Disability Discrimination: a Thing of the Past?

Is the social stigma which forced Roosevelt to hide his disability still among us after ninety years?

Hugh Gregory Gallagher, author of FDR’s Splendid Deception tells us that in 1921, Franklin Delano Roosevelt contracted polio at the age of 39. FDR spent much of the rest of his life trying to hide the damaging paralysis polio caused, especially during his terms as President of the United States. Among the pains he took to hide his disability were painting parts of his leg braces black to match his socks, so that they would be harder to see, and requiring the help of strong men to bear his weight as he “walked” with them in public.

His intent was to appear strong and confident, to be the leader who could pull America out of depression and lead her through a world war. The social stigma regarding people with disabilities was so great at that time that not even the leader of the free-world felt comfortable identifying as a person with a disability.

Indeed, at that period in American history, people with disabilities were kept either at home away from the general population, or at some form of hospital-type setting. People with disabilities were seen as unfortunates in need of care, if they were seen at all. Some municipalities such as Chicago, Illinois had ordinances on the books declaring it illegal for anyone “maimed or unsightly” to traverse the public streets.  If they should do so, they could expect a fine for each “offense.” That’s right folks, in some places it was against the law to be seen in public with a disability.

Much has changed since Roosevelt’s time.

Recent legislation was designed to allow people with disabilities more opportunities and be seen as part of their own communities, ones of which some able –bodied persons may take for granted. Some of those include vocational rehabilitation and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the modern incarnation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. IDEA maintains the goal of a “free and appropriate” public education for all children with disabilities in America. The Air Carrier Access Act affirms the right of persons with disabilities to travel by plane. The Americans with Disabilities Act and its sister legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Amendment Act, has endeavored to ensure “access” for people with disabilities in public spaces, transport , facilities and employment.

In practice, I find stigma against people with disabilities to be alive and well. In theory, these legislation should mean that stigma faced by people with disabilities in America is dead. Has the legislation worked as it was intended? Sadly, I think not. How “appropriate” is the public education of a student with disabilities that are physically restrained at school? In the article, Feds: Students with Disabilities Most Often Restrained, Michelle Diament for Disability Scoop (March 7, 2012), tells us the following:

“The new statistics come from a survey of 72,000 schools, representing 85% of the nation’s students, that was conducted by the U.S. Department of Education.

In all, 38,792 of the students represented in the survey were physically restrained by an adult at school during the 2009-2010 academic year. The vast majority of those restrained — 69% — had disabilities, even though students with special needs made up just 12% of the survey sample.”

How is my right to enter a public building upheld at my local library for instance, where yes, they do have blue accessibility signage and a ramp, but the door at the end of that ramp is just as heavy and unwieldy as the other doors where a ramp is not present. And there is no automatic button attached which would swing the door open for me. When I inquired about the inaccessible door at the “accessible” entrance, the librarians were aware that something needed to be done.  I was offered the option of getting on a list for the library program which would bring the librarian to my house with boxes of books once a month. This negates two of the major reasons I even go to the library: not just for the books, but for the joy of being around others bibliophiles in my community.

There are those who might argue that since I was offered the home visits, the library is accessible to me, thereby fulfilling the letter of the law. That may be true on its face, but I submit that my county is spending much in resources in terms of use of a separate van, of a librarian’s time, energy, effort, not to mention county gas money to avoid having to replace a door that doesn’t work with one that does. Would it not cost them less in the long run to replace the door with an accessible one? I am certain it would be used by others besides me. What about the small children in my county who attend story hour, and the mothers with strollers for whom a more accessible door would be a godsend?

And what about public transportation? I can tell you that there is public transportation in my county, that anyone can ride, and there are accessible vans. Transportation services are offered weekdays until 5 PM. Out of county, transport is offered certain days each week. Many jobs in my area require weekend hours and hours after 6 PM. So, you can see how it might be difficult to regularly access the van for work purposes. Even having access to the van is unhelpful as many of the jobs listed in our local classifieds list as a requirement “must have own transportation.”

It is not only the area where I live that could use an accessible transportation overhaul. William Peace, posted his experiences with accessible transportation during a recent conference he attended in Washington, D.C. in the blog,Bad Cripple.

Yes, despite all of the laws on the books, I believe social stigma regarding people with disabilities is still alive and well.

The question is: what can we do to strengthen the civil rights laws currently on the books so that we all can get in the door, get on the bus, attain and maintain employment and all the other things that many feel are part of a well–rounded, meaningful life?



8 thoughts on “Disability Discrimination: a Thing of the Past?”

  1. you can write your governor and tell him or herhow you feel about being disabled, and you can join a local support group that focuses on the disabled.

  2. My approach is to do as Tamika suggested, also to be constantly out in public & making our plight constantly “in people’s faces,” creating awareness of how much able-bodied folks take for granted. Doing this without getting angry or disagreeable shows our integrity & fortitude. We can attract more good with sugar …

  3. Well written, and sad but true. Those offering library and transportation services seem to think of people with disabilities only as students. My case is this. I’m a grad student and I asked for transportation service to go off campus. However, the service is available only from Monday to Friday. What about weekends?
    From this, I conclude that stigma still exists, though in subtler ways.

  4. I would also like to add that I’ve seen a wonderful documentary about Roosevelt and how things were difficult for him because he was born in the nineteen twenties. Laws changed slowly for the disabled from 1960’s – 1970’s.

  5. Late for a comment but no it is not dead it is a never ending issue, keep reminding our elected officials, never fear speaking out to groups or individuals.
    Equality SHOULD Be for all :O)

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