How American Disability Rights Are Not Enforced

by James Delano

What Disability Rights Laws Exist? 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the primary law safeguarding the rights of disabled Americans. It was passed on July 26th, 1990, with updates later passed in 2008. The ADA was the largest law related to rights for people with disabilities in the United States when it was passed and remains so today. 

The ADA recognizes three major areas it applies to, covered in Titles I, II, and III. 

Title I was written about employment. It ensures equal access to employment for people with disabilities. It forbids discrimination towards employees with disabilities based on their disability and requires reasonable accommodations be made for them. Title II covers public services and buildings, such as libraries, public colleges and universities, courthouses, and benefits programs. Title II creates stricter standards for publicly funded agencies and programs than Title III does for private organizations. Both Title II and Title III require reasonable accommodations be made for the disabled individual requesting the accommodation without the infliction of undue hardship. 

Title III covers private corporations and “public accommodations,” which include hotels, restaurants, stores, private schools or daycares, parks, and others. 

Prior to the passage of the ADA, legislation designed to improve the rights of people with disabilities was sparse. The first major piece of legislation passed was Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 504 was signed in 1977, years after the original Rehabilitation Act, due to the 504 sit-ins occurring at the time. The first version of IDEA, which protects children with disabilities, became law in 1975. The Fair Housing Act was only expanded to people with disabilities in 1988.

Dozens of protestors celebrate in San Francisco after Section 504 was passed. Source: Yahoo Images
Dozens of protestors celebrate in San Francisco after Section 504 was passed. Source: Yahoo Images

The ADA is primarily enforced by complaint. A person with a disability is required to submit a formal complaint to the Office of Civil Rights or to the Department of Justice. They are then required to go through the process of creating a mediation agreement to ensure future access for the complainant and for future people with disabilities. People with disabilities are discriminated against in almost all parts of life: employment, marriage, and voting. 

For example, in 2016, Jefferson County was forced to alter its polling locations due to violations of the ADA in numerous polling stations. Until 2010, UAB was under a similar resolution about buildings on campus; many buildings built and renovated after 1992, when architectural requirements began being enforced, were non-compliant with the ADA. Both complaints were filed by people with disabilities after their rights were violated. 

People with disabilities also largely lack marriage equality in the United States. Married individuals almost always lose their benefits after marriage, including Social Security payments, healthcare, and other necessities. Often, people with disabilities would be forced to give up the things that make them able to survive – health insurance, home healthcare, and other benefits – in order to gain the legal protection and social benefits of marriage.  

The ADA is the main legal source for most rights for people with disabilities in the United States. If the ADA goes unenforced, people with disabilities are left behind. That is why its enforcement is so important: without the ADA, most people with disability lack the ability to utilize their rights, and without that ability, those rights may as well not exist.

American Disability Rights in Modern Institutions for People with Disabilities 

Olmstead v. L.C. (1999) was a Supreme Court decision decided based on the text of the ADA. It created requirements in many cases for community-based services over widespread institutionalization. The goal of the decision was to reduce the number of people with disabilities who lived in institutions.

In 1967, 400,000 Americans resided in these institutions, amounting to about 0.2% of the total U.S. population. By 2012, that number had risen to about 1,900,000 Americans with disabilities living in institutions, or just over 0.6% of the total U.S. population. Is this an example of deinstitutionalization?

A middle-aged man stands inside a room at a group home in front of a bed. Source: Yahoo Images
A middle-aged man stands inside a room at a group home in front of a bed. Source: Yahoo Images

The ADA applies to group homes and smaller forms of institutions, but abuse is still rampant in those locations. In 2021 in a group home in Eight Mile, a resident was severely beaten, allegedly by an employee of the group home he was living at. A year later, at a group home in Chickasaw, two group home employees were arrested for pouring boiling water on a resident of the home who had physical and intellectual disabilities. In 2022 a man with an alleged history of domestic abuse was employed at a group home in Mobile County, where video footage shows him using a belt to assault a resident with severe disabilities. These cases of abuse in institutions happen regularly, despite Alabama’s rate of institutionalization of people with disabilities being lower than the national average and us being a smaller state than many others.

Larger states and the country as a whole are not immune to this problem. A study conducted in 2000 found that “Children with disabilities are 3.4 times more likely to be maltreated than nondisabled peers.” Between 2004 and 2010, over 6% of the deaths of people with developmental disabilities were caused by neglect and abuse. At the state level, numerous New Jersey group homes were forced to close in 2022 due to unreported abuse. 

American Disability Rights in Outside Institutions for People with Disabilities 

Discrimination against people with disabilities is not exclusive to group homes and locations specific to people with disabilities. In Alabama alone, since 2013, the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (DOEOCR) recorded 74 resolved civil rights complaints in Alabama. The DOEOCR covers all areas under the Department of Education (DOE), including universities, K-12 schools, public libraries, and other groups funded by the DOE, and has recorded 74 resolved ADA-related complaints in Alabama since 2013. Those complaints have been filed against institutions including community colleges, four-year universities, including UAB, and K-12 school districts, including Birmingham City Schools twice, the Jefferson County school district once, and multiple other Jefferson County school districts. 

Outside of areas of education, the Department of Justice has filed 114 cases related to the ADA and other disability legislation since 2021. Two of those cases occurred in Alabama. One agreement involved Medicaid discrimination; the other was based on employment discrimination by the Alabama Department of Transportation. Prior to 2021, the Department of Justice filed numerous other cases regarding the ADA. Many cases involved people with HIV/AIDS, who are classified as disabled under the ADA. Others were over Olmstead. As I discussed above, Olmstead was intended to aid in the national deinstitutionalization effort. To that effect, the Department of Justice has filed many cases since Olmstead was decided regarding its enforcement. 

Medicaid is not immune to these problems either. Medicaid provides health insurance to low-income individuals and people with disabilities, many of the latter also being low-income. Last year, the Alabama Disability Advocacy Program (ADAP) filed a complaint against the Alabama Department of Senior Services (ADSS) alleging that there are barriers to accessing services provided by programs under the Alabama Medicaid Agency. According to ADAP, in the time they took to process the complaint in question, two individuals on the Medicaid programs in question died due to these failures. These Home & Community Based Services (HCBS) spent $132,000,000 in the 2021 fiscal year, and Alabama Medicaid as a whole received $5.6 billion in federal funding the same year, about $4700 in federal funds for each Alabamian who was eligible for Medicaid at the time. 

What is Changing? 

There are currently changes being made to many of the systems I discussed in this post. The aforementioned ADAP complaint regarding Medicaid is currently unresolved, and the Colby Act, which my colleague Lexie Woolums discussed at length in a recent blog post, was recently passed into law. Just a few months ago, the Department of Health and Human Services proposed changes to regulations around the Americans with Disabilities Act to clarify those that already exist. Those changes include clearer standards for health insurance coverage of medical equipment and clarify childcare requirements, both of which are things that many Americans have difficulty affording.

Shackling and Psychosocial Disabilities

by Blue Teague

An empty room with three windows, all with long, sheer curtains. The two ceiling lights are off. Nothing but light can be seen outside the windows.
An empty room with three windows, all with long, sheer curtains. The two ceiling lights are off. Nothing but light can be seen outside the windows. Photo by Hans Eiskonen on Unsplash.

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.

However, it was Bly’s description of the institution’s conditions that quickly spread through the masses. Her multi-page articles detailed the physical abuse, gross negligence, and psychological harm patients endured.

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.

Eventually, a grand jury launched its own investigation into Blackwell Island’s institution, the parent of the Women’s Lunatic Asylum. Despite immense budget increases, the institution shut down a few years later in 1894.

 

A dilapidated wooden shed with some white paint on the door and bottom boards. It has two windows with broken glass and rusty frames. Behind it its dense woods.
A dilapidated wooden shed with some white paint on the door and bottom boards. It has two windows with broken glass and rusty frames. Behind it its dense woods. Photo by Lilartsy on Unsplash.

Life in Mental and Physical Shackles

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.

A photograph of a medical IV stand holding and empty IV bag on a dark background.
A photograph of a medical IV stand holding and empty IV bag on a dark background. Photo by Marcelo Leal on Unsplash.

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.

The abuse is systemic when many perpetrators organize and hide the mistreatment of victims. One such man, “Paul,” shared his experience with reporter Kriti Sharma from HRW’s Disability Rights Division. Paul had lived for five years in a religious healing center in Kenya. He said, “It makes me sad…It’s not how a human being is supposed to be. A human being should be free.”

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.

Eight people of varying skin and sleeve colors standing in a circle with one hand each stacked on top of each other's.
Eight people of varying skin and sleeve colors standing in a circle with one hand each stacked on top of each other’s. Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash.

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.

A Brief History of Disability Advocacy in America & How the Colby Act is a Step Forward

by Lexie Woolums

“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.

 

Colby wearing a shirt that says "The Colby Act, vote yes!" next to Representative Cynthia Almond of Tuscaloosa.
Figure 2:Source-Kim Spangler; Colby & Representative Cynthia Almond,
who co-sponsored The Colby Act with Senator Arthur Orr. 

 

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.

 

a black and white photo featuring disability rights advocates. In the center, a person in a wheelchair has a sign that reads "I can't even get to the back of the bus."
Figure 3:Source- Yahoo Images; Disability protesters

 

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.

Black and white image of a person holding a protest sign that reads "504 is law now make it reality."
Figure 4:Source-Yahoo Images; Protest sign mentioning Section 504

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.

 

Colby standing and smiling for the photo in between James Tucker and Nancy Anderson of ADAP at an event.
Figure 5:Source-Kim Spangler; James Tucker & Nancy Anderson of ADAP
with Colby at a Partners in Policy for Alabama Event

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.

 

Section one of the 14th Amendment, which states "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
Figure 6:Source-Yahoo Images; 14th Amendment, which includes the equal protection clause that formed the basis of the argument for disability inclusion and signing of Section 504

 

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.

 

What The Colby Act Does for Alabamians Today

The Colby Act introduces the concept of supported decision-making for adults with disabilities in Alabama, making it the 19th state with supported decision-making (SDM) laws.

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.

 

Colby stands in a black graduation cap and gown. He stands in front of a wall of red and white balloons, with a sign above that reads "where legends are made."
Figure 7:Source-Kim Spangler; Colby celebrating graduation from the College of Education’s
CCOS program at the University of Alabama.

 

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.

A History of Institutions for People with Disabilities: Neglect, Abuse, and Death

by James DeLano

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.

 

Small Victorian-era prison cell. Source: Yahoo Images
Small Victorian-era prison cell. Source: Yahoo Images

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.

 

Postcard of Willowbrook with a yellow label stating "Willowbrook State School". Source: New York Public Library Digital Collection
Postcard of Willowbrook with a yellow label stating “Willowbrook State School”. Source: New York Public Library Digital Collection

 

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.

 

Older man in wheelchair being escorted by caregiver. Source: Yahoo Images
An older man in a wheelchair being escorted by a caregiver. Source: Yahoo Images

 

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.

Some Resources for individuals with disabilities in the Central Alabama region

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

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

Intellectual Disabilities and Neurodivergence

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

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

Mitchell’s Place

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

The Arc of Central Alabama

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

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

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

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

Alabama Easterseals Society

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

Transportation Help

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

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

Therapeutic and Recreational Opportunities

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

Red Barn

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

Exceptional Foundation

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

Resources for people with multiple disabilities and or sensory disabilities

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

United Ability

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

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

Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind

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

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

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

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

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

The Rights of Children with Disabilities

What rights are protected?

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

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

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

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

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

Some Approaches to Disability Rights

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

Approach 1: Medical Model of Disability

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

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

Approach 2: Social Model of Disability

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

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

Approach 3: The Human Rights Model of Disability

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

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

How Can We Help?

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

On the Internation Level

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

On the Domestic Level

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

On the Individual Level

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

 

 

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

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

In the last blog, we covered the contextual history of the American Education System, primarily, who was allowed education, who was not, and even the differences in the quality of education that children in America received. We also explored the historical treatment of people with disabilities, both in the larger society, as well as in children with disabilities within the school system. Understanding the past is crucial to analyzing why certain events occur as they do in the future. That is what we set out to do in this continuation of the conversation about disabilities and the American education system. In this second part, we will focus on the realities children with disabilities witness within the education system, including the challenges they face, the school-to-prison pipeline that exists, and how this impacts their development (both mentally and physically). We will then explore how the recent pandemic exacerbated these conditions, and what sort of rights the children possess in this post-pandemic world.

Children with Disabilities in the Education System Today

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

The many challenges faced by students with disabilities in the classroom

Children with disabilities today face many challenges within the classroom even without taking the pandemic into account. These challenges vary from physical barriers to socio-emotional ones. One thing that needs to be recognized is that not all disabilities are alike, and with various disabilities come various challenges. I don’t want to appear to be generalizing the struggles that children with disabilities face in the school system, because each individual’s experiences vary, even between different places. Some states within the United States may be very inclusive, while others may place the responsibility of accessibility on the people with disabilities themselves. Regardless of which state you live in, my goal here is to spread awareness of the various challenges that children with one or multiple disabilities face as they maneuver through their primary academic journey.

With that being said, one of the most common barriers that children with disabilities face is on the social level. Throughout history, children with disabilities have been separated from the rest of the able-bodied society, and this is also true within the school system. Many schools, when they began to accept children with disabilities into the school system, would educate them separately (in the basement or another room) from the other children. Even today, many children with learning and speech disabilities require additional help from trained professionals, which requires these children to spend extra time on their academics, and less time socializing with their peers. This naturally distances them from able-bodied children their age and can lead children with disabilities to become victims of many instances of bullying and harassment. A crucial element to consider is that while many children their age are dealing with the various emotions that come from development, children with disabilities have to deal with additional fears and insecurities surrounding their disabilities, as they learn to accept and adapt to life with disabilities. This can be challenging in and of itself, without having to deal with the social pressures from peers.

Additionally, while schools receive federal funding to meet the required measures for the children with disabilities within their institutions, this funding is limited, covering less than a quarter of the expenses needed to fulfill the required services for each student. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) we covered in the previous blog allows Congress to allocate up to 40% of the average funding per student, but unfortunately, this has never been exercised by Congress, and funding for special education programs continues to be miserly. Schools receive  15% of the funding they are allocated, but they are still required to fulfill all the mandated regulations simply for receiving federal funding. This means that they have to come up with the remaining 85% of the expenditures on their own, in place of the 55% they would be responsible for covering if Congress secured the full 40%. This can place additional strains on these schools that are already struggling for funds.

Furthermore, children with learning disabilities require trained professionals to provide them with additional support throughout their academic journey. Someone who is hearing impaired may require additional resources to combat the auditory issues they face, or someone who is visually impaired may require additional lessons on how to read in Braille. Others with learning disabilities such as dyslexia (which is a disorder in which someone has difficulty reading and processing language), may need additional patience and support to process the information they are learning. Public schools, by law, are required to provide assistance to children with disabilities and those who have been through traumatic experiences. Licensed professionals that focus on educational needs for children with learning disabilities can be hard to find, and this has only worsened due to the pandemic. As many as 44 states experienced this shortage even before the pandemic, and this number continues to grow due to the issues of limited funding discussed earlier. Without the necessary help that students with learning disabilities require, they continue to fall behind their peers academically.

Many of these challenges can be addressed with more funding allotted to the education system as a whole, and professions within the field of special education can be incentivized by the government (by for example, making the training programs free and accessible to those who are interested) to address the shortage of licensed professionals. The education being taught in the schools can be more inclusive of children with disabilities, with opportunities for the children to share their experiences with their peers and help remove the stigma associated with disabilities by normalizing helpful conversations around disabilities. While these challenges can have a great impact on the learning abilities of children with disabilities, there are some challenges that can have drastic impacts on their futures as a whole.

The school-to-prison pipeline

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

Unfortunately, along with an increase in school shootings within the educational system, another phenomenon that has become all too common is the use of law enforcement to discipline children. More and more stories have been reported regarding children with disabilities and children of color being subjected to drastic disciplinary measures by school systems. When a child “acts out” or showcases any behavior not supported by the schools, the educators have resorted to involving the law instead of following disciplinary protocols within the schools (such as contacting parents, placing students in detention, or for more serious issues, using suspensions). Police are called on these students, and educators watch as young children are punished for their misdeeds by being harassed by the police. In many instances, these incidents have turned deadly, as police officers have used full force on young children, to force them into complying, at times jeopardizing the children’s well-being. Children as young as 7 years of age have been placed in handcuffs and threatened jail time, for childish behavior such as spitting or throwing tantrums. This can be especially dangerous when children with disabilities are involved because they are accused of “misbehaving” when they are simply reacting differently to situations than their able-bodied peers. The police, with little to no training on the different ways to approach people with disabilities, only escalate the already tense situations.

According to a CBS News analysis of data from the Education Department in 2017-2018, children with disabilities are four times more likely to be arrested than their able-bodied counterparts. Another research conducted by Cornell University reports that 55% of Black men with disabilities have been detained before they reach the age of 28. Young African American children with disabilities, therefore, are the most at-risk demographic to face legal repercussions for “behavioral” issues common among most children their age. This phenomenon, known as the school-to-prison pipeline, which disproportionately targets students of color, (and children with disabilities), involves the use of the criminal and justice systems as a tool to discipline children. Unfortunately, these disciplinary attempts remain on the permanent records of the targeted children and can have lifelong implications that determine their future.

An example of this school-to-prison pipeline is clear when looking into some of the instances where law enforcement is used to discipline children. Jacksonville, Illinois is home to a particular school that makes use of its law enforcement officers for behavioral issues. Garrison School, a public school where children with disabilities in that region attend, has been in the news recently for the staggering number of arrests made within a single school year. Although the population of this school is an average of 60-70 children, the police, who are located less than 5 miles from the school, have been called over 100 times for “behavioral” issues, such as throwing tantrums and spraying water. An investigation into this school found that in the school year 2017-2018 alone, more than half of the entire student body was arrested. As the only public school for children with disabilities in that region of Illinois, caregivers are limited in choices of schools for their children. In addition to having disabilities, the children at this particular school have also experienced immense trauma and violence in their past. Arresting these children for their “behaviors” continues to place these children in traumatic situations, further impacting their development.

Impacts on children with disabilities’ development

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

Using the criminal and justice systems to punish or “discipline” children with disabilities can have lasting impressions on the children’s futures. For one, especially children such as those from Garrison School, who deal with personal trauma and violence from their past, experiences with law enforcement can deteriorate their mental health even further. Even those without previous trauma can have lasting impressions on their academic success, meaning that children who have been disciplined with the use of law enforcement are even more isolated from their peers and can experience breaks in their educational journeys. Studies have shown that children who have their needs met are more likely to outperform those students who do not have their needs met. Linking back to the school-to-prison pipeline, those students who have been arrested and imprisoned as young adults are more likely to continue down this path of criminality. Additionally, students with disabilities that have been imprisoned have to face the added struggles of maneuvering the prison system with disabilities, and these struggles are increased with multiple disabilities, especially with invisible disabilities, in which case, many people may not even believe the existence of these disabilities. Studies have shown how incarceration can worsen issues of mental illness within the prison population, and when translated to the impact imprisonment has on people with disabilities, these conditions are exponentially worse.

How it impacts children with disabilities’ professional futures

In addition to the harm this causes to the development of children with disabilities, the practice of using law enforcement to discipline school children has far-reaching consequences. For one, the children who are constantly “othered,” bullied, or harassed by both students and teachers can internalize their experiences and react to them, increasing their chances of being disciplined again for behavioral issues. In addition to that, being imprisoned, even for a few days, can be a traumatic experience that can shape your worldview, and as a result, your future. For young, developing children, these experiences can be impressionable, and coupled with the isolation that many children with disabilities experience, this can be a devastating combination, resulting in the deterioration of the children’s physical and mental well-being. Furthermore, many of these zero-tolerance policies that end in the arrests of children happen due to the faculty members pressing charges against the children. These charges, though they can be sealed for juvenile offenses, can lead to more charges in these children’s future into their adulthood. A criminal history into your adulthood can result in slim educational and employment options. Research conducted more broadly on this subject has been reported by the Prison Policy, and it showcases how increasingly difficult it is to find decent employment upon exiting the prison system. The report adds that even when formerly incarcerated people do find employment, they are often paid fewer wages than their co-workers.

Applying this research to children with disabilities who are disciplined through the legal system, can be an even bigger challenge for their futures. People with disabilities experience many barriers to obtaining employment even without imprisonment on their records. Studies have shown how incarcerating children does not deter them from engaging in criminal behavior in the future; it might actually have the opposite impact. Finally, children who are incarcerated experience large gaps in their education, and this can impact their ability to successfully enter the job market. This issue is exponentially worse among children with disabilities because they are more likely to be imprisoned for “behavioral issues”, and expands the academic gap felt by so many children with learning disabilities who are already facing many social and learning barriers.

How did COVID make things worse for children with disabilities?

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

The pandemic was a time of uncertainty, and many of us were scrambling around not knowing what to do. Even as more and more information came out about the virus itself and how to safeguard it, there was a lot of anxiety and misinformation being spread around. Children with disabilities had to navigate not only their personal lives with their unique experiences but also the larger society that was falling apart around them in the face of a virus. Many businesses and schools shut down in the beginning, which meant that children had to adjust to different learning styles, something that may have been easier for some, but widened the academic gap for others. Children with disabilities as a whole had to be mindful of the threat that the virus posed on their lives. This virus was especially deadly to those with pre-existing conditions and for those who were immunocompromised, both of which apply to many children and adults with disabilities. So, constantly having to live with the anxiety of whether or not they might contract the virus would have been stressful enough without the masking and vaccine debates that have politicized this medical crisis. What is worse, COVID-19 vaccines for children were not available for over a year after the pandemic first began, leaving this population vulnerable to infections with no way to protect themselves against them.

Additionally, along with their children, parents, and caregivers of children with disabilities faced new challenges as everyone attempted to adapt to the “new normal”. While the mandated quarantine helped with transportation issues for some, it opened up a whole new set of issues for many. Children with learning disabilities who received additional help from professionals either had to go without it or transition to seeking their help through zoom. For some, accessing help through Zoom and Telehealth was extremely helpful in addressing the medical needs of people, and this had a positive impact on people with disabilities as a whole. However, accessing Zoom and Telehealth was a challenge on its own for many who lived in rural areas or marginalized areas where internet services were very minimal or nonexistent, or simply unaffordable. The pandemic was a time when many people also lost jobs, so children faced additional financial repercussions from the pandemic. These instances further widened the academic gap among children with disabilities.

This blog mainly focused on the struggles that children face within the American school system. Part three of this series will focus on some of the approaches that have been taken historically when addressing disabilities, and some ways in which we can take action, on a personal level, on a local or national level, and even on an international level.

 

 

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

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

Even though 1 in 6 people around the world experience disabilities, they are often among the forgotten groups within our society. While people with disabilities today are living under better conditions than their ancestors, there is still a lot of progress needed to be had to ensure that people with disabilities can lead a life of dignity and independence, free from the stigma and failures of society’s ableist mindset. In this two-part blog, we will focus specifically on children with disabilities within the American education system, but before that, it is necessary to frame the historical context surrounding the American education system, and how disability in America has been treated as a whole. As a result, part one of this series will focus on setting the historical context, exploring the American Education System as well as the treatment of people with disabilities throughout American history. The second part of this series will focus on exploring the contemporary issues faced by children with disabilities and their families within the American Education System and learn about a human rights framework for disability rights.

History of America’s Education System

The Unequal Distribution of Knowledge

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

Since the founding of this country is rooted in capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy, many groups of people have been historically denied access to education. Traditionally, children from poor backgrounds were expected to help their families on the farm or work in their family businesses to make ends meet. As the industrial revolution took hold, child labor transferred from the farms to the factories, and many industries, such as the textile industry preferred to employ children to exploit their minuscule features. The petite features of the children came into use when they were needed to get into tight spots, or when operating machinery that required smaller extremities. Child labor in America was not outlawed until 1938, meaning that many children from poor families were illiterate and disadvantaged in comparison with children from wealthier families, who could afford to educate their children instead.

In addition to the absence of child labor laws, the patriarchal structure of American society deemed it more important for boys and men to be educated than their female counterparts. While poor families were denied access to education on the whole, even among wealthier families, the education of boys was prioritized over educating women. Women were expected to be homemakers and child-bearers in the private sphere, and the public sphere was reserved for their male counterparts. Many women were denied access to education, were not permitted to participate in politics and were limited to feminine jobs (such as teaching, nursing, and domestic work) when they did participate economically in the larger society. It was not until the 19th century that women were given more flexibility in their pursuit of higher education. Of course, not all women shared the same experiences, and white women were better able to receive education than women from other races, and as expressed earlier, wealthier women had more opportunities to educate themselves than did women living in poverty.

Furthermore, the foundations of white supremacy upon which America was built denied people of color access to education. Education provides the key to empowerment, and the status quo did not want to empower those they deemed to be inferior. Due to the hierarchical nature of this supremacist mindset, people from different groups were “dealt with” in different manners. For immigrants, access to education depended on their country of origin. Some immigrants, such as those from Asian countries, were barred from receiving education in America until the 1880s and were instead used for hard labor, like constructing railroads. European immigrants, on the other hand, were well-received by many in America, (with the exception of the Irish), and were granted many of the rights shared by American citizens at the time. There was however, a difference in treatment between the Old immigrants, (which were members from wealthier backgrounds with skills and education levels from the Southern and Eastern parts of Europe that came to America in the early 1800s), and the New immigrants (who were mostly impoverished, unskilled laborers from Western and Northern Europe who migrated to America in the late 1800s).

In addition to immigrants, the indigenous population of America also received access to education with a different approach. In an attempt to force them to forget their rich cultural histories and erase the cultural differences between the indigenous population and the larger (White) American society, children from different tribes were kidnapped and forced into boarding schools where they would learn to be assimilated into the American culture. Indigenous children were punished for speaking their language, engaging in their cultural practices, or even wearing cultural clothing (whether it was casually or for cultural practices). This is one of the reasons that today when people appropriate Native American culture (and attire), it can be very insulting, as they were punished for practicing their culture and wearing their traditional clothing.

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

Furthermore, during the enslavement of African Americans, who were deemed to be on the lowest level on this racial hierarchy, access to literacy was denied to them and outlawed, making it punishable by law for African Americans to be literate. This law was another way in which racist leaders of the time maintained control over the enslaved population. Following this period, there were many racist laws and social barriers to education for African Americans over time, and it was not until the famous passage of the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that African Americans were given the right to equal education. With all that being said, there is still an ongoing struggle to bring equity, inclusion, and diversity into the American education system.

There can be a whole blog dedicated to the housing market, its impacts on funding for the local schools, and how this influences the level of education the children within those districts experience. As mentioned in previous blogs on similar topics, this funding practice tied to the housing market is, yet another way racism has seeped into American institutions. Transforming the American Education system into a more inclusive one will be a difficult fight ahead, as cries against teachings with an anti-racist approach are molding the current curriculum within the education system today.

The Historical Struggle to Secure the Right to Education for People with Disabilities

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

This exclusive approach to education also historically denied access to disabled individuals as well. American society has been structured with an ableist mindset, and people with disabilities have been stigmatized and marginalized by the larger society. In the past, many states prevented children with disabilities from attending school, choosing to place them in state institutions instead. Some wealthier families with disabled children could afford to home-school them, but the rest of the children with disabilities within society were not given that opportunity.

Even after education was required for all children, many states refused to provide accommodations for their students with disabilities, and the responsibility of securing access and mobility was placed on the children and their families, rather than the state. Judith Heumann, a well-known disability rights activist, was denied entry to her elementary school during the 1950s because the school district deemed her a “fire hazard” for being mobility impaired and having to use a wheelchair. It was not until the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHC; later known as the Individuals with Disabilities Act or IDEA) in 1975 that educational rights were protected for groups in need, including children with disabilities. While education access was protected under this law, the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 was needed to ensure that people with disabilities are protected from discrimination in all aspects of society.

The Horrific History of Disability in America

How were People with Disabilities Viewed in the Past, and how has that changed today?

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

Understanding the historical context behind the American education system is only one part of this conversation. Outlining the lens through which disability is viewed today, and in the past, is necessary to comprehend the treatment of children with disabilities within the American education system. Today, people with disabilities are viewed in four ways. For one, following the traditional views of disability, most people with disabilities are simply ignored by society, both as a population, as well as systemically. You can see this is the case by simply looking at some of the ableist framings of our infrastructure. Needless to say, being an invisible group within society comes with its own challenges.

Another common way society approaches people with disabilities is to view them as the “super-crip” (which is extremely insulting) and look at their achievements as “inspirational.” People who believe this highlight people with disabilities in a supernatural sense, similar to how many African Americans were portrayed as supernatural beings with superhuman strength and abilities. This troupe was not helpful to the African American community then, and it is not helpful to people with disabilities today. Some may argue that this troupe seems to be a positive outlook of the group, but upon closer inspection, it is important to recognize the stress and burden of success this places on people with disabilities to feel accepted by society. It also encourages the mindset that these people who achieve extraordinary things are superhuman and that their achievements are highlighted because there is a general conception that this is abnormal for the group. Additionally, for a person with disabilities, it can be insulting and demeaning to hear the phrase, “if a person with a disability can achieve this, so can you!”

Another tactless way in which people with disabilities are regarded, as inferior to the rest of the population. Many able-bodied individuals either view them as a burden to society or simply objects to be pitied. This can have the impact of treating people with disabilities as second-class citizens and making them feel as if they are lacking in some way or another. Those who show pity toward people with disabilities may have good intentions, but their actions treat people with disabilities as victims of fate, rather than with dignity and humanity.

Finally, some people within society treat people with disabilities as if they have undergone a tragic event (whatever led to their disability), and people require “saving” or “treatment” to be “cured” of their ailments. This too is not the case. People with disabilities adapt to living their lives with their disabilities, and they don’t require anyone to “save” them from their disabilities. This is extremely insulting and rude to even think that, and it has the same connotations as would a “white-savior complex” within the context of race. The underlying belief in both of these situations is that the person doing the “saving” believes that the person that needs to be “saved” cannot do this for themselves and that they require the help of the “savior”.

While it is important to understand the contemporary views of people with disabilities, it is equally relevant to familiarize ourselves with the ways in which people with disabilities have been treated in America in the past. Until the 19th century, people with disabilities were separated from participating with the rest of the larger society. During colonial times in America, people with disabilities were treated in a similar light as the Salem witches, either burned or hanged. Others viewed disability as a sign of God’s disapproval of the colonists, and people with disabilities were treated as though they were possessed. Still, others felt that people with disabilities were a disgrace to their family and their community, and many were shunned from their homes. The larger society lumped criminals, poor people, mentally ill people, and people with disabilities under the same roof, labeling them as outsiders. This practice evolved into the many horror stories that we may be familiar with today regarding asylums and their treatment of their patients. An important note: as it is with other American institutions, racism, and sexism disproportionately impact the lives of people of color and women within these institutions, and this translates into how they are perceived and treated by the larger society as well. This remains true for people with disabilities with identities that are not aligned with the patriarchal, white society.

The mistreatment and abuse of people with disabilities within asylums

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

People with disabilities, along with other vulnerable groups that were stigmatized by society, were pushed into asylums. These were large “hospitals” stocked with medical equipment and personnel in which the goal was to provide care and treatment for the patients that resided within these asylums. The reason I placed hospitals in quotations is that many of these asylums were simply places to house all the people society did not want. These patients were experimented on, abused, neglected, and had almost no rights to defend themselves. Some patients that were from wealthy families were able to be treated at home, but others that came from meager backgrounds were not as fortunate. Many of the staff working within these institutions were unsympathetic towards their patients, feeling burdened by their very existence. Many people (within the institution and outside in the larger society) believed that people with mental illness and people with disabilities were “acting out” on purpose, to make life harder for those “upstanding” citizens of society. Many of the patients were misdiagnosed, and the institutions went from trying to care for the patients to “cure” the patients of their disabilities. The stigmatization of these groups within the asylums meant that their needs and wants were ignored. In addition to that, because it did not require a professional recommendation from a medical practitioner to admit patients into the asylums, many people were wrongly admitted to these institutions (because of personal grudges or disapproval of their behavior) for years without the right to defend and protect themselves.

Of course, it is not wise to lump every institution together and generalize about their treatment of their patients. While some were genuinely trying to take care of their wards and research ways to help “cure” them, others were less sympathetic to the plights of people with disabilities, both visible and invisible. For one, similar to the issues that American prisons face today, asylums were overcrowded, understaffed, and underfunded. This meant that each individual residing within the institutions was not given the personal care they required, and instead, they were all lumped into groups to receive generalized treatments. This was problematic in so many ways, but the most obvious is that disability takes many shapes and forms, and each individual had different needs that had to be met. Approaching a group of people with disabilities with generalized treatments meant that the doctors and nurses never took time to understand the details of each person’s disability, much less how best to approach them. As a matter of fact, because many believed disabilities to be a spiritual problem (a person being possessed by the devil), early “treatments” for mental illnesses and disabilities came in the form of exorcisms. When medical professionals finally were able to understand that this was a bodily illness, not a spiritual one, they then proceeded to conduct various experiments on the patients without having any knowledge of how to treat their patients. This is where the tortures began.

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

Medical personnel proposed many treatments to “cure” people with disabilities, including inhumane procedures that involved drilling holes into the patient’s skull in an attempt to bleed out the disease in question. While it is easy to judge in retrospect, in the beginning, many of the doctors truly believed that they were “curing” their patients with the various treatments they provided them, even as many recognized the inhumane nature of their treatments.

Other various treatments were administered to the patients, which can be defined as abusive and torturous today. Many women with disabilities were abused sexually, both by other patients and their caregivers. In addition to these incidents, many states (through the support of the law) practiced forced sterilization of disabled individuals in these institutions. The justification for this practice was expressed as cleansing humanity of these various illnesses and disabilities. Inspired by the American practice of eugenics, Nazi Germany expanded upon this practice to include everyone that did not fit their description of the “Aryan” race. To this day, America has not acknowledged this practice, and forced sterilization continues to be legal in the United States because of a Supreme Court ruling in 1927. The case in question, Buck v. Bell maintained that the sterilization of Carrie Buck (a woman who was raped and accused of “feeblemindedness”) was not in violation of the Constitution. This ruling permitted the forced sterilization of thousands of people with disabilities and other traits deemed “unwanted” by the general public. While the Supreme Court has outlawed forced sterilization as a form of punishment, it has never overturned its ruling made in Buck v. Bell. As a result, this practice is technically still supported within the legal framework.

With very little funding, the living conditions within the institutions also proved to be dangerous. The asylum itself was built to be uncomfortable because there was a belief that comfortable living would encourage patients to stay there forever. This meant that there was poor insulation, keeping the buildings cold. Due to the shortage of staff, many patients were restrained or locked up, while others were neglected altogether. These conditions, along with the “treatments” they received, exacerbated the patients’ conditions and were detrimental to their mental and physical health. Finally, as a result of society’s exclusion of this vulnerable population, many people outside of the institutions were not aware of what was taking place within. The patients inside these asylums were all but forgotten, invisible to the rest of society.

Deinstitutionalization

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

In an attempt to expose these terrible conditions to the larger society, journalists and activists spread accounts about the conditions within the asylums. Many were able to do this by investigating these institutions firsthand, and images (and videos) of the ill-treatment of the patients began circulating. As people started learning about the horrific conditions in which their loved ones were being kept in, the asylums faced a lot of backlashes. Amid all the backlash, in 1946, President Truman passed the National Mental Health Act to begin research on neurological issues. It would not be until 1955, however, that things changed drastically for those suffering from mental illnesses. Thorazine, a psychoactive medication that was introduced as a way to treat mental illness, and the population within the institutions peaked around this time. In the 1960s, there was an attempt to take a community-based approach to treat mental health, but it lacked the funding to progress in any substantial way. In 1981, Ronald Reagan takes a drastic step to stop government funding to help with mental health, forcing institutions to close their doors and leaving the patients on the streets.

This dramatic change provided no cushion for the patients to fall on, and much experienced homelessness as a result. With nowhere to go and no help from the government, many people with disabilities lost their lives because of this policy shift. These individuals never received any compensation for their ill-treatment, nor were they given any transitional housing or aid to help restart their lives. Of those that did not end up dead, many people with disabilities were imprisoned for causing “public disturbances.” Unfortunately, this practice continues to exist today, especially impacting people of color, and people living in poverty disproportionately. Of course, the imprisonment of people suffering from physical and mental disabilities exacerbated their conditions, and the lack of care and treatment resulted in many deaths. With nowhere to go, and no rights to protect this vulnerable population, people with disabilities continued to suffer due to systemic failures.

The movement for disability rights

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

Eventually, following the lead set by the Civil Rights Movement and many other movements such as the Women’s Rights movement, and the sexual revolution that fought for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities came together to stand against discrimination toward them from the larger society, and fight for their rights to exist and prosper like any other groups. People with disabilities wanted to challenge the practice of institutionalization and employed many of the tactics that were used during the Civil Rights Movement. They staged sit-ins in governmental buildings like the FBI building, challenged the mobility norms of society by blocking busses (that denied accessibility to people with disabilities) from moving, and they protested on the streets, able-bodied allies and people with disabilities alike, fighting for their rights.

People with disabilities were also exhausted with the ableist society they lived in and began to challenge the many barriers within society that kept them from living as independent individuals. They did not need someone to hold the doors for them; they wanted the doors to remain open automatically long enough for them to pass through. They wanted accessible sidewalks on which they could move their wheelchairs, walkers, and other walking devices (if applied) safely, and independently, without having to depend on others to take care of them. People with disabilities and their caregivers began to challenge the largely held view by society that people with disabilities were a burden to society. They argued that societal barriers made them dependent on others and implementing disability-friendly solutions can provide the community with the independence to live their lives freely.

In 1973, with the passage of the Rehabilitation Act, specifically, Section 504, people with disabilities, for the first time, were protected by law from being discriminated against. This act recognized that the many issues faced by people with disabilities, such as unemployment, transportation, and accessibility issues, were not the fault of the person with the disability, but rather, a result of society’s shortcomings in failing to provide accessible services to the group. While this was a major win for this community, this law only applied to those who accepted federal funding, meaning that the private sector, and even many of the public sector, could still discriminate against people with disabilities. Following the passage of this act, many people with disabilities were instrumental in ensuring its enforcement. Many of the sit-ins referred to above happened at this time, as an attempt to keep governmental offices accountable. Protestors would block the entrances into the government buildings, or stay in the buildings past close time, refusing to leave until the necessary changes were agreed to be made to the buildings (such as including ramps to the building or elevators inside the buildings) to meet the Section 504 requirements. This continued until Ronald Reagan issued a task force to stop the regulatory attempts made by supporters of Section 504, and the protections secured by the IDEA, an act that protected the educational rights of children with disabilities. Over the following years, his decision resulted in hundreds of frustrated parents and people with disabilities alike questioning the justification for stopping the regulatory actions of Section 504. This backlash, accompanied by the tireless leaders of the community meeting with White House officials, ended in Reagan reversing his crackdown on Section 504, allowing regulations to continue on businesses that refused to incorporate practices outlined in Section 504.

Additionally, following the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, people with disabilities, along with other protected groups such as race, gender (and sex), and religion, were protected from discrimination in housing. The first passage of the act initially only included race, religion, national origin, and color, as the protected groups. It was not until 1974 when sex (and gender) were added to this list, and not until 1988 when the disability community was added.  Still, this act was especially important for people with disabilities because it required home builders to provide reasonable accommodations necessary for the inhabitants to live comfortably and move around the housing unit.

Following these many small victories came the biggest one of them all, the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 (ADA). This law was the first general law protecting people with disabilities from discrimination in all aspects of society, including in housing, employment, healthcare, transportation, and many other social services that impacted the lives of this protected group. The passage of the ADA focused on four main themes: full participation, equal opportunity, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency. Full participation focuses on the ability of people with disabilities to participate in all aspects of their lives, including having access to transportation, entering and exit buildings without issues, being able to vote on inaccessible sites, and enjoying life without social barriers that prevent them from being able to do so.  Equal opportunity centers on being able to be employed without facing discrimination due to their disability and being able to take advantage of other such opportunities free of discrimination. Independent living brings attention to the ableist framework that society is structured in and recognizes the need for a more disability-friendly society, with access to handrails, ramps, curb cuts, and other options such as disability-friendly online sites (that for example, speak the menu out for you if you are a person with visual imparities) to raise the living standards for people with disabilities. The basis of this pillar is to empower people with disabilities with tools they can use for themselves in order to live independent life. Finally, the economic self-sufficiency piece mainly concentrates on the economic security of people with disabilities. This includes access and accommodations to receive higher education, better employment opportunities (including training, transportation access, and mobility within the workspace), and other such necessities to promote economic self-sufficiency within the disability community.

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

Many communities across the United States are brainstorming innovative ways to be more inclusive, but we are far from being a fully inclusive society. People with disabilities remain among the invisible groups within society, not because their advocates are not loud enough, but because their cries are being ignored by lawmakers and their local representatives. Globally, the United Nations established the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities(CRPD) in 2006, working to shift the mindset of people’s views on disability as a whole, as well as protect and promote the rights of individuals with disabilities by empowering them to fully participate in society with the dignity and humanity they deserve.

While this blog mainly focused on the historical context of the American Education System and the perception of people with disabilities in the past and today, the next blog will focus more on the treatment of children with disabilities within the American education system today, the many challenges they continue to face, how the pandemic has impacted their learning and development, and the human rights framework necessary for disability rights to do what we can to be more inclusive and less ableist as a society.

 

International Day of Persons with Disabilities: Disability Rights Successes in South Asia

The image shows a man with a prosthetic leg sitting on the ground. In his hand is a volleyball, on which he is writing something with a marker.
“Disabled men play volleyball” by World Bank Photo Collection is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

December 3rd marked the International Day of Persons with Disabilities – a day to raise awareness of disability rights, the benefits of inclusion, and the challenges society poses for individuals with disabilities. The theme for this year is “Leadership and participation of persons with disabilities toward an inclusive, accessible and sustainable post-COVID-19 world.” In honor of this occasion, we wanted to highlight a few of the many instances in recent times where strides have been made in inclusion and accessibility. This post will focus on the progress made in south Asia, while the post by Danah Dib will speak to the achievements that have been made in the Middle East. There have been numerous successes in the efforts to push disability rights forward in south Asia, particularly in the spheres of politics, health, and education.

Political Rights

Efforts to secure the political and civil rights of individuals with disabilities in south Asia passed a milestone in 2015. The “South Asia Regional Disability Rights Dialogue on Political Participation” convened for the first time in October of 2015, bringing together over 80 representatives from disabled people’s organizations and election management bodies across south Asia. The conference aimed to advocate for increased access to elections for people with disabilities by providing recommendations to the Forum for South Asian Election Management Bodies (FEMBoSA) during its annual conference. After three days of deliberation and advocacy work, the participants in the South Asia Regional Disability Rights Dialogue on Political Participation produced a nine-point charter on disability inclusion in elections and managed to get the Columbo Resolution modified to include language that was inclusive of people with disability. The Columbo Resolution was the culminating document of the conference, setting forth the Forum’s priorities and commitments for the future. In the same document, FEMBoSA also resolved to develop appropriate standards to ensure that people with disabilities are included in elections.

Numerous changes occurred in the wake of this resolution, in part due to continued advocacy by disabled people’s organizations in implementing the recommendations. Smitha Sadasivan, a member of the Disability Rights Alliance India, described the work of the organization in the implementation process in the state of Tamil Nadu, India: “Persons with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities were enrolled in electoral rolls after the Colombo Declaration”. Numerous additional steps were taken, starting with the appointment of officers specifically responsible for disability inclusion. Electors with disabilities were mapped, and reasonable accommodations were identified. Inclusive voter educational material was developed, and election officers and volunteers were trained on inclusive practices. In 2016, the Election Commission of Sri Lanka included a unit regarding disability in its strategic, four-year plan, with the intent to research barriers to inclusion and increase the participation of people with disabilities. These changes are key steps in ensuring that individuals with disabilities are afforded their civic liberties and can take part in shaping their community.

The image shows a stethoscope placed on a surface covered by cloth. The length of the stethoscope is coiled.
India has made progress in improving clinical care for individuals with disabilities by reforming medical education. Source: Unsplash

Rights to Health and Healthcare

A second important development for disability rights takes us from the polling booths to hospital clinics. The impacts of healthcare providers holding negative attitudes towards disability, and a lack of knowledge on appropriate communication, is well documented. It not only impacts the doctor-patient relationship and decreases quality of care, but also results in individuals with disability utilizing healthcare services less frequently. It goes without saying that this contributes to worsened health outcomes for those who are disabled. In recent times, the Medical Council of India has taken steps to bridge this deficiency in clinical care. Starting from August 2019, medical schools in India are required to conduct a month-long training on disability rights that covers culturally appropriate communication and optimum clinical care for people with disabilities. This change came after numerous disability rights advocates, and doctors with disabilities, raised their voice regarding the lack of disability related competencies in the new medical curriculum designed by the Medical Council of India in 2018. Spearheading these efforts was Dr.Satendra Singh of the University College of Medical Science in Delhi University.

Collaborating closely with people with disabilities and educators across the country, Dr.Singh and his colleagues developed 27 disability competencies based on the human rights approach to disability, as enshrined in the UN Convention on Rights of People with Disabilities. While more can be done to make education on disability rights increasingly comprehensive and immersive, such as inclusion of experiential learning where medical students spend time with individuals with disabilities outside of the hospital, these actions are undoubtedly a much-needed step in the right direction. India, like many other countries, also faces challenges in increasing medical student diversity in terms of disability – significant, structural barriers still exist for competent medical school applicants with disabilities. Disability rights advocates like Dr.Singh continue to challenge inaccurate and negative stereotypes regarding the abilities of individuals with disabilities, hoping to further improve medical care and education for people with disabilities.

The image displays gold medals stacked in pairs. Engraved on the medals is writing and a logo signifying the Special Olympics.
The Rising Sun Education and Welfare Society of Lahore, Pakistan, has trained numerous athletes with developmental disabilities who went on to win international competitions like the Special Olympics. “SPECIAL OLYMPICS EUROPEAN SUMMER GAMES 2014” by Special Olympics Oesterreich is licensed under CC0 1.0.

The Role of Non-Governmental Organizations

Another area of development is the not-for-profit sector, organizations that are working at the grassroot level to offer support to individuals with disabilities and to help implement and further systemic policy changes. An example of such an organization is the Rising Sun Education and Welfare Society in Lahore, Pakistan, which aims to encourage the independence of individuals with disabilities through education and training. One noteworthy aspect of the organization is their training in sports. Sports training is offered as a way to develop capabilities and life skills of individuals with disabilities and to allow them to compete at the highest level in international competitions like the Special Olympics. Over the years, athletes from the organization have won 91 medals in numerous events across the world.  The organization also provides vocational training in cooking through their “Special Chef” program – individuals who participated in the program went on to not only work for the Education and Welfare Society, but also join other organizations as chefs and start their own business ventures. Lastly, another crucial role the organization plays is in raising awareness amongst parents regarding the support services available to their children with disabilities. These efforts attempt to combat the stigma surrounding disability and promote the inclusion of individuals with disabilities as equal members of society.

Future Directions

Despite these accomplishments, there is a lot more work that needs to be done. A study by Paul Chaney of Cardiff University revealed that ableism is still pervasive in Indian society. Educational programs for individuals with disabilities are not funded adequately, and private schools often ignore the minimum supports for students with disabilities as required by the law. Individuals with disabilities in rural areas are particularly disadvantaged in terms of educational opportunities, leading to much higher likelihood of unemployment and poverty. Concerns continue regarding the accessibility of the healthcare system for people with disabilities. Still, efforts are being made to combat forced institutionalization and forced sterilization of individuals with disabilities, issues which compound at the intersection of gender discrimination.

The successes discussed in here are just a few examples of the change created by the disability rights movement across the world and the driving force behind it: namely, the advocates who work tirelessly to push society forward in its inclusion of individuals with disabilities. Although more progress is yet to be made, these testimonies give us hope that transformational change can occur, however gradually it may come about. This is our letter of gratitude to those who continue to work to ensure the equitable and rightful treatment of individuals with disabilities and our call to action to all others.

Injustice in the Justice System: Disability, Schools, and Incarceration

The image depicts rows of wooden benches in a well-lit classroom.
The image depicts a school classroom. The experience of individuals with disability in schools often contributes to their disproportionate incarceration. Source: Unsplash

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.

This relation between educational attainment and incarceration means that people with disabilities, who have a lower high school graduation rate than their peers who are not disabled, are at disproportionate risk of being incarcerated. While 84.6% of individuals without disability graduate high school in 2019, only 67.1% of students with disabilities graduate high school. The cause of this may be three-fold. Individuals with disabilities are not always provided accommodations to allow them flourish in the classroom. While 1 in 5 children differ in their learning abilities, with conditions like dyslexia or ADHD, only 1 in 16 children have IEPs, which are plans to provide accommodations and supplemental instruction. They also do not always receive a diagnosis that allows them to get accommodations in classes. This disproportionately impacts girls with developmental disabilities. For example, autism spectrum disorder is less likely to be identified in women than in men due to lack of knowledge about differences in presentation in males and females. This issue intersects with race as well – individuals in minority communities may find it particularly difficult to get a diagnosis. Moreover, people with disability are twice as likely to receive an out of school suspension as people without disabilities, and students who are suspended are more likely to drop out of school. Male African American and Latino students with disabilities have the highest suspension rates, once again showing how intersectionality leads to a more severe worsening of outcomes.

The image shows coiled, barbed wire on top of metal fences found in prisons. There is a partly cloudy sky in the background.
“Prison security system” by x1klima is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

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.