Where Do We Stand (As We Are Able)? Latinos and the ADA 25 Years Later

Born to a poor Mexican farmworker family in Southern California, Robert Dávila contracted spinal meningitis at age eight, which rendered him deaf. Medical studies indicate that young children with compromised immune systems and inadequate access to vaccination are particularly at risk. Given the risk factors, one wonders if Dr. Dávila's hearing impairment could have been prevented. Fortunately, his mother found a promising path for her son, enrolling him in the California School for the Deaf. Dávila later attended Gallaudet University, a distinguished university for the deaf and hearing impaired in Washington, D.C., where he later served as its ninth president.

In December 2014, we were fortunate to have Dr. Dávila participate in a program entitled, Sharing Stories: Deaf Latino Experiences, presented by the Smithsonian Latino Center and the National Portrait Gallery. Throughout my nearly seven years at the Latino Center, we have presented many public programs. None of them, however, moved me to the extent that the Deaf Latino Experiences program did that evening. Hearing these stories of struggle and achievement, many told with uncanny humor via the magical dexterity of American Sign Language, was a stirring and humbling experience. Dávila's story and those of the other panelists made me reflect on the Latino community and our relationship with and susceptibility to disabilities. Not to mention, the Smithsonian also commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) this past July, a program which the Latino Center also supported.

Statistics show that sixteen percent of Latinos in the United States have some kind of disability. As it stands, this figure nearly matches our percentage of the total U.S. population. My sense is that the actual number of Latinos living with a disability in this country is underrepresented. Given these figures, I am concerned that educational systems, employers, politicians and public health officials are not providing enough support to stem the tide of likely increasing incidences of disabilities among growing and diverse Latino communities.

Under the ADA, Type 2 Diabetes, a disease to which the Latino community is highly susceptible, is considered a disability. Medical research points to an unequivocal tie between obesity and diabetes. According to a study by Arizona State University, over 60 percent of Latinos are overweight or obese. Fifty-two percent of us who are overweight are, in fact, obese. The picture is especially troubling for children ages two to nineteen, where 39 percent of Latino children are obese or overweight, compared with 29 percent of white children. Also evident is the relationship between weight and stroke, the leading cause of disability in this country. Sadly, here again, Latinos over-index in occurrences of stroke. These statistics are not surprising when you consider that many Latinos have inadequate access to affordable healthy foods, are overexposed to marketing of less nutritional foods, live in poverty, have unequal access to affordable healthcare, and stress about uncertain immigration status.

As noted in a Wilson Center report, most of our country's farmworkers are Mexican or Mexican Americans. Farmworkers are more susceptible to chemical-related injuries or illness due largely to pesticide exposure, heat stress, injury (musculoskeletal and cardiovascular), and lack of requisite field sanitation. There is also a fear of employer retaliation if poor or dangerous working conditions are reported due to farmworkers' limited legal protections. Given their frequent migration in search for work, often inadequate training on the operation of dangerous equipment, and struggle with language barriers, there may be many cases of injury and disability left undocumented.

The Insurance Journal reports that Latino immigrants have filled nearly 40 percent of construction jobs in this country since 2003. Construction remains one of the most important employment sources for Latinos—immigrant and native born alike. Nonfatal injury and illness rates run at 64 per 100 full-time employees in construction, versus 48 per 100 in other private industries, and rates of fatalities and disabling injuries among Latino construction workers continue to rise.

Let us not forget Climate Change and the increasing disability-connected environmental health risks. Latinos are less likely to contribute to global warming, but are more likely to be impacted by environmental degradation and its associated disabilities. Clearly, more cause-and-effect research and reporting are needed in this arena.

While it is true that we have much to celebrate with the protections afforded by the ADA, the Latino community has a long way to go in securing equal safeguards. We need to ensure workplace safety, training, education, better paying jobs, access to health care, and immigration reform, among a number of other public policy areas. In the years to come, we would do well to further study Latinos and disabilities, taking affirmative actions to reduce our community's susceptibility to them.