The Americans with Disabilities Act celebrated its 25th year of coming into law last month, and while it has changed countless lives, it has become apparent that inclusion loopholes still exist.
The ADA was designed to have people with disabilities become viable and authentic citizens within the United States, but access to resources are still denied and the disability community continues to fight for basic civil rights.
On the outside it's easy to assume that because of the ADA, discrimination never occurs and full equality prevails for every person with a disability living in the United States. This wishful thinking is comparable to thinking that racism no longer exists because we have an African American president. Although the ADA made significant changes, it did not address everything a person with a disability faces on a daily basis. Just because a president signed a piece of legislation into law doesn't mean that a) it's fully enforced and b) it 100 percent changed our culture on how we view the disability community.
Disabled or able-bodied, we all have the power and responsibility to make society more inclusive for everyone. From lived experiences to listening to the disability community, here are 10 ways we can continue to make our world more accepting of people with disabilities.
1. View the Disability Community as a Valuable Consumer It's still progressive to see the disability community as a targeted audience and consumer. We're the biggest minority population in the world, yet the most underrepresented when it comes to marketing products, as we're the last to be thought of. While part of this stems from the fact that there is a great deal of diversity within the disability community, those consumer segments (and their families) still have significant purchasing power. We're slowly seeing models with disabilities incorporated in fashion and marketing commercials, but this needs to become the norm, and not seen as future-forward thinking.
2. Employ People with Disabilities -- They Are Ambitious and Want to Work According to NPR, "fewer than one in five disabled adults are employed." CNN Money also stated that, "disabled workers earn about $9,000 less a year than non-disabled workers, according to Census data on median earnings. That gap was under $6,000 in the early 1990s." The disability community is still discriminated against at work from being refused a job or denied a final interview. But when it comes down to it, employers need to see a person, including his/her disability, as an asset and not a potential liability.
3. Increase Disability Representation in Political Setting Can you think of many politicians or government officials -- local, state, to national level -- who live with a disability? If you look hard enough you will begin to see the variety of disabilities many people live with who work inside a political office. However, are we encouraging younger generations with disabilities to become politically involved? How many local to national political campaigns incorporate the disability voice? The National Council on Disability (NCD), an independent federal agency, created a voting questionnaire for people with all types of disabilities (physical, cognitive and sensory) during the 2012 General Election Cycle, inquiring about their experiences and any possible encounters with barriers at the polling place. According to NCD's Report, people with disabilities still encounter architectural, attitudinal and technological barriers when exercising their right to vote, including, no automatic door openers, an absence of American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters, no Braille signs or ramps; narrow doorways and inaccessible voting machines. In addition, voter competency for people with intellectual disabilities was challenged and some people were turned away. This is not okay.
4. Integrate Disability History in School Curriculums How can a person with a disability acknowledge and identify with his/her history if it's not widely taught? How can the community be embraced if their civic background is never taught? Throughout general education, the Americans with Disabilities Act has not been widely taught to students within their curriculum. Why not? I learned in depth about the Voting Rights Act in middle school, but not until college did I begin to learn about the ADA, and that was in an intermediate class. Even more, Disability Studies is still an emerging discipline in which to receive a degree as many schools do not offer it. Disability history needs to be integrated within our school system for the community to fully acknowledged.
5. Promote Social Inclusion in Schools Our overall cultural consciousness on how we treat and interact with disability needs to change, beginning in elementary schools. We need to celebrate our peers for their differences. If this is taught at a young age, less discrimination and more social inclusion will occur. Having kids with and without disabilities learning side-by-side helps everybody appreciate the talents and gifts all kids bring with them. As a society, we have the responsibility to promote the inclusion of our differences.
6. Employ More Actors With Disabilities in Mainstream Media We need to see more actors with disabilities playing actual character roles of people who have disabilities. No more able-bodied actors playing a person with a disability when an actor living with a disability can be easily hired. I understand if a director wants to hire an able-bodied actor to characterize a person before his/her accident or disability, but what about movies or shows where a character is already disabled? How could an able-bodied actor play a character with a disability better than a person living under those circumstances? And even at that, our media needs to do a better job at accepting disability as a human condition instead of a flaw and imperfection.
7. Provide College Scholarships to Athletes With Disabilities Athletes with disabilities should be scouted and receive scholarships based on their athletic abilities by their chosen school. When I was a senior in high school, regardless that I was selected to represent Team USA in international meets, I was never scouted nor received a college scholarship offer for my athletic abilities because my times never compared to my able-bodied counterparts. My disability was seen as an inspiration to the institution rather than being acknowledged as a hardworking teammate who contributed points in meets. This needs to change for our younger generation.
8. Make Air Travel Universally Accessible Many people with disabilities are active business people with vibrant careers who are respected in their various fields. That is, until they get to the airport and become dependent on the Special Services Request or cannot use the washroom once in the air. Many people with disabilities have faced unfortunate experiences at the airport or even in the air -- left for hours without a chair or access to a washroom. The level of disrespect and invisibility a traveler with a disability endures can be astounding and frustrating. Training the Special Services Request personnel would go a long way in promoting a more positive experience though the "just ask, just listen" approach. A better interaction would be to ask travelers with a disability what they need and act accordingly. Also, major airlines need to do a better job at accommodating people with disabilities by building an accessible restroom within planes. Many people with disabilities have to forgo traveling for long flights because they do not have access to a bathroom. It's unbelievable how companies have put a blind eye in enabling basic human rights for people with disabilities.
9. Acknowledge that Police Brutality Occurs on People with Disabilities Did you know that there is still no substantial data pertaining to police brutality and people with disabilities? Isn't it shocking that it's never been recorded? According to the Hill, "there are no reliable figures on just how many people with disabilities were involved in altercations with police." Although some law enforcement agencies have acknowledged that more disability training needs to occur, each case is different due to the variety of disabilities. As a society, we should feel ashamed that these statistics aren't being tracked, and more importantly, we have to ask ourselves why we don't see this as a major issue.
10. Realize That People With Disabilities Are Humans Too It's interesting how we can see a person in one dimension and forget that he/she is a human being, intricate with multiple angles. When we see a person outside of their element, we tend to forget that a he/she's life is a culmination of different sides and not just how we see them in an isolated environment. Sometimes people can forget that a person with a disability is first and foremost a human being with desires, talents, skills, heartache and loss, just like everyone else. At the basis of every person are the similarities we all share for being human, and that includes people with disabilities.
How do you think the ADA came into existence? Countless people crawled up public steps and roared their voices until the ones in power heard them. Empower yourself and others by realizing that your voice can make a change for generations to come. We need to become the voices that challenge. If you never raise your voice, then nothing will occur and no change will happen. Join me in raising your voice so we can see a fully inclusive society and celebrate each other for who we truly are -- talented and incredible human beings.