The MAST project “involved systematic observation and case studies” of students with known special educational needs that were being taught in general education classrooms. This project’s results provided Baines and his co-authors with information about the interactions between students with special educational needs and adults/peers. The project found that students with special educational needs “were half as likely to work with or alongside peers” as other students. It was also found they were often isolated from the other students. Some of the reasons for this isolation included a student with special educational needs choosing to sit away from the others, and other students being afraid of or nervous about working with them. One factor that may contribute to each of these reasons could be that the students with special educational needs that were a part of the study may have had poor social and communicational skills. While difficulties with communication are an aspect of many learning disabilities, inclusive group work may give these students an opportunity and a safe environment in which they can develop these skills (though a student should never be pushed to do group work if it causes them an amount of stress that is genuinely detrimental to their well-being).
This isolation of students with special educational needs may also result from traditional students and school faculty viewing people with disabilities as “the other” as being outside of normal. This would help to explain why traditional students may be hesitant to associate with students who have disabilities. It could also explain why students with special educational needs isolate themselves from other students, as they may have internalized their peers’ view of them. They may feel like they are on the outside looking in, unable to be a part of the rest of the group.
In her literature review, Moira Kirby also addresses some of the benefits of inclusive educational settings, as suggested in different case studies. In one study, elementary school students scored higher in reading and writing when taught in a general education classroom rather than a separate special education classroom. Another study found that eighth-graders with learning disabilities had “significantly higher scores in math academic achievement tasks and self-concept” when taught in an inclusive classroom. Students from another study scored higher in math, science, social studies, and language arts.
Students without learning disabilities may also benefit from inclusive educational environments. Students who perform well could potentially benefit from working with students with disabilities and helping them understand the topics they are learning about and the group work they might do. Re-wording and explaining a concept to another person can
help cement one’s understanding of it. Additionally, if all teachers have to teach classes with children with different educational needs, they would have to be prepared to work with students with disabilities, which would improve the support that those students receive and broaden teachers’ perspectives. This could allow teachers to develop skills that would be beneficial in teaching all students, with or without disabilities.
Concerns and Challenges
Though there are many advantages to adopting a more inclusive educational system, there are still concerns and challenges that also come with it. One concern is that students with learning disabilities may face social rejection from their peers. For their article “The Social and Emotional Situation of First Graders with Classroom Behavior Problems and Classroom Learning Difficulties in Inclusive Classes,” Johanna Krull, Jürgen Wilbert, and Thomas Hennemann surveyed 2,839 first graders and found that students with “classroom learning difficulties” (CLD) and “classroom behavioral problems” (CBP) were at a greater risk for social rejection than their peers. However, the authors found several outliers in their data, where students with CLD or CBP had higher rates of social acceptance, and they interpret this to mean that, under the right circumstances, an inclusive education system is possible. In their article, Baines and his co-authors suggest that social rejection in this context can decrease over time when students are involved in inclusive group-work (if the students remain in the same groups throughout that time). Group work allows students with disabilities who struggle with social skills to develop those skills. It will enable other students to better understand people’s experiences who are different from them, which may lead them to be more willing (and happier) to be inclusive and build friendships with other students. If a student has no/little prior experience with students with learning disabilities, it would not be surprising to find that they are nervous or uncomfortable interacting with them.
When discussing the possibility of an integrated classroom, people are also concerned with the impact of having children with severe behavioral issues in general education classrooms, as they may become distracting or disruptive to the point of preventing any productivity in the class. This may be a factor that needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Some children that are deemed as being too disruptive have the potential to become less disruptive with exposure to a traditional classroom setting. There are likely situations where students truly are too disruptive to allow for a productive classroom, but that is certainly not always the case. It is important that, if a student is found to behave in a distracting way, that they are not immediately moved into another classroom after a single incident (although consideration should be given to the severity and the nature of the interruption). They should be given the opportunity to try and adjust to the traditional classroom environment before they are placed in a different one.
Another concern is that educating students at such a range of degrees of ability in the same classroom might prevent both students with learning disabilities and students that are currently in advanced programs from reaching their fullest academic potential. This concern is largely connected to the assumption that being in the classroom means that students would all be learning from the exact same curriculum, but that is not necessarily true.
In her article, Kirby suggests that a completely inclusive classroom might not involve basing lesson plans on the categories that students have been assigned to. Instead, each student would have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). In our current public education system, children in special education programs must have an IEP, a “map that lays out the program of special education instruction, supports, and services kids need to make progress and thrive in school.” Each child has an IEP team, including their parents, at least one general education teacher (unless the child does not work with any), at least one special education teacher, a school district representative, a school psychologist/specialist, and the child. After the IEP is developed, the team regularly meets to discuss progress and possible changes for the plan. If every student, whether they have general or special educational needs, has an IEP, then (in theory), each student could have their personal needs recognized and met in the classroom. Kirby also suggests that making IEPs standard for all students could reduce the impact that the stigmatization of learning disabilities has on students, as school faculty would be less reliant on separating students into different/broad categories to teach them.
Of course, creating an IEP for every student in the public school system is much easier said than done and is a much more attractive idea in theory than in practice. It would require a significant shift in the allocation of resources in education, which may not be practical with the financial resources we currently have access to. It would also be asking many teachers, as they would no longer be able to teach with a singular lesson plan. It is unrealistic to expect teachers to carry this burden themselves, as they are already spread too thin, given more responsibilities than they can reasonably handle. Having IEPs for every student would likely require a serious increase in the number of teachers at each school or at least an increased/reinforced support system for school faculty. Perhaps a more feasible solution could be developing IEPs for students with a clear need for increased educational support that involves their being more present in the traditional classroom than in a separate one. While this is still likely to feed into the stigmatization and othering of students with disabilities, there do not seem to be any strong alternatives that are both practical and successful in avoiding stigmatization altogether.
In short, we should aim to educate students with and without learning disabilities together whenever possible, even though it will take a lot of time and effort to do so. We currently separate students based on expectations of their academic abilities, and these expectations are informed by and reaffirm problematic assumptions about people with learning disabilities. This can be harmful to people with learning disabilities and prevent students with all degrees of educational needs from accessing the benefits that can come from an inclusive classroom. However, it is important that we recognize and genuinely consider the concerns and challenges that arise when we look to put inclusive education ideals into practice. It is also important to recognize that the conclusions that can be drawn based on the resources used to support this argument are limited, as many gather data from anecdotal situations and small samples sizes. These factors prevent the results of sources from being reliably representative of experiences with inclusion and students with learning disabilities on a larger scale. The application of my argument is also limited, as I have focused on students with learning disabilities that do not completely prevent them from effectively learning or functioning in a general education classroom. While an integrated school system is generally optimal, there are some students for which that kind of system genuinely would not work. We cannot treat all students with disabilities as if their experiences are the same by assuming that all would do poorly in an inclusive classroom or that all would be unquestionably better off in an inclusive classroom. Overall, even though it will not be easy, even if we can never achieve a perfectly integrated educational system, it is an important goal which we should work towards for the benefit of all students and their educational rights.
Recently, select states and hospitals have issued guidelines for health providers that would potentially deny people with disabilities treatment for COVID-19. Two entities, Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) and Washington State Department of Public Health (WSDPH), have recently come under scrutiny because of their efforts to fulfill such guidelines.
ADPH’s Emergency Operations Plan suggests that ventilator support would be denied to patients with “severe of profound mental retardation”, “moderate to severe dementia”, and “severe traumatic brain injury”. This controversial protocol has recently grabbed the attention of Alabama Disability Advocacy Program and The Arc thus leading to a complaint with U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights (OCR) regarding discrimination toward people with intellectual and cognitive disabilities.
OCR swiftly responded to these concerns, as well as those from Kansas and Tennessee, by stating that, even in the case of pandemics, hospitals and doctors cannot undermine the care of people with disabilities and older adults. OCR Director Roger Severino exclaimed, “We’re concerned that crisis standards of care may start relying on value judgments as to the relative worth of one human being versus another, based on the presence or absence of disability,” and “…that stereotypes about what life is like living with a disability can be improperly used to exclude people from needed care.”
Also, with New York currently having most of the U.S.’s confirmed COVID-19 cases, they may very well be the first state to face the imbalance of available ventilators and patient demand. Disability advocates have recently decried verbiage in New York’s Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness (PREP) Act that could provide immunity from civil rights for some patients. Thus, U.S. state and federal powers are playing tug-of-war with the status of disability rights during the COVID-19 crisis.
However, these concerns are not limited to the U.S. In the developing world, many people with disabilities are segregated from their communities in overcrowded facilities, while thousands of others are shackled and incarcerated. This weak enforcement of disability rights positions people with disabilities, in countries such as Brazil, Croatia, Ghana, India, Indonesia, and Russia, at-risk of further inhumane treatment by receiving limited or no appropriate care related to COVID-19. As a result, Human Rights Watch urges state and local authorities to return these populations to their families and demand they provide needed support and services within their communities.
Nearly every country in the world has ratified the United Nations’ Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) which aims to fulfill the human rights and fundamental freedoms of people with disabilities. More specifically, Article 25 of CRPD suggests people with disabilities have the right to non-discriminatory health care and population-based public health programs. Thus, nearly every person with a disability around the globe is associated with a governmental power that claims to be dedicated to fulfilling the promise of CRPD. However, in the wake of COVID-19, will these words be put into action?
These unprecedented events are a turning point for how we view our bodies, health, and communities. This is also an opportunity to view the world through the perspective of those in your community such as people with disabilities who represent an array of impairments, challenges, and experiences. Despite boredom and apathy being at the forefront of many people’s isolation, images of life versus death surround others, and for a good reason. In these decisive weeks, and likely months, there has never been a greater time for people in the U.S. and abroad to acknowledge that disability rights are human rights.
Is this because of an overall misunderstanding about the parameters of disabilities among the general public? Or do the producers of film and television realize they are failing to accurately represent society and just not caring?
Even the media that currently feature characters with disabilities are often misleading and lean heavily into pre-existing, incorrect stereotypes. Manifestation of this issue draws parallels with insensitive stereotypes about race, gender, and sexuality to the use of common (over-used) archetypes.
One way in which film and television often generalize people with disabilities is using character archetypes. It worth noting that archetypes are not inherently bad, rather they become a problem when they are focused around a specific group of people. As a result, this creates/reaffirms the assumptions that people make about others. When it comes to characters with disabilities, it is especially problematic, as these characters are rarely depicted outside of their archetypes while non-disabled groups may be more likely to have a nuanced portrayal.
The helpless victim character is severely limited by their disability and is depicted as having little chance of happiness or normalcy in life unless their disability is removed. This character is depicted as needing to be “saved” from their condition and are designed to evoke pity and sympathy from the audience rather than be viewed as a regular person. These characters are often rescued from their disabilities through “miraculous” events whether it be an “unexplainable change” or directly stated as part of an intervention by a higher power. Not only does this lead people to look at people with disabilities with the same pity they give fictional characters, but it also fosters an inaccurate depiction of many people’s experiences with their own disabilities. Contrary to these depictions, people can have disabilities and live happy lives at the same time. The helpless victim archetype is also sometimes used for comedic purposes. For example, a person with a disability does or experiences something related to their disability that mildly harms them or is considered inappropriate by societal norms. This is shown in how Forest Gump is depicted in relation to his intellectual disability.￼ This allows people who do not have disabilities to feel comfortable with not taking people with disabilities seriously or giving them the same respect they give people who do not have disabilities.
The Evil Villain
The second main archetype is the evil villain, often designed as a dangerous and uncontrollable monster. This character is often seen in horror films, such as the Unbreakable trilogy, Gerald’s Game, and many more. The horror genre is notorious for using both physical and mental disabilities (often those that the general public is not well-educated on) to frighten audiences. Since many of the disabilities that are targeted by this archetype are unfamiliar to most people, many audiences walk away having absorbed a great deal of misinformation and a fear of people with these disabilities. These representations have led many people to believe that people with disabilities, particularly any mental disorders that are unfamiliar, are dangerous and should be avoided. In reality, people have a tendency to largely overestimate the likelihood that a person with a mental health disorder will become violent. Additionally, when people with these kinds of disabilities do become violent, is largely linked to other factors, such as substance abuse and family history.
An example of the evil villain character is the Beast from M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable trilogy. The Beast is an alter in a system with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) that is depicted as having super-human abilities and a desire to get rid of all impure people in the world. Throughout the series, he is depicted clearly as a violent monster. For many people, these movies were their first exposure to DID, and, though it did not necessarily convince people that DID gives people supernatural capabilities, this has led to many people having a serious misunderstanding of DID and a fear of people who experience the disorder. Even the “nice” alters in the system were depicted in a negative light, as they helped the Beast carry out his evil plans. This representation of DID is also problematic because there are so many misleading or definitively incorrect ideas about DID propagated in these films.
The third main archetype is the hero/inspirational character with a disability is held up as an example of someone “overcoming the odds”. These are the characters that lead people to say, “well if they can do that, then I can do anything!” While it is considered a positive stereotype, it is nonetheless problematic for several reasons. First, it suggests that the only way a person can be happy is if they are “cured” or if they overcome their disability. It specifically frames disabilities as enemies to defeat rather than a part of daily life. It can also lead people who do not have disabilities to believe that people who do have them will be fine if they only try hard enough. As a result, this may make them believe they do not have to do anything to accommodate people with disabilities. Depicting people with disabilities this way can also lead to people without disabilities looking to them for sources of inspiration and examples of courage rather than as regular people.
Many people develop their understanding of different disabilities through the representations they see in film and television which impacts the way people are viewed by their local communities and, therefore, their ability to access their human rights. The way students are treated by their classmates impacts how they benefit from their educational experience (Article 26 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights). The way people are treated by their employers (or potential employers) and co-workers impacts their access to a favorable work environment without discrimination (Article 23). Theway people are treated holistically by their community impacts their ability to actively participate in their communities (Article 27). A community’s view of people with disabilities can also impact their willingness to make accommodations for them which further affects their ability to access the aforementioned rights.
Does it “communicate proper diagnosis and treatment”?
Does it address the cause of the disability?
Is the character relatable? Are they well-rounded and realistic?
An Example of Good Representation: A Quiet Place
John Krasinski’s film, A Quiet Place, is a wonderful example of quality representation. In the film, the Abbot family is fighting to survive in a world where making a sound could be a death sentence. Reagan, the daughter in the family, is deaf, which has led to the entire family’s ability to communicate silently through American Sign Language (ASL). Reagan’s disability is not treated as a burden or as a superpower. While their knowledge of ASL is a key tool in the family’s path towards survival, it does not change the way Reagan is treated as a character. She is a normal kid. She is a multi-dimensional character who has strong relationships with her family and faces personal struggles that are unrelated to her disability. The character is also played by a deaf actress, which is an important part of good representation and surprisingly rare on television and in film.
The existence of quality representation for people with disabilities is increasing in television and in films like A Quiet Place, but we still have a lot of work to do. It will take time, but we can hopefully look forward to a day where people with disabilities are well represented in popular media.
UAB is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer committed to fostering a diverse, equitable and family-friendly environment in which all faculty and staff can excel and achieve work/life balance irrespective of race, national origin, age, genetic or family medical history, gender, faith, gender identity and expression as well as sexual orientation. UAB also encourages applications from individuals with disabilities and veterans.