Many groups of people have had to overcome oppression in this century. Most people think of the oppression that African Americans suffered during the Jim Crow era when the subject comes up. Society has come a long way over time and those groups have seen the light. It is now seen as unacceptable in society to oppress someone based on his/her race or religion. Society has made great strides towards acceptance and equality, but one group of people, the largest minority of all, has suffered oppression for centuries and is still struggling to overcome it. People with disabilities are very prevalent in society today thanks to the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) and other victories of the Disability Rights Movement, but that wasn’t always the case. For centuries, people with disabilities seemed non-existent, not because we were, but because we were hidden from society most of the time. The rare times that we were in society we were treated as inferior and subjected to acts of cruelty. Much of the oppression that people with disabilities have suffered is not discussed today because people are ashamed and embarrassed of past history, but that doesn’t change the fact that it happened.
Disability Rights advocate and historian Paul Longmore wrote a number of books and essays on the history of people with disabilities. In one essay called “The Bargain,” he talks about how from the late 1860s until the 1970s, several American cities had ugly laws making it illegal for persons with “unsightly or disgusting” disabilities to appear in public. Some of these laws were called Unsightly Beggar Ordinances. The goal of these laws was seemingly to preserve the quality of life for the community. People found in violation of these laws were arrested and forced to pay a fine ranging from $1-$50. To keep the “unsightly” disabilities from spreading, over half of the U.S. had adopted sterilization laws and sterilized many people with disabilities by the 1930’s because it was believed that they would breed more people like themselves. This is also cited as the reason that many people with disabilities were institutionalized and isolated from each other and people without disabilities at that time. Treating people with disabilities as though they were not human was not confined to the U.S. in the past. Paul also described in his essay how in Germany throughout the 1930’s tens of thousands of people with disabilities were put to death in hospitals by those who became the Nazi doctors, perfecting through these killings the techniques that would be later used in concentration camps. Most people think of the Holocaust as a tragedy rather than oppression. While it was a great tragedy, it is an also example of what oppression, in its most severe form, can lead to. As a person with a disability, it both saddens and sickens me to know I live in a world where my ancestors were subjected to torture for simply being themselves. Some of you who are reading this probably feel the same way and some of you probably feel that those things happened a very long time ago and people with disabilities should get over it. Let me ask, how many years have to pass for something to have happened a long time ago? Eight years ago Justice Antonin Scalia said he saw no constitutional reason why state agencies cannot discriminate against people he referred to as ‘handicaps.’ At that time people wanted to sue some states for making it difficult for those with disabilities to vote. In response, Scalia said some states may not have made it easy for “handicaps” to vote, but that is not reason enough for Congress to subject states to lawsuits. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist agreed. In comparison to the 1860’s or even the 1930’s, 2004 wasn’t that long ago, was it? Many people feel that our current society is far too enlightened to allow such oppression to occur anymore, but the fact is oppression still exists today, it just isn’t as obvious as it once was.
Paul Longmore’s aforementioned essay is titled for his bargain theory which states that able-bodied people often unconsciously tell people with disabilities that they will tolerate us in society if we are continuously cheerful and strive to be normal. Able-bodied people may feel that this theory is farfetched, but the media is constantly sending that message to people with disabilities by continually making the few characters with disabilities that are depicted in the media have very Tiny Tim like personalities. Another argument can be made that the lack of people with disabilities featured in commercial advertising sends the message that we are unattractive and do not meet the standards for normal and/or beautiful in society today. Messages in the media have contributed to other types of oppression for people with disabilities as well. A few weeks ago, I explained to one of my neighbors that I am not around the apartment building I live in very much because I work during the day. She responded by asking if I work as a greeter at Wal-Mart. I was flabbergasted to say the least. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with having that type of job. I have relatives who have held such positions and enjoyed them very much. Nonetheless, I was very surprised and offended that someone would automatically assume that I work as a Wal-Mart greeter simply because I am in a wheelchair. It was not until I began doing research for the employment article that serves as the cover story for this newsletter that I realized how prevalent that employment stereotype is in regards to people with disabilities.
As a college graduate with a disability, I am frustrated that such a stereotype exists. Until I learned that as of 2011 just over 15% of people with disabilities in the U.S. were known to have earned a Bachelor’s Degree, I did not understand why it existed. Initially when I read that statistic and others about education and people with disabilities, I was frustrated and disappointed at the fact that the number of people with disabilities who pursue and complete higher education is so low. Judy Heumann and other disability advocates have fought long, hard battles for our right to get an education so I didn’t understand why more people with disabilities wouldn’t take advantage of that. When I began doing research for this article I realized it is because of oppression. Many people with disabilities in society have internalized the oppression we experience in society over time. Some have begun to believe that they shouldn’t pursue college or a job that requires more effort than that of a greeter at a retail establishment because they are not worth it. Some people with disabilities have begun to feel this way because instead of telling them otherwise, the media and other mass medians continue to convey messages that reinforce the above stereotype as well as others which add to the overall oppression in society. Above I mentioned how decades ago many people with disabilities were oppressed by being institutionalized and hidden from society. Many people do not realize that a number of people are still institutionalized to this day. According to www.ada.gov, in 1999 in a case known as Olmstead vs. L.C., the Supreme Court ruled that every state was required to eliminate unnecessary segregation of people with disabilities and to ensure that people with disabilities receive services in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs. Despite the fact that it has been 13 years since the Supreme Court made this decision, a number of people with disabilities are still in institutions because they do not know that programs like HOME Choice which provide them with the skills and resources needed to live on their own exist or they feel that even with the appropriate skills and resources they could not live on their own because life in an institution is all they know. Those people are being oppressed by the confining environment of institutions which will never allow them to reach their full potential.
A theme exists throughout this article. No matter what type of oppression was discussed, it involved people with disabilities being oppressed by society simply for being people with disabilities. As discussed in a couple of previous Examine This articles, people with disabilities cannot change the fact that they are people with disabilities. Many would choose not to change that fact if given the choice. Is it fair to oppress someone just for being who he/she is? People with disabilities cannot change the fact that they have disabilities any more than someone can change the color of his/her skin. It is now seen as unacceptable in society to oppress someone based on his/her race so why is it still acceptable to oppress people with disabilities?
Note: This article was originally published in the Fall 2012 edition of the Access Center for Independent Living newsletter, the Accessible Community Examiner, which I wrote for the two and half years I worked there. The Access Center for Independently is a non-profit in Dayton, Ohio that works to ensure that people with disabilities have full and complete access to the community in which they choose to live.