International Day of Persons with Disabilities 2018

Today, December 3, 2018, is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD), an observance promoted by the United Nations (UN). This year’s theme, “Empowering persons with disabilities and ensuring inclusiveness and equality,” accommodates the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’s pledge to “leave no one behind” which envisions sustainable urbanization, namely through a smart-city approach that prioritizes digitalization, clean energy, technologies, and service delivery. Such ambition is salient to persons with disabilities because, above all, achieving these goals will result in communities that are more accessible and inclusive for everyone.

It is argued the main contribution to why persons with disabilities have been excluded from public life is the practice of the medical model of disability (MMD) which embraces the perspective of non-disabled persons, reducing persons with disabilities to dysfunctional people in-need of medical treatment, with emphasis on normative functioning of the body. As a result, persons with disabilities are often assigned a sick role that exempts them from activities and expectations of productivity, leaving them as passive recipients of medical goods and services. These medicalized expectations of normality, restoration, and functional independence can devalue the lived experiences of persons with disabilities, thus inviting discrimination into their daily lives.

On the contrary, the social model of disability (SMD) challenges the knowledge/power differential employed by medical authorities and suggests empowerment for persons with disabilities, ultimately strengthening the patient role and influencing changes in treatment paradigms. Furthermore, the SMD argues that social practices are what disable persons with impairments, placing many persons with disabilities into isolating circumstances and preventing full civil participation. Whether it be employment in Alabama or being a refugee in Kenya, the SMD challenges the MMD by suggesting persons with disabilities are an oppressed group that experiences discrimination and deserving of equal treatment.

On December 13, 2006, the UN adopted the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), an international agreement which details the rights of persons with disabilities and lists codes for implementation, suggesting both states and disabled people’s organizations (DPOs) are to coordinate to fulfill such rights. In the following years, nations spanning the globe have ratified the CRPD, such as Jordan (2008) and Ireland (2018), thus strengthening protections for persons with disabilities. Although the United States is one of the only nations to have yet ratified the CRPD, this international document is largely modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed in 1990, which prohibits discrimination toward persons with disabilities. As a result, we are only seeing the beginning of what is to come for accessibility and inclusion for persons with disabilities, both domestically and globally.

Disabled people celebrate the passage of The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2016 by the Lok Sabha, in New Delhi. Source: Hindustan Times, Creative Commons

 

To commemorate IDPD 2018, the Institute for Human Rights is holding a blog series today that addresses access, inclusion, and representation for persons with disabilities, namely through the influence of media and power of politics.

“Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.” – George H.W. Bush at the signing of the ADA

Not Just A Phase: Bisexuality, Invisibility and Invalidation

Of the identities that together form the full rainbow of the LGBTQ+ community, the “B” is one of the least visible despite its sizable population. Per the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, “self-identified bisexuals make up the largest single population within the LGBT community in the United States.” LGBTQ+ refers to all of the people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (a reclaimed term used to refer to all other identities not represented by the ones listed). However, not all people feel represented by the word “queer,” and the plus sign is meant to be inclusive of those communities.

A pink, purple, and blue flag flies to represent bi pride.
“The bisexual pride flag.” Source: Peter Salanki, Creative Commons.

To understand the experience of bisexual people, one must first understand the basics of gender and sexuality. Gender is a term that describes the social representation of biological reproductive processes, while one’s gender identity is based on personal identities, or the “internal perception of one’s gender” (SafeZone Project).  Gender is what most people attach words like “man” and “woman” to, but can encompass a variety of identities such as agender (one who does not experience gender identity), polygender (one who experiences multiple gender identities), and genderfluid (can experience a combination of gender identities depending on the day).  Sexual orientation is the “sexual, romantic, emotional/spiritual attraction” that one experiences, often depending on which gender/genders that they are attracted to. Straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, and asexual are all examples of different sexual orientations, though a wide variety exists in addition to those listed.

Bisexuality (bi) does not have one all-inclusive definition, but the term “bisexual” generally refers to a person who experiences attraction to people of their own gender as well as people outside of their gender. The experience of bisexuality can be shared by pansexual people. The two terms overlap, as pansexual people experience attraction regardless of gender. Typically, one differentiates between the two identities with respect to how an individual identifies themselves; some bisexual people could technically be called pansexual (and vice versa), but the most inclusive practice is to respect each individual/community as they define their own experience.

A couple embraces in the street during a gay pride demonstration.
“Thousands march in Madrid to claim an anti-capitalist and combative Gay Pride.” Source: Adolfo Lujan, Creative Commons.

Semantics aside, bi people have faced a long history of adversity with very little notoriety. Bisexuality as an identity has been chronically invalidated, demonized, and even blatantly ignored. Discrimination towards bisexual people has long been enforced by a heterosexual society, but many bi people have experienced discrimination from within the LGBT community as well.

According to the oldest bisexual advocacy organization in the United States, bisexual people are more likely to live in poverty, have higher rates of sexual and intimate partner violence, and report higher rates of poor physical/mental health than lesbian, gay or straight people. Research from the same source reveals that “bisexuals are six times more likely than gay men and lesbians to hide their sexual orientation,” and nearly one-quarter of bi people have never shared their orientation with anyone.

One might expect a stronger community backlash to this level of inequality, but biphobia is so pervasive that few dare to speak out. Biphobia, or the aversion to bisexuality, is experienced frequently by bisexual people while in the company of others who assume that they are either heterosexual or homosexual (depending on the bi person’s partner). Bisexuality is a unique identity in that a bi person is not defined by the gender of their partner, and this heteronormative invisibility is what makes the bi existence so difficult. UC San Diego’s LGBT Resource Center puts it this way:

“Lesbian, gay, and heterosexual people are invested, and find a sense of security in being the ‘other’ to each other, and unite in the fact that they are only attracted to either the ‘same’ or the ‘opposite’ gender/sex. This sets up another ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ dynamic which effectively marginalizes bisexual people as ‘other.’ Integral to this dynamic is the automatic assumption people can be defined by the gender/sex of their current or potential romantic interest.”

An openly bisexual person often experiences the condescending attitudes of those who think that it’s just a phase. Straight people assume that bisexuals will eventually revert back to heterosexual “normalcy,” while LGBTQ+ people may assume that the bi identity is merely a “half-gay, half-straight” phase that will culminate in a homosexual identity later on. However, research provides data to the contrary – a longitudinal study found that 92% of bisexual women still identified as bisexual over ten years later. To be clear, sexual orientation is not validated or invalidated based on its fluidity. This data only provides evidence that bisexuality can be a stable orientation.  These attitudes are reinforced by the assumption that society is separated into a heterosexual norm and a homosexual other, leaving little room for the huge spectrum of sexuality that falls between gay and straight.

“C.D. Kirven with the Trans Pride Flag while Get Equal flies the Bisexual & Rainbow Pride Flags.” Source: Melissa Kleckner, Creative Commons.

The statement “I’m bisexual” can also lead down a different but equally terrible path – the inevitable, half-joking “That’s hot!” or “Oh, so you want to have a threesome?” The stereotype that bisexual people are hypersexual is both degrading and exhausting. “Hypersexual” stereotypes assume that certain people are more likely to frequently engage in sexual activity with a lesser degree of moral restraint; this stereotype is applied to many identities other than bisexuals, and is particularly common for black and Latina women. Far too often, the experience of coming out as bi in addition to the perception of hypersexuality ends in an unwanted sexual invitation that can be traumatic, particularly considering the high rate of sexual violence among the bi community. The can permeate and negatively affect bisexual relationships, as their partner may struggle with trust issues resulting from this widespread misrepresentation. Some people may even avoid relationships with bisexuals altogether for fear of infidelity.

Each of these experiences results in the invalidation of bisexuality. Being bisexual is valid in itself, not as a stepping stone to a different sexual orientation or as a prop to spice up your heterosexual love life. Additionally, bisexuality is not the easy way out. An assumption exists that, even if the bisexual orientation is valid, bi people will eventually settle down into an opposite-gender relationship in order to bypass social discrimination that accompanies an LGBTQ+ identity. However, bisexual people in heterosexual-passing relationships are still equally affected by discrimination, biphobia, and invalidation; “passing” as straight does not negate the hardships that are tied to the bisexual experience.

Biphobia, invisibility, and discrimination are some of the most subversive yet malicious tools that are used to maintain the societal fabric of heteronormativity. Limiting or invalidating the bisexual orientation only strengthens the gay/straight dichotomy that holds us all back from freely experiencing the full spectrum of sexuality and gender. It’s easy to proclaim that the system should change, but realistically, what can we do to reduce injustice for bi people? First, you should examine your own thoughts and attitudes towards bisexuality. It’s easy to be complicit in biphobia and erasure if you aren’t aware of your unconscious bias. If you find and acknowledge any prejudicial tendencies, challenge those thoughts. Don’t assume a person’s sexual orientation based on their partners – ask them! If you witness a casual biphobic joke, call it out instead of being silent. Make room for bisexual people within the LGBT community. Above all, respect everyone’s identity enough to support and validate the terms that they choose for themselves.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the United States

A mural of diverse faces on the gateway into Chamizal National Memorial
National Park Gateway: Chamizal National Memorial. Source: National Park Service, Creative Commons

Every four years, the US Department of the Interior releases a strategic plan highlighting their mission and future goals to best serve the American people. As the current plan spanning the 2014-2018 cycle is now drawing to a close, the updated 2018-2022 strategic plan has been created, but was leaked early online. Outside Magazine drilled deep into its content, and on November 2nd published an article addressing the fact that while there were significant changes in terms of National Park fees and regulations, “few took notice that the new administration has deleted the entire diversity, equity, and inclusion mandate from its plan.”

Political discussions about the outdoors usually focuses on the health of the environment or land usage rights, but a movement has been growing to confront what has been described as “The Adventure Gap“, or the underrepresentation of people of color in outdoor spaces. Grassroots efforts have been established to try and address this, such as the organization GirlTrek to get black women outside and walking to increase the health of their communities, but with many state and national parks being located outside of a city’s public transportation network and the entrance prices for popular parks being on the rise, the government for the last several years has been developing ways to extend access to those who would not have had the opportunity to participate in the park system through programs like Every Kid in A Park, an initiative that offers free admission to all fourth grade students across the country. Yet by excluding the mandate on diversity, “the inclusion of individuals representing more than one national origin, color, religion, socioeconomic stratum, sexual orientation”, equity, “freedom from bias or favoritism”, and inclusion, “the action or state of including or of being included within a group or structure”, it is unlikely that initiatives to promote participation by minority groups within America’s public lands will be supported.

This is the latest in a string of decisions in which previous protections, mandates, and initiatives concerning diversity have been deconstructed or removed under the current administration. For example, in January following the inauguration of President Trump the new whitehouse.gov website was found to not only have dropped the page on climate change but to have also discarded the Obama-era page affirming the executive branch’s commitment to supporting the LGBTQ community. This was followed in October by an announcement from the Justice Department that protections from discrimination in the workplace under Title VII (“prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin”) would no longer apply to transgender workers. An easy argument to latch onto is that it is not the government’s place to be forced to affirm the identify of various groups, but after the January ban on refugees, the July ban on transgender military service personnel, and the September announcement of the repeal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, it is no longer assumed that the government will issue protections for those who have been historically marginalized. However, the United States has wrestled with similar moral and legal debates over the last 200 years, and as preached by 19th century minister Theodore Parker and echoed later by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Since the establishment of the United States, there has a been constant tension concerning who is allowed to claim certain rights. In 1868, a first step of progress was made by introducing the 14th Amendment into the constitution, granting US citizenship to former slaves and declaring that all people are to be seen as equal under the law. At the time this amendment was a revolutionary statement, and throughout the country’s history this amendment has been the foundation for many of the most well-known civil rights cases the United States’ court system has ever seen.

Ninety years after the 14th Amendment had been ratified, challenges on the nature of equality were still being debated and put to the test as measures such as Jim Crow laws were enacted. Separation between blacks and whites was enforced in many public spaces, and education, marriage, and healthcare for the black community were all impacted negatively as a result. Yet in 1954, these policies were brought to court under the title of Brown vs Board of Education. Through the success of the plaintiff’s argument, schools across the country would soon be desegregated over the following years.

A display board from the Rosa Parks Collection Library of Congress about Equal Employment Opportunity
Equal Employment Opportunity – Title VII. Source: Ted Eytan, Creative Commons

Moving into the Civil Rights period of the 1960’s, the next phase of striving towards diversity, equity, and inclusion was the implementation of Affirmative Action in 1961. The history of the action is summarized on the National Conference of State Legislators website, recounting that

“In 1961, President Kennedy was the first to use the term ‘affirmative action’ in an Executive Order that directed government contractors to take ‘affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.’ The Executive Order also established the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, now known as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).”

Affirmative Action still stands today and has been joined by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, but much like the decisions preceding them, these acts are still hotly contested. Critics argue that the actions lower standards and may force an employer to hire candidates unfit for the job, while supporters counter that the actions succeed at allowing underrepresented applicants such as ethnic minorities, women, those over age 40, racial minorities, and those who are disabled an equal chance to compete for white collar positions instead of being weeded out at the beginning of the process due to negative biases. Regardless of the controversy, Affirmative Action was another step in laying the groundwork for future actions, codes such Title IX (“prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity.”), and eventually the incorporation of diversity policies and statements into modern organizations.

After the implementation of Affirmative Action and Title IX, some organizations decided to go beyond the minimum and make diversity a core aspect of their operations.  Through diversity statements, organizations and businesses make it clear that they stand for the promotion of a diverse workforce and that diversity in background, skills, and life experience breeds a healthy work environment. Universities have taken the lead on this front, and UAB has incorporated these ideals in two ways. First, any group who wants to become an official club on campus must make sure to include the UAB Nondiscrimination Clause within their constitution before being approved. Secondly, the university has created the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to specifically promote this cause. On the office’s website, a Statement on Diversity is included that reads

“Diversity is a defining feature of Birmingham’s past, present and future. At UAB, we are committed to capitalize on what makes Birmingham and the University trailblazers in moving inclusion forward. We are invigorating conversations, fostering civic engagement, widening perspectives, stimulating innovation and connecting people. Every day, we seek ways to actively promote and recognize principles of fairness and equity, in relation to, and across, intersections of race, age, color, disability, faith, religion, ancestry, national origin, citizenship, sex, sexual orientation, social class, economic class, ethnicity, gender identity, gender expression, and all other identities represented among our diverse communities.”

These type of statements work as a positive sentiment, but it is important to note that by making an organization-wide commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion also serves as a protection for people underrepresented in certain industies. In August, Google faced an incident that sent waves through Silicon Valley as one of their employees, James Damore, sent out an “Anti-Diversity Manifesto” to other employees across the company. In it he stated that “Differences in distributions of traits between men and women may in part explain why we don’t have 50% representation of women in tech and leadership” followed by “discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business.”

The google team marches in a gay pride parade
Google Gay Pride. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons

The response from those both inside and outside of Google was one of outrage and condemnation, although it should be noted that Damore did have supporters behind him and that these beliefs were not new development to the field. In the April 2017 Issue of The Atlantic, it was reported that within the tech industry most women have had to combat issues ranging from demeaning remarks to fending off repeated instances of inappropriate sexual advances. The article also referenced a number of studies reporting that women “are evaluated on their personality in a way that men are not. They are less likely to get funding from venture capitalists, who, studies also show, find pitches delivered by men—especially handsome men—more persuasive. And in a particularly cruel irony, women’s contributions to open-source software are accepted more often than men’s are, but only if their gender is unknown.”

This put Google in a difficult situation, for if they kept Damore as an employee others would see that as condoning his points and continuing the cycle of discrimination against women, but if they fired him as a gut reaction Google would be confirming his “echo chamber” criticism of the company. However, because of Google’s proactive steps to address this type of issue should it arise, a statement rejecting the manifesto was issued by their Vice President of Diversity, Integrity & Governance, Danielle Brown.

“We are unequivocal in our belief that diversity and inclusion are critical to our success as a company, and we’ll continue to stand for that and be committed to it for the long haul… Part of building an open, inclusive environment means fostering a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions. But that discourse needs to work alongside the principles of equal employment found in our Code of Conduct, policies, and anti-discrimination laws.”

Through the embedding of diversity into their values, Google was able to swiftly respond by referencing their company policies and showing that those who disagree do so against the whole of the company’s standards and practices.

The Google incident is one of many demonstrating the importance of developing and including diversity statements and mandates within institutions and organizations. While used mainly to voice solidarity and commitment, the statements have the power to protect those who are underrepresented should a situation arise. The recent dismantling of these mandates and protections by the Department of the Interior and the Justice Department have left minority groups far more vulnerable to exclusion up through the highest levels of government; yet when viewing these decisions through the historical lens of diversity advocacy in the United States, the current blockages may only be temporary stumbling blocks on the road to further and deeper acceptance of inclusion across the nation.

A 29th Floor Perspective

 

1st Ave from the 29th Floor of the UN
1st Ave from the 29th Floor of the UN. Photo by Ajanet Rountree.

The United Nations (UN) Conference on State Parties (CoSP10) experience began on the 29th floor for me. I say this because I lived in New York City and toured the UN on a couple of occasions. Additionally, living a life that is inclusive of persons with disabilities is in my wheelhouse. A friend and mentor utilizes crutches to help him walk because an accident, when he was younger, took the full use of his legs. Cancer took the use of B’s legs when she was a baby, and a motorcycle accident left my uncle paralyzed from the waist, making them both wheelchair users. I lead with all of this to say that making room in my world for persons with disabilities is something I have done for decades. My familiarity, in a sense, is akin to the knowledge gained by a couple of tours of the UN lobby and gift shop. Therefore, walking into CoSP10, I was prepared or so I thought.

I had never been on the 29th floor. The perspective is much different up there.

The Division of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) is located on the 29th floor of the UN. The DESA team is responsible for both the economic and social affairs of persons with disabilities for all the UN member states as directly related to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). They write and disseminate policies and ideas to the member states as suggested modes of implementation. Each policy and suggestion lies within the UN mandated Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) which is an extension of the 1945 UN Charter. SDGs are the 17 goals all member states, through collaboration, seek to achieve by 2020 as a means of ensuring “no one is left behind” while honoring the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and CRPD. Sitting in the conference room, I am inspired by the opportunity but not fully awake to what is about to take place.

Enter Daniela Bas.

Bas is the DESA director. During her chat with us, she disclosed a couple of points that stand out to me. First, the UN, as an employing entity, is beginning to put into action many of the policies and measures, tasked to member states for implementation. Most specifically, employing persons with disabilities in key leadership positions of which she is one. Second, the UN is an organization led by human beings seeking to do the right thing. With full acknowledgment, she reminds that the UN is not perfect but that the process of coalescing 196 backgrounds, traditions, religious affiliations, and attitudes to make significant strides at securing human rights and making the world more peaceful, is an accomplishment. Lastly, when compared to men and boys, and those who are able-bodied, discrimination against women and girls with disabilities doubles, and even triples if they belong to a minority race or class in their country. This last point, triple discrimination for women and girls with disabilities will become a recurring theme in the conference for me. The harsh reality of this fact remains an echo in my soul to this moment.

Confrontation with another person’s truth requires an adjustment to what is known through experience and education, and assumed through familiarity.

On the floor. Photo by Ajanet Rountree

I study and view life and the world with a gendered perspective in mind. I look for the role of women, our impact on families and societies, and our visibility and invisibility when it comes to equality. I am aware of the trials of living life at intersections. Intersectionality complicates because discrimination is complicated. I believe there is a temptation to separate the intersections so to obtain a solid understanding; however, it is in the attempt to separate that understanding is lost. Gaining a complete understanding of the dynamics of discrimination requires a holistic not segmented perspective.

Girls, irrespective of ability, are not as valuable or visible in many societies as boys are. Nora Fyles, head of the UN Girls Education Initiative (UNGEI) Secretariat, asserts invisibility is the fundamental barrier to education for girls with disabilities. She confirms this assertion when explaining the search for partnership on the gendered perspective education project by stating that 1/350 companies had a focus on girls with disabilities. For Bas, the failure to identify girls and women with disabilities is a failure to acknowledge their existence. Subsequently, if they do not exist, how can we expect them to hear their need? She suggests addressing crosscutting barriers. Leonard Cheshire Disability (LCD), in partnership with the World Bank, UNICEF, and UNGEI, hosted a side-event where they released their findings regarding a lack of inclusive education opportunities for girls with disabilities. Still Left Behind: Pathways to Inclusive Education for Girls with Disabilities sheds light on the present barriers girls, specifically those with disabilities, experience when seeking an education.

Article 26 of the UDHR lists education as a human right. Bas believes if knowledge is power, and power comes from education, the fact that 50% of women with a disability complete primary school and 20% obtain employment, reflects social and economic inequality. Ola Abu Al-Ghaib of LCD emphasizes policies, cultural norms, and attitudes about persons with disabilities perpetuate crosscutting barriers for girls with disabilities to receive an education. She concludes that schools are a mirror of society. In the absence of gendered sensitivity, boys advance and girls do not. Every failed attempt to address and correct the issue is a disservice to girls generally, and girls with disabilities, specifically.

It is imperative to remember that the spectrum of disability is multifaceted. Most people recognize developmental and physical disabilities like Downs Syndrome, Autism, visual and hearing impairment, and wheelchair users, but fail to consider albinism and cognitive disabilities as part of the mainstream disability narrative. Bulgaria is focusing on implementing Article 12 of CRPD regarding legal capacity. Legal consultant and lawyer, Marieta Dimitrova explains that under Bulgarian law, only reasonable persons have the right to independence; therefore, persons with cognitive disabilities receive the “unable” descriptor under assumption they are unable to reason and understand, thereby placing them under a guardian. Guardianship removes the right to participate in decisions regarding quality of life, which is a deprivation of liberty. She resolves that although full implementation into law awaits, stakeholders are seeking renewal in the new government because pilot projects have proven that an enjoyment of legal capacity in practice yields lower risk of abuse, changed attitude within communities, personal autonomy and flexibility.

Not all disabilities result from birth or accidents. War and armed conflict factor into 20% of individuals maimed while living in and fleeing from violence. A lack of medical access leave 90% of maimed individuals permanently disabled. Stephane from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) submits that for refugees with disabilities, access to essential services can be difficult on the journey and in camps, but also for those who are unable to flee. He infers a “double disability” inflicted upon refugees with disabilities: first as a refugee, and second as a person with a disability. Human Rights Watch advocates that refugee camps produce a humiliating and degrading existence for persons with physical disabilities because the “tricks” employed prior to arrival in the camps, are no longer applicable as wheelchairs sink in the mud and crutches break on rocky grounds. The Lebanese Association for Self-Advocacy (LASA) reports the underrepresentation of women and girls is significant when receiving information and access to assistance.

In a refugee simulation seminar, LASA informed that on the ground, confusion is high given that humanitarian organizations do not consult with each other, making communication difficult and non-supportive. For families with a person with a disability, nonexistence communication means a prevalence to fall victim to violence and harassment. Jakob Lund of UN Women divulges that humanitarian aid can be ineffective for women with disabilities, while Sharon with OHCHR suggests a clear dichotomy between the rights of the able-bodied and the rights of persons with disabilities holds central to the ineffectiveness. At the core of a lack of communication and accessibility is invisibility. Stephane concludes that there is an obvious need for a necessary and systematic retraining specific to educating others on how to see the invisible.

a picture of Chinatown, NYC and Brooklyn Bridge
Chinatown, NYC, and Brooklyn Bridge. Source: Madhu Nair, Creative Commons

The process of inclusion and equality relates directly to the decision to acknowledge a person’s existence. Retraining the mind to see any human being with a physical disability takes decisive action so I put myself to the test. First, I thought of all the famous women with a physical disability I could think of, and arrived at about six, including Heather Whitestone and Bethany Hamilton. I then googled celebrity women with disabilities which yielded a Huffington Post piece that identified Marlee Matlin, Frida Kahlo, Helen Keller, and Sudha Chandran as 4/10 “majorly successful people with disabilities”. I had Marlee Matlin and Helen Keller. What is more interesting is that I arrived at seven when naming men with physical disabilities. Here is the point: society is not inclusive of persons with disabilities if we have to strain our brains to remember the last time we sat next to, opened the door for, ate a meal with, or saw on the television/movie screen/church platform a person who did not look like us physically.

Perspective changes everything because perspective is everything.

“Sesame Street” and Autism: An initiative about Inclusion

Sesame Street. Source: Gavin St. Our, Creative Commons.

Sesame Street introduced viewers to the newest “live” Muppet on the block, earlier this month. Her name is Julia and she is on the autism spectrum. Initially introduced in 2015 as part of Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children Initiative, Julia’s interaction with the other residents on Sesame Street teach them how to befriend and include individuals who are different, without being afraid. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that can cause substantial social, behavioral and communication challenges. Individuals with ASD communicate, interact, and learn in ways that are different to people without ASD. Dr. Stephen Shore believes that “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Every individual diagnosed with ASD has diverse functioning abilities and level of autistic symptoms, making each individual case distinctive. Currently, 1 in 68 children worldwide are diagnosed with ASD. ASD crosses every social and economic sphere. The goal of the Sesame Street and Autism Initiative is to remove the stigma of autism. Julia optimistically reminds viewers that individuals with disabilities have the talent and ability to positively contribute to our society while making the world a more unique and interesting place.

Over the past two decades, the human rights perspective on disability has shifted from viewing people with disabilities as problems towards recognizing them as holders of rights. A universal victory for people and families with disabilities came with the ratification and adoption of the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD) by the United Nations in 2008. For children who Julia represents, the CRPD guarentees that those children can go grow up and have the same opportunities to achieve their goals just like children without disabilities. The United States has not ratified the CRPD, although there are continuous adjustments to domestic policies, ensuring the protection of the civil and human rights of persons with disabilities. There are currently numerous federal civil rights laws that safeguard people with disabilities so equal opportunities in employment, education, voting without discrimination are made available. The Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) became law under the Obama administration on October 8, 2010. This law increases the access of persons with disabilities to modern communications, and is up to date with 21st century technologies. Technology can revolutionize how people with disabilities interact and live in a society intended for those with no developmental or functional disability. The ratification of CRPD and continued promotion of the general welfare of all citizens should remain the focus of future government administrations.

People with disabilities have been marginalized and excluded from society within all cultures. National and international laws and conventions do not protect from discrimination on an individual level, with common responses of pity or disgust, which reinforced disabled peoples segregation in society. The lack of understanding regarding ASD and other disabilities can make life more stressful and challenging for individuals with developmental differences. The societal treatment towards people with disabilities lead to the phenomenon of invisibility. The phenomenon of invisibility rationalizes that society has the “tendency to construct everyday life with only the able-bodied in mind and the greater the lack of a physical presence of disabled persons in the mainstream, the more “natural” this assumption appeared to be (OHCHR).” As of March 2017, the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) disclosed that only 20.4% of people with disabilities are employed compared to 68.7% employed individuals without disabilities. Likewise, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 10.6% compared to 4.3% for people without disabilities. Furthermore, in 2015, Cornell University approximates 20.1% of non-institutionalized individuals with a disability aged 21 to 64 years in the United States have less than a high school education. The invisibility of people with disabilities has a drastic effect on their enjoyment of civil and human rights because they have been excluded and isolated.

a picture of a child smiling a big grin
Smile for the camera. Source: Arielle Calderon, Creative Commons.

The stigmatization of people with disabilities will persist until society embraces disabilities as adaptable differences, rather than with negative connotations. For example, a study analyzing parental perspectives on the diagnosis of ADS found that parents of non-diagnosed children described the potential diagnosis as scary, dangerous and frightening. The study also found that parents with diagnosed children sometimes go through denial, and try to find other reasons for their child’s behavior because they are reluctant to label their child as having a disability. However after the denial stage, parents elaborated on how they are started to reconstruct their beliefs about ASD, and began to project ASD from a positive perspective. This is why initiatives like “Sesame Street and Autism” are so important; not only do they educate children and adults about ASD, but also normalizes and cultivates respect for people with disabilities such as ASD. In order to communicate, Julia expresses herself in different ways that other characters on Sesame Street, who are not on the ASD. She flaps her arms when she is very bothered or happy, avoids direct eye contact, and repeats words. Even though Julia’s behaviors are different, Elmo, Big Bird and the other characters have learned to adapt, accept through understanding, and intentionally include her in their play dates.

Autism made nation headlines was during the vaccination causing autism controversy, which misinformed millions, and portrayed a diagnosis and prognosis as a hindering, negative characteristic. Julia’s addition to Sesame Street has generated significant discussion about about autism specifically, and disabilities, generally, and the societal stigma surrounding them. Recently appearances on popular network shows such as the “The View” and “60 Minutes” allowed for explanation and clarification as to why “Sesame Street” felt it was finally time to introduce a character like Julia into the show. Stacy Gordon, the women who plays the voice of Julia, very much understands the hardships of autism and inclusion. Stacy’s son is on the autism spectrum. In an interview with 60 Minutes, she admits that her sons classmates did not understand how to react to his breakdowns and social differences. She truly believes that exposing parents and children to Julia is going to help progress our society into a more disability friendly world. Sesame Street‘s leadership and dedication to teaching children love and acceptance continues to pave the way for a brighter and inclusive future. This initiative constructs a conversation about disabilities and autism while it reinforces the positive narrative about differences and inclusion.