Is Disability Finally Having its Moment?

The pulse and pace of disability is being featured more prominently in the public discourse, and more than ever before. Could this be the moment people in the disability community have fought for?
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The pulse and pace of disability is being featured more prominently in the public discourse, and more than ever before. Could this be the moment people in the disability community have fought for?

Last year, you'd be pressed to find an accurate portrayal of children and adults with a disability in scripted television. Today, the sitcom Speechless, about a "new" kind of family and starring an actor who really has a disability, is one of the most promising shows in the Fall TV lineup. And A&E's Born This Way, that chronicle's the lives of young adults with Down syndrome, received the Emmy for best unscripted reality television series.

During the 2012 election cycle, disability was largely absent from the political dialogue. This year, Anastasia Somoza, a woman living with a disability, headlined the Democratic convention.

Traditional media has also taken note, with The New York Times opening a weekly series and Parents Magazine dedicating its October issue to showcasing helpful lessons that parents of kids with special needs can teach all parents about raising great kids.

Corporate sponsors for the Rio Olympics included people with disabilities in their range of marketing, separate from the Paralympics and inclusive of the overall games - from BMW and Nike, to Subway and Citi. Other companies like Comcast/NBC Universal, Microsoft, and Tommy Hilfiger are proactively designing their products specifically for people with disabilities, but know that because their offerings are truly accessible we all benefit from a better product and experience.

How can we ensure this moment in the limelight is more than just a blip in the news cycle--and becomes the societal norm?

We value a diverse society--in our communities, workplaces and among our friends. We support brands that promote diversity. But all too often our definitions of diversity overlook people with disabilities--a diverse group in itself that makes up 57 million Americans (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010).

Ford Foundation President Darren Walker used his annual letter to address the neglect of people with disabilities in a recent initiative to "disrupt inequality."

Of course, excluding people with disabilities was far from Walker's intent. In Walker's words, "I am a black, gay man, so some might assume that I'm especially sensitive to these issues and dynamics. But during the past year I have had to confront my own ignorance and power, and come to terms with the ways I was inadvertently fueling injustice."

Better yet, rather than take defense, Walker opened a dialogue and listened to the advocates of the community. As a result, Ford is taking immediate action across its entire network: renovating their headquarters to meet the spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act, addressing hiring practices and asking potential vendors and grantees to disclose their commitments to people with disabilities in the context of their efforts on diversity and inclusion.

Ford, one of the nation's most groundbreaking and influential brands, put a crucial stake in the ground to make the disability moment more than just a moment. The impact of this move will have lasting effects on the disability community and diversity as a whole.

As one of my peer organization leaders, Carol Glazer noted, "In a country where most foundations don't consider disability among their focus areas, for the leader of the nation's second-largest philanthropy to acknowledge this gross oversight and to appreciate the need to be inclusive of people with disabilities, is a game-changing move."

The truth is, embracing people with disabilities--as employees, consumers, and through philanthropic efforts--is not only the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do. People with disabilities are a remarkable resource and talent pool for companies, make up 20 percent of the marketplace, and account for more than $200 billion in discretionary spending (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010).

At Easterseals, we pride ourselves on being the indispensable resource for people facing today's disabilities, the visible and invisible. We want to change the way the world defines and views disabilities so that every person with a disability can lead the life of his or her choosing. I'm hopeful that tipping point is upon us, that real change is finally happening. Our role is to ensure this heightened level of attention and awareness lasts, is amplified, and results in greater access to services, opportunity, and independence for all people living with disabilities.

But we can't do it alone. Join us as we take on the stigma. Take on the inequality. Take on the challenges that the community faces across myriad issues - from early intervention to accessibility. Join us as we take on disability together.

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