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.

France’s New Ban on The Abaya in Public Schools

by Caileigh Moose

Since the 1960s, the demographics of immigrants entering France have shifted. In 1968, the largest immigrant groups included Spaniards, Italians, and Portuguese, and were primarily Christian in faith. Today, the majority of these groups come from North African nations like Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, where Islam is the predominant religion. Thus, with these immigration shifts, in recent years, Islam has become the second largest faith in France, accounting for 10 percent of the French population, second to Christianity, which rests at almost 30% percent.

This diversification of society has unleashed reactive backlash, with many on the French right driving up what many have called anti-Islam and Islamophobic policies. Recent examples include the 2004 French law forbidding “conspicuous” religious symbols in France and the 2021 French separatism law, which extended the “neutrality principle” (under which civil servants are, among other things, prevented from wearing religious symbols like hijabs) to all private contractors of public services. One political science researcher with the National Centre of Scientific Research has deemed current French president Emmanuel Macron’s first term “gloomy” for French Muslim citizens, referring to the ever-darkening outlook for religious protections that has colored the tone of French policy during Macron’s time in office.

All these fears have culminated in the newest piece of legislation targeting France’s growing Muslim population, so that this year, as French schools started back earlier this September, their female students faced a new, highly controversial restriction: a ban on the abaya.

 

Four teen girls in hijabs paired with modern clothing are leaning against a wall, looking at their phones.Source: Yahoo Images
Four teen girls in hijabs paired with modern clothing are leaning against a wall, looking at their phones. Source: Yahoo Images

 

The abaya, which is sometimes simply referred to as the aba, is most commonly known as a loose, typically black, floor-length dress worn primarily by Muslim women. The word itself, translated from Arabic, means simply “dress.” The abaya is mainly popular in the Middle Eastern region of the world, in nations like Saudi Arabia or Yemen, where the garment’s prevalence can be attributed to its alignment with cultural and religious preferences towards modesty within the area.

Its ban was justified by French Education Minister Gabriel Attal through the French concept of “laïcité.” This term essentially defines the ardent secularism that France has in relation to its public institutions, arguably much stricter than an average American’s idea of what the separation of church and state looks like. For example, this idea of laïcité has previously led to the ban of all overtly religious symbols within French public schools, including large Christian crosses, Jewish kippahs, and Islamic hijabs. Now, it is being used to target the abaya. French Education Minister Gabriel Attal attempted to explain the decision through the reasoning that “when put in the framework of a school, it is very clear: you enter a classroom, and you must not be able to identify the religious identity of students just by looking at them.”

Those who celebrate the law are quick to draw this religious connection between the abaya and Islam. However, it is important here to recognize that the abaya is not itself directly connected to the religion of Islam but to select Muslim cultures. Despite what the French Ministry of Education claims about how wearers of the abaya are “immediately recognizable as belonging to the Muslim religion” and, as such, violate the standards for secularism within the French educational system, opponents of the ban have protested that the abaya has no direct religious affiliation. Its wearing is not mandated by any Islamic text, nor is it compulsory dress for the religion; it merely fulfills the religion’s requirements regarding modesty.

 

A woman gazing out into the desert, dressed in a black abaya and hijab.Source: Yahoo Images
A woman gazing out into the desert, dressed in a black abaya and hijab. Source: Yahoo Images

 

In 2018, a Saudi senior religious scholar of Islam drew mixed reactions when he stated that the abaya shouldn’t be expected or necessary dress for Muslim women, citing the statistic that over ninety percent of practicing Muslim women do not, in fact, wear the abaya. Instead, most women will simply choose to wear loose-fitting dresses, ankle-length skirts, long-sleeved shirts, and anything else that meets the modest standards of their religion, all of which are typical in Western culture and all of which are completely acceptable to wear inside a French school. This may lead some to ask the question: Is this ban truly in keeping with France’s educational goals of secularism, or does it simply originate from a xenophobic attitude surrounding Muslim culture and the modest standards they practice?

Many members of France’s Left would argue the latter. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a 2022 French presidential candidate, accused the ban of initiating an “absurd, entirely artificial religious war about a woman’s dress,” and Clémentine Autain, one of La France Insoumise’s MPs, called it “characteristic of an obsessional rejection of Muslims.” The ADM (Action Droits des Musulmans), a group that advocates for the rights of Muslims within France, expressed concerns about the risks of ethnic profiling in schools and how the ban might create a target on the backs of Muslim children, especially since the ban includes no clear legal definition of what an abaya is. It will now be up to the school officials and administration to determine what constitutes an abaya and what does not, further fueling speculation that the ban is discriminatory in nature and will only encourage one-sided racial and ethnic stereotyping based on “the supposed origin, last name or skin color” rather than what they wore.

However, despite bringing legal challenges and these concerns over its implementation, France’s highest administrative court, The Council of State, upheld the law in early September, finding that the abaya “was part of a process of religious affirmation” based on the comments from student discussions. France’s new school year has already seen some resistance to the new legislation, with almost 70 Muslim girls sent home on the first day of school for refusing to change their attire in accordance with the new dress code. Whether it serves to reinforce or deteriorate the rights of all French students, time will tell.

If you would like to learn more about the potential social justice impact of this new legislation and what resistance the ban will see in the future, you can visit ADM’s website.

 

Where is the Equity? How States Have Disproportionately Underfunded Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

by Jayla Carr

A group of logos of Historically Black College & University teams. Source: Yahoo Image

 

According to the United States Department of Education and Agriculture, sixteen states have underfunded their state’s land-grant, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), by more than $13 billion over the last thirty years. A land grant college or university is an institution designated by the state legislature to receive benefits under the  Morrill Acts of 1890 and 1994. The act’s passing was to ensure that higher education would be accessible to all and not only wealthy individuals, being that before 1892, many of the United States institutes for Higher Education were privately funded and selective of who they allowed. It gave states the power to sell federal land to establish Public Institutions.

If HBCUs do not receive equitable funding, it can perpetuate inequities in educational outcomes and opportunities for underrepresented minority students. Understanding the history of HBCUs is essential to appreciate the significance of addressing underfunding. Many of these institutions were founded to address historical injustices, and chronic underfunding perpetuates these disparities, reinforcing the notion that Black students deserve fewer resources and opportunities than their white counterparts.

Two black students looking at a device in a classroom
Two students are looking at a device in a classroom. Source: Yahoo Images

The History of HBCUs

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have a rich history of providing education to Black men and women in the United States. They emerged in the early 19th century, with institutions like Cheyney University of Pennsylvania in 1836 and Lincoln University in 1854 initially focusing on teacher training.  Over time, these institutions broadened their curricula and became vital education centers for Black individuals, offering various academic programs.

During the Jim Crow era, which lasted from the late 19th century into the mid-20th century, racial segregation laws enforced strict separation of Black and White individuals in public facilities, including schools. Predominantly white institutions were often closed to Black students, and even if they were nominally open, they were often unwelcoming and discriminatory. HBCUs filled this void by providing Black students access to higher education when other options were limited or nonexistent. These institutions offered a safe and nurturing environment where Black individuals could pursue education and intellectual growth. However, these institutions have faced persistent challenges, including funding disparities that hinder their mission of providing equitable education. State funding policies that allocate resources to public higher education institutions are at the heart of these disparities.

A group of people wearing graduation gowns and caps standing in front of a building.
A group of people wearing graduation gowns and caps stands in front of a building. Source: Yahoo Images

Addressing the Disparities

In the letters sent to the governors of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, North Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. The Department of Education highlights the importance of HBCUs. The underinvestment of these institutions should be addressed, given that these institutions generate close to $15 billion and have considerable impacts on the predominantly black communities they serve.

The letter addressed to Governor Kay Ivey of Alabama, the Department of Education highlights the stark contrast between Alabama A&M University, the state’s first land-grant institution for African Americans, and Auburn University, the state’s first original land-grant institution, noting the differences in infrastructure and researching which Miguel Cardona, U.S Secretary of Education talks on saying that “Unacceptable funding inequities have forced many of our nation’s distinguished Historically Black Colleges and Universities to operate with inadequate resources and delay critical investments in everything from campus infrastructure to research and development to student support services.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, HBCUs have seen a massive enrollment increase despite a national decrease in college enrollments. During an interview with PBS News Hour, the President of Spelman College, an HBCU all-women’s college, Dr. Helene Gayle, attributed the increase in enrollment to an entire generation of young African Americans who have witnessed historic events. The inauguration of the first Black President of the United States, and the rise of movements such as Black Lives Matter and numerous instances of social injustice have motivated and encouraged young people to seek higher education in environments where they are surrounded by their community.

The increase in enrollment has caused some issues for many HBCUS, one being the need for more housing spaces to accommodate the influx of students. Tennessee State University has the most known case, with the university having to rent out five hotels for the 2022-2023 academic year. This has caused the Tennessee State Comptroller to come in and audit the University and their financial practices. Their report found that TSU had a “lack of planning, management, and sound decision-making.” TSU’s financial decisions play a part in the case. Still, one cannot deny that Tennessee underfunding Tennessee State University $2,147,784,704, the most of any other state, plays a role in their shortcomings. The University of Tennessee, the state’s original land grant-funded institution, has sixteen housing halls in Comparison to Tennessee State’s eight housing halls, including one that just opened in August of 2022.

A white building with a star and a blue graduation cap
A white building with a star and a blue graduation cap. Source: U.S Department of Education

Why HBCUs Matter

HBCUs have a rich history of contributing to research and innovation, often focusing on underrepresented areas in mainstream academia. Unfortunately, underfunding hampers their ability to invest in research projects, labs, and faculty development, affecting their capacity to compete for research grants and produce groundbreaking work. This lack of funding also hurts equity by limiting the contributions of Black professionals and academics in research, innovation, and industries like STEM.

Adequate funding is crucial for maintaining high educational standards, hiring qualified faculty, and offering up-to-date resources and facilities. When HBCUs receive less funding, it can lead to overcrowded classrooms, outdated technology, and limited course offerings. The disparity in educational quality can perpetuate inequities, particularly in the context of historically Black colleges and universities.

HBCUs have historically served as a pathway to higher education for Black students who were often excluded from predominantly white institutions due to racial segregation and discrimination. Inadequate funding can restrict their capacity to enroll and support students, limiting access to quality education. This impacts equity, making it harder for Black students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, to pursue higher education and achieve social mobility.

Underfunded HBCUs may receive a different education and preparation for future opportunities than students at well-funded institutions. Therefore, providing adequate funding to HBCUs is essential for promoting equity and ensuring Black students have access to quality education and opportunities.

A group of people celebrating in front of a building
A group of people celebrating in front of a building. Source: Yahoo Image

Support HBCUs

Growing up, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by the pride and tradition of HBCUs. Being a native of Birmingham, Alabama, I have had the pleasure of experiencing the biggest HBCU football game, The Magic City Classic, every year. The way the community comes together to support their teams, regardless of the weather, is truly a unique and unforgettable experience.

Funding HBCUs appropriately not only demonstrates a commitment to inclusivity and solidarity with marginalized communities. These institutions are essential to a more just and prosperous future for all, as they continue to play a vital role in American education and culture. By recognizing the pivotal role of state funding policies, we can work towards a more equitable future where HBCUs receive the resources they need to provide quality education and continue their legacy of empowerment and opportunity. Public policy decisions at the state and federal levels directly impact HBCUs funding, support, and overall well-being. Advocacy, engagement with policymakers, and developing equitable policies are essential to addressing funding disparities and promoting equity in higher education for HBCUs.

 

Here is the list of every federal government-recognized HBCU in the United States. If there is one close to you, I encourage you to support one in any way you can, whether going to a sporting event or donating.

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

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

–Navin Mawani, my mother, an immigrant from Pakistan

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

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

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

 

The Problem 

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

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

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

 

What Creates These Opportunity Gaps?

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

How is STRIVE Birmingham Helping Close this Opportunity Gap?

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Additional Information on the Opportunity Gap in Public Education

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

Native American Lands and Their Children: A History

An image of two Native American children in their cultural garbs.
Image 1 – Source: Yahoo Images

I would like to start this piece off with a land acknowledgment, where I acknowledge the truth of who the lands of America truly belong to. The land in which I sit to write this article, as well as the ones occupied by those who reside in America once belonged to the many diverse communities that existed long before America got its name. Once prosperous, thriving lands belonging to these various indigenous communities, (to the Creeks and Choctaw, in my case), the lands of America were respected and honored by the relationship that these various tribal communities held sacred between themselves and their environment. It is in honor of their stewardship and resilience that I hope to shed light on some of the more gruesome, nefarious betrayals they have experienced at the hands of colonizers from the time their tribal ancestors witnessed the colonizers’ arrival to their lands in 1492.

Before the European colonizers arrived on this land, there existed a diverse group of tribal communities, over a thousand different ones just in the mainland we call America today. Now, these tribes have been reduced to no more than 574 federally recognized ones, with dwindling tribal membership numbers, a fact that can only be blamed on the federally sanctioned behaviors of the colonists. So much has been stolen from the diverse groups of indigenous people since the colonization of the North American lands first began. The original indigenous peoples had offered the newly-arriving colonists hospitality and taught them how to cultivate the lands of America and brave the New Frontiers. Yet, what they received in gratitude was bloodshed, tears, death, and betrayals. So many treaties and promises were broken. According to Howard Zinn, the famous author of the book, “A People’s History of the United States,” the various indigenous communities that existed in the Americas by the time the famous explorers landed in the Americas were anywhere between 25-75 million individuals. They had moved into these fertile lands 25,000 years ago, long before the explorers “founded” the Americas. For those interested in learning a truthful history of America, please check out his book. The book begins in 1492 and continues to examine historical events until contemporary times and phenomena such as the “War on Terrorism”.

There is so much information to be covered on this topic, and the more I researched, the more I found. I want to do this topic justice, and I cannot do so until the historical context has been put in place. Hence, this will be a two-part deep dive into the Native American lands, their cultural lifestyles, their relationship with the environment, and what this means for their existence in a capitalist, contemporary society. Part one will focus on the history of Native American lands, the process of treaties and loss, and the cruel, scheming ways of the federal government that attempted to indirectly, yet forcibly, steal lands away from Native Americans by targeting the youngest members of their tribes. Part two will focus on the Indian Child Welfare Act, the fight (and entities involved) in support and against it, how the environment plays a role, and the vast consequences of the recent Supreme Court ruling on the matter, both in terms of the welfare of these indigenous children, as well as the issue of tribal sovereignty. There is a lot to unpack here, so without further ado, let’s begin with a deeper understanding of the relationship that indigenous communities share with their lands.

It’s All About the Land; It Always Has Been

An image depicting all the various different indigenous tribes that existed in America before the European Settlers landed
Image 2 – Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting the various indigenous tribes that were present in America before the European Settlers landed.

The European settlers had a problem with the Native Americans from the moment they landed in America. For one, they thought the indigenous way of life to be “savagery” and believed that the Native Americans needed to be “civilized”, something they believed only Europeans could teach them about. They found the gods and spirituality of the various indigenous cultures to be blasphemous and nonsensical, and many Europeans attempted to convert the Natives to Christianity, a more “proper” religious belief. Most of all, though, the Europeans and the indigenous communities had vastly different concepts of property and land ownership. To the settlers, who came from the feudal systems of Europe, land was a commodity, purchased and sold by individuals, and prosperity (and social status) was determined by who owned the most properties, and the most prosperous lands. They became lords and could employ the less fortunate to work under them, paying them a fraction of their profits, while keeping the rest for themselves. This was how things worked in Europe back home, and this is the system they brought with them when settling in the New World.

Native Americans, however, had a different lifestyle and concept of ownership. To them, the thought of owning a piece of land was bizarre, as they viewed the land to belong to the various energies and life forms that existed in the said land. The tribal lands of an indigenous community not only fed and nurtured the tribal members but also protected the tribe’s history and held the ancestral burials of their people. The indigenous communities had a spiritual and emotional connection with their tribal lands, one that cannot be sold to another, similar to how you cannot sell to someone else the relationship you hold with your family. Many (if not most), Native tribes even practiced animism, a belief system that accepts all living and non-living things (and natural phenomena) as being capable of having a life force (or soul). For Native Americans, land ownership was a foreign concept, and everyone that existed in their community held rights to the land their tribes lived on. In fact, when European settlers began purchasing lands from the Native Americans, the indigenous people believed they were only “leasing” the lands to the settlers, not giving up their rights to them. For the indigenous communities, the land was just as much a right of every human as sunlight, water, or air.

The Native Americans’ relationship with their lands was also threatening to the European lifestyle of land ownership and individualism. This struggle, between an individualistic view of community, versus the collective view of community, is, as they say, a “tale as old as time.” For Europeans, who believed individual merit and hard work to be the true characteristics of a successful individual, their success could only be displayed by the vastness of their empires, figuratively and physically. Hence, land ownership was a symbol of status and in a way, a testament of a person’s character. For Native Americans who focused on collective success rather than individually standing out, the strength of their tribe was a result of the part each individual tribal member played to ensure their success. This meant that everyone had a role, and if they played them right, everyone in the tribe benefited from the success. This was how tribes survived even as they warred against each other.

Treaties and Deals

An image depicting colonial men engaging in treaty making with a Native American tribe
Image 3 – Source: Yahoo Images; Many treaties such as this were brokered between various Indigenous tribes and colonists, yet they were seldom upheld and often violated or broken.

Due to these differences between the indigenous communities and the European settlers, many struggles broke out between the two groups between 1492 and 1700. In an attempt to keep the peace between the settlers and the indigenous communities, the British Crown established the Proclamation of 1763, which awarded the colonists all the lands East of the Appalachian Mountains, and everything West was promised to the various different Native American populations that lived in those regions. This did not make the colonists happy, as they believed the King was preventing them from expanding their population, and it was one of the points they listed in the Declaration of Independence as a wrong that was done by the King. Many scholars claim that the Proclamation of 1793 led colonists to pursue a revolution against the crown. The diverse indigenous populations attempted to stay out of the Revolutionary War, as they believed it to be a family feud between the British King, and his colonial subjects. Yet, when they did take part in the War, their participation was diverse. Some joined the rebelling Americans, while others joined the forces of the monarchy. Still, others chose to remain neutral, not wanting to support either side of the struggle. Upon the loss of the Revolutionary War, as part of the treaty signed between Britain and the newly established United States, Britain had to give up all the lands they lay claim to in America, including many of the lands that were promised to the Native American tribes living West of the Appalachian Mountains. This happened without consent or discussion with the Native Americans who took residence in those parts. When the colonists came to take over much of the lands that were promised to the Native Americans through the Proclamation of 1763, they justified their brutality against the Native Americans by blaming them for supporting the British in the Revolutionary War, and when the Native Americans tried to fight back for their lands, the British were nowhere to be seen. This was yet another episode of betrayal experienced by the indigenous populations at the hands of the settlers and the British Crown. Yet, this was just the beginning; the atrocities and betrayals were far from over.

Following the Revolutionary War and the as a result of the resilience shown by the many indigenous communities protecting their lands, the United States decided to engage in creating treaties between the various indigenous tribes in an attempt to set boundaries to their lands, and “compensate” them for the lands taken from them. I have “compensate” in quotations because first of all, no amount of money or goods can compensate for lost lives, which is what many tribes experienced. Some tribes became extinct as a result. Second, these treaties were signed by members who did not have signatory authority to give permission to the lands on the side of many indigenous nations, and Congress seldom ratified the treaties that were signed on the part of the United States. This meant that this was more of a theatrical expression than anything else, and the United States continued to steal the lands of indigenous people. Thirdly, as discussed above, many indigenous people who did engage in treaty-making assumed they were simply “leasing” their lands to be used by the colonists, not selling their rights to it outright. So, there was miscommunication and misunderstandings as to what the treaties actually established. Finally, the United States Congress and Supreme Court established that the indigenous tribes were not capable of engaging in treaty-making, and as such, ended the whole process altogether in 1871, claiming that Congress had full control over “Native American Affairs.”

An image depicting the infamous Trail of Tears, where thousands of indigenous people were forcefully driven out of their ancestral homes and marched into Oklahoma.
Image 4 – Source: Yahoo Images; An image depicting the infamous Trail of Tears, where thousands of indigenous people were forcefully driven out of their ancestral homes and marched into Oklahoma.

In an attempt to fasten the process of transferring lands from Native American tribes to the hands of the government, the United States passed the Dawes Act of 1887. Many of the treaties that were made between the US and the various nations included provisions in which tribes were expected to distribute their lands among their members so that lands were held by individuals rather than the tribal entities as a whole. For reasons explained earlier, the settlers were threatened by the communal lifestyles of the Native American tribes and believed that having individual members have rights over smaller portions of lands would make it easier for them to accept the European lifestyles and give up their “backward” ways. The Dawes Act forced these indigenous members to choose a parcel of land for themselves and their families (the size of the parcel of land was determined by the government), and any excess amount of land after this process would be sold to the government to be used by non-native residents and corporations alike. Millions of acres of land were stolen from various indigenous tribes as a result. This essentially acted as a way to separate the individual Native American member from their larger tribe and weaken their sense of community and tribal sovereignty as a whole.

Since the end of the Revolutionary War, the United States government has made about 374 treaties with various indigenous nations across the country. The United States has either violated or fully broken nearly all of these treaties they created as a promise of peacekeeping. Many of these treaties that the United States obtained in the first place were either coerced or done so by forcible means such as threatening starvation on the communities that refused to sign the treaties. Of the various treaties that were violated and broken, one that comes to mind clearly for anyone even slightly familiar with American History is the actions of then president Andrew Jackson and his Indian Removal Act of 1830. Although he negotiated treaties with various tribes in the Southeast in an attempt to get them to move West of the Mississippi River voluntarily, when he became president of the United States, he passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, forcibly removing almost 50,000 people from their homes. This forcible removal today would be recognized as a forceable deportation of a population, specifically as a crime against humanity. Under the United Nations Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, this is one of the most heinous systematic crimes that has been committed throughout history. Jackson did this in an attempt to clear lands to cultivate cotton, which would lead to another atrocious event, the revamping of plantation slavery in the South.

History of the Forced Assimilation of Native American Children

An image of indigenous children dressed in military garb posing with an adult at one of the boarding schools set up across the country in efforts to assimilate the children.
Image 5 – Source: Yahoo Images; An image of indigenous children dressed in military garb posing with an adult at one of the boarding schools set up across the country in efforts to assimilate the children.

Another tactic used by the government to acquire lands from the indigenous populations was through further treacherous means. Native American children were forcefully assimilated into American culture in an attempt to beat/torture their culture out of them. The existence of the Federal Indian Boarding School System was proof of this very thing. Recently, an internal investigation was conducted of the United States government’s treatment of Indigenous children following the incident in Canada, where they found over 215 unmarked graves at a school in 2021. This report, led by Deb Halland, the Secretary of Interior, highlighted many nefarious ways in which tribal lands were stolen from different indigenous nations and the atrocities that were forced upon the children from these nations.

To explore some of the details outlined in this report, (specifically from pages 20-40), the plans of forcible assimilation have been put in place since the days of George Washington. This plan to forcefully erase indigenous culture and assimilate the children into Western culture was seen as the “cheapest and safest way” to steal the tribal lands, ensure a less violent relationship between the colonists and the Native Americans, and transform the tribal economy so they would be prepared to live off of lesser and lesser parcels of land. They found a way to weaponize education in order to accomplish this task.

Elaborating on George Washington’s proposal, Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, put forth a 2-step solution to acquire more lands for the colonists. First, he argued that Native Americans could be forcefully assimilated into European culture, where they could be discouraged to live out a nomadic lifestyle (which requires the use of vast areas of land) and to adopt an agricultural lifestyle similar to the colonists (which can be done with a few acres of land that are cultivated). Second, he proposed that the United States place indigenous populations in debt by encouraging their use of credits to purchase their goods. This, he presumed, would make them default on their debts, and when they were unable to pay back their loans, they would be forced to give up their lands as a result. This land acquired by the government would be sold to non-native settlers, and the profits from these land sales would be put back into the education programs for forceful assimilation of native children.

Sanctioned by the United States government, indigenous children were kidnapped from their homes, whether they wanted to go to boarding school or not (with or without parental permission), and placed in these schools that were located far away from their tribal lands. The plan was to erase the relationship these children had with their cultures, communities, and lands, and instead instill individualism in the children who they were attempting to assimilate in the hopes that they could break up the communal lands into individual parcels, making it easier to be ceased by the government and private entities alike. They called it the “Indian Problem”, which was the different lifestyle and relationship tribal members held with their land and their community. Thomas Jefferson’s two-part proposal was seen as a “key solution” to this “Indian problem.” If the Native American children were forced to become dependent on agricultural lifestyles, they assumed, they could be “civilized.” The government believed that if you separate the children from their families and their tribal connections at a very young age, what they were introduced to would be all they knew, and they would become strangers to the indigenous lifestyles. In turn, the government assumed, the children would not want to go back home and live on the reservations, but instead, would be much more likely to assimilate and live amongst the colonists.

As a result, indigenous families were broken apart, and indigenous children were placed with white families as part of the “outing system.” This meant that the children were forbidden to speak in their native languages and were required to speak English to communicate their needs. What’s worse, they were placed with children from other tribes, meaning that their common language of communication was English, and any children they would have would grow up learning English as their first language instead of the tribal languages of their ancestors.

To support the government in this endeavor, many churches were given legal power over reservations by the government. The military was called in to reinforce the orders of these religious institutions. Many times, the government paid these institutions if they operated a boarding school, paying them a sum for each child. The churches went along with it because they believed that the indigenous way of “paganism” kept them from becoming “civilized” and to fully do so, the indigenous children needed to accept Christianity. The government worked with churches from many denominations by funding them to build the Federal Indian Boarding School System.

Treatment of Indigenous children in these boarding school systems

An Image depicting three children before and after the assimilation process at the boarding school. On the left, the three children sit with their cultural garments, proud of their cultural identity. One the right, the same three children have had hair cuts, and been groomed (both physically and psychologically) to appear more Western.
Image 6 – Source: Yahoo Images; An Image depicting three children before and after the assimilation process at the boarding school. On the left, the three children sit in their cultural garments, proud of their cultural identity. On the right, the same three children have had hair cuts, and been groomed (both physically and psychologically) to appear more Western.

 The Federal Indian Boarding School System was problematic in so many ways. Not only did it forcefully assimilate indigenous children, but the system also took a militaristic approach to education, abusing and mistreating these children in the process. The living conditions at these Boarding schools were terrible. There was no access to basic health care needs, and diseases ran rampant across the schools. The children were malnourished, as they were provided with food and water of poor quality. There was an overcrowding issue, with many facilities forcing multiple children to share one bed as a result. There were not enough toilets to serve the number of children at each facility, and the toilets were not properly maintained.

The infrastructure in these facilities was so poor because they were not built specifically to house these children as facilities for education. Rather, these children were placed in abandoned government buildings or military forts to carry out their education. There was also the issue of child labor, where the children were expected to provide all the services required to run the facilities. This included looking after the livestock, chopping wood, making bricks, sewing garments to clothe the other children, working on the railway, cooking, and cleaning for the others in the facility, and so much more.

The children were expected to take care of themselves and the other children at the facilities. They were also tasked with work from various fields like carpentry, plumbing, blacksmithing, fertilizing, helping with the irrigation system, helping make furniture for use in the facilities (such as tables, chairs, and beds), and anything else that involved physical labor. These jobs the children were trained in would forever keep them at a lower socioeconomic level than their White counterparts. Here too they tried to instill the patriarchal norms of Western society, making sure to teach and employ young girls to work as assistants and cooks, while the young boys were expected to be farmers and industrial workers.

The Indigenous children were forcefully assimilated into American culture. They were told to stop practicing their faiths and were stopped from performing any spiritual and/or religious rituals. The children were expected to go by the English names they were given at the boarding school instead of their Native names given to them at birth. They were forced to cut their hair (which was sacred to many indigenous people as it represented their cultural identity), and were forbidden to wear their cultural clothes and instead were put in military garb.

Those who resisted the assimilation or tried to run away were caught and severely abused and punished. They were put in solitary, whipped, slapped, starved, and abused for fighting to retain their culture. Many of the older children at the facilities were forced to punish the younger children, further dividing the children, and destroying any opportunity the children may have had to band together to resist the assimilation forces. As a result of what the Federal Indian Boarding School System put these children through, there were over 50 marked and unmarked burial sites found. These burial sites had found over 500 indigenous children dead and counting, and these numbers are expected to rise to thousands more. Many indigenous children that survived these boarding schools are reported to have long-lasting impacts on their health and their lives. These children that grew up to be adults reported having higher risks for cancer, diabetes, and Tuberculosis. They experienced heightened mental health issues, and many remain in a lower socioeconomic class as a result.

Cultural Genocide

This image depicts the number of indigenous people that exist today in comparison to what we saw before.
Images 7 & 8 – Source: Yahoo Images; This is a map that depicts how many indigenous members exist today, and what is left of their lands.

Many believe this forcible assimilation program conducted by the federal government to be a cultural genocide, in which a state-sanctioned attempt at the erasure of an entire culture took place. The official definition of genocide as established by the Genocide Convention in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court reads as follows: “…any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” As per this definition, the acts carried out by the United States government against the children of various Native American tribes fulfill most, if not all these categories that define these acts to be considered genocidal. It is not a surprise that Native Americans have been killed by the federal government’s sanctions throughout history. There has been serious bodily harm and mental harm caused to members of these various indigenous groups throughout American history. The government deliberately placed young children in conditions of life that ensured their destruction as a member of the Native American tribe they each belonged to. The children within these facilities were not allowed to mingle with others from their own tribes, making it harder for them to retain and pass down their cultural identities, as well as procreate with members of their own tribe. Finally, they were forcibly taken away from their parents and placed in these facilities and other non-native homes in an attempt to erase their cultural backgrounds. All these actions, as was discovered by the recent report we explored at length in this blog, were done so with the intent to destroy the rich cultures of the various Native American tribes. So, the forcible assimilation of Native American children can, without a doubt, be characterized as cultural genocide.

The main goal of this blog was to establish the historical context of what the various Native American tribes endured, as well as the intentions of the federal government in terms of their dealings with the different native nations present in America. Part two of this conversation will focus on a specific piece of legislation that has gained a lot of attention in recent years, the Indian Child Welfare Act. At face value, this legislation is simply an act that addresses the long, detailed history of Native American children and sets guidelines to ensure that proper regulations are put in place to prevent a repetition of history. Yet, it’s now been challenged, partly with the help of very shady moneyed interest, and its fate (and the overarching consequences as a result) were placed in the hands of the nine Supreme Court justices of the United States. We will explore more about this legislation and the case in the next blog.

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.

 

 

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.

 

A Succinct Discussion on Global Poverty

 

small houses
(source: yahoo images)

Everyone has heard of global poverty and its horrendous consequences; however, for some people, that is where their knowledge ends. In this blog, I am going to undertake the task of succinctly compiling facts and statistics about this incredibly broad topic. My hope is that, after reading this blog, you are more inclined to speak out on global poverty and educate others on the topic. 

A Rudimentary Understanding

a desert overview
(source: yahoo images)

Global poverty is an umbrella term for poverty that exists throughout the entire world. That was the easy part: defining global poverty. However, defining poverty is a tad bit more tricky. We can surely say that poverty is a status: the status given to those whose annual income falls under a bar; however, poverty is more than just low annual income. 

The United Nations, in particular, has defined poverty as, “a denial of choices and opportunities, a violation of human dignity. It means a lack of basic capacity to participate effectively in society. It means not having enough to feed and clothe a family, not having a school or clinic to go to, not having the land on which to grow one’s food or a job to earn one’s living, not having access to credit. It means insecurity, powerlessness, and exclusion of individuals, households, and communities. It means susceptibility to violence, and it often implies living in marginal or fragile environments, without access to clean water or sanitation.”

In addition, when discussing poverty, there is a distinction between relative deprivation and absolute deprivation. Relative deprivation is a function of inequality and can be defined as “the lack of resources (e.g. money, rights, social equality) necessary to maintain the quality of life considered typical within a given socioeconomic group.”

Absolute deprivation, on the other hand, is when one’s income falls below a level where they are unable to maintain food and shelter. Studies have shown that relative deprivation, or the inability to live up to the basic standards of living set forth within a particular community of reference, can be just as harmful to health outcomes as absolute deprivation. For example, research suggests that diabetes – a disease associated with modernization – is not a function of poverty, as the poorest countries show the lowest incidence among the global population. It is in nations that exhibit increasing political-economic and social inequality, including the United States, that diabetes has emerged as a leading cause of death and a serious public health threat.

Therefore, it should go without saying that our goal should be to diminish all forms of deprivation globally.

Statistics and Facts

a desert view of a tree
(source: yahoo images)

Personally, what I find most disturbing about global poverty is its breadth. Grounding this point is the fact that, according to the World Bank and WorldVision, “About 9.2% of the world, or 689 million people, live in extreme poverty on less than $1.90 a day.”

Practically one in ten people within the world are living in poverty.

To better understand the magnitude of this issue, imagine the following scenario: you live in this fantasy world where, in an effort to promote international toleration and cooperation, 30 children from all around the world get arbitrarily placed together into a classroom. Out of those 30 children, three of them would be living on less than $2 a day. If you are reading this blog, then you naturally have access to some sort of electric device. Those three children, in a year, will not have accumulated enough money to purchase your device. 

A logical question that might follow from the preceding scenario is that it is wrong of me to solely include children in made-up scenarios because adults, after all, also live in poverty.  While that is undeniably true, they by no means make up the majority. Over two-thirds of those living in poverty are children. Of those children, women represent the majority. 

Let us quickly look at local poverty—specifically, poverty within the United States. In the United States, as of 2019, around 10.5% of people live in poverty. The poverty line in the United States is around $13,000, and thus, each person living in poverty makes around $35 a day. Let us make note that these statistics are from 2019, meaning they are pre-pandemic. In 2020, the percentage of people living in poverty went up by one point to 11.4%. Ostensibly, that raise seems miniscule; however, it accounts for 3 million new  Americans who entered poverty, also now making less than $35 a day. 

All poverty is bad: that is undisputed. However, one who lives in America might confuse American poverty with global poverty as it might be what they encounter daily.  This presents a problem because this cannot be done as they are by no means the same. Those in poverty in America statistically make ten times more a day than those living in poverty abroad. That is a big difference; we can not equate the two.

Education

a view of UNESCO
(source: yahoo images)

Education is a human right; that is undeniable. Every human who walks this Earth has the right to get an education and develop individually. However, living in poverty makes education incredibly difficult. 

One study has found that, of those who live in poverty and are over the age of 15, 70% have only a basic education with no formal schooling. That means that if you are born into poverty and have no way of elevating out of this status, then, statistically, you are unlikely to get an education. This is an immense issue due to the fact that, according to UNESCO, education is the key to climbing out of poverty. In fact, UNESCO stated that, “if all students in low-income countries had just basic reading skills (nothing else), an estimated 171 million people could escape extreme poverty. If all adults completed secondary education, we could cut the global poverty rate by more than half.”

The dilemma is that the path out of poverty is through education; however, living in poverty makes education harder to achieve. 

However, in the past years, steps have been made in the correct direction, and education rates have indeed increased. A rise in education is beneficial to not just those living in poverty, but the nations they live in as well. In fact, a study published by Stanford University and Munich’s Ludwig Maximilian University shows that, between 1975 and 2000, 75% of the increase in a nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) can be attributed to the increase of math and science skills amongst the population. 

Therefore, education not only improves the lives of those in poverty, but also the well-being and economy of the nation and its people. It is for those reasons, amongst many more, that education is, and should forever remain, a human right.

Impacts

a picture of trees
(source: yahoo images)

In addition to the lack of education, those living in poverty face a multitude of other negatives. For one, a study found that adults living in poverty are at a “higher risk of adverse health effects from obesity, smoking, substance use, and chronic stress. [IN ADDITION], older adults with lower incomes experience higher rates of disability and mortality.”

In addition, this same study found that those living in the top 1% generally have a life expectancy 10 years greater than those living in poverty. Moreover, one study found that, for children and adolescents, poverty can also cause differences in structural and functional brain development, which impacts “cognitive processes that are critical for learning, communication, and academic achievement, including social emotional processing, memory, language, and executive functioning.”

Therefore, with the aforementioned facts in mind, it is easily concluded that poverty is an immense issue, and political leaders should be doing more to help relieve the issue. 

So, naturally, one might ask: why is nothing being done? One response to this question comes from the World Systems Theory. This theory is complex, so I will try my best to briefly discuss it. The theory states that all nations are divided into three systems: the core, the periphery, and the semi-periphery. Essentially, the theory states that the core nations, which are the most politically and economically powerful, use the periphery and semi-periphery nations, which are filled with developing nations, for cheap labor and resources. The core rewards the periphery for their resources and labor, but not enough that the nations develop at such a pace that they become equal to the core nations. This in turn causes a dilemma in which the periphery depend more on the core than vice versa. Some might argue that this in turn perpetuates global poverty as the core nations are doing the least to help developing nations. In other words, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, thus exacerbating both absolute and relative forms of deprivation and sustaining the cycle of poverty.

Moving Forward

a view of the road
(source: yahoo images)

As mentioned previously, global poverty has indeed been decreasing. According to WorldVision, “Since 1990, more than 1.2 billion people have risen out of extreme poverty. Now, 9.2% of the world survives on less than $1.90 a day, compared to nearly 36% in 1990.” 

We are still heading down this path of poverty reduction, and it is vital that we continue to do so. Perhaps, one day, we will live in a world free of poverty—a world in which every single person is educated, well-nourished, and does not have to fear starvation. It is my hope that after you finish reading this blog, you will share any knowledge and statistics you may have learned with others. The first step in resolving  an issue–and continuing to resolve it—is acknowledgement. If more people are aware of how detrimental poverty is, more people will in turn be inclined to help fix it. We need more support and commitment to a world in which poverty is mere history. 

Book Bans in the United States: History Says it All

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

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

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

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

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

History of Book Bans

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

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

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

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

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

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

Current Statistics on Book Bans

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

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

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

What do supporters of book bans hope to achieve?

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

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

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

Solutions to Book Bans

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

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

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