When Will Progress Be Enough?

When it comes to people with disabilities, there has been a lot of progress in this country over the past 100 years. For example, people with disabilities are no longer forced to be sterilized, doctors do not recommend that babies born with disabilities such as Down syndrome and cerebral palsy be institutionalized instead of raised at home with their families, employers cannot discriminate against hiring people with disabilities, schools are required to provide a free and appropriate education to all children, and there are many supports available to people with disabilities and their families. 

While this progress is great, it is not enough.

For the past 8 months, I have had the honor of participating in a program called Partners in Policymaking which is hosted by the Missouri Developmental Disabilities Council. Each month, I have participated in Zoom meetings listening to speakers and advocates from across the country share information and experiences about the issues that impact people with disabilities. 

Through this experience, I have learned that people with disabilities in our country still face many obstacles and discrimination and families are still having to navigate systems that are, in many ways, stacked against them.

I have learned that in education, special education has become a place instead of a service. In doing so, it has created segregation in schools that does a grave disservice to all students. Students with disabilities are taught to succeed in a segregated environment and are denied being a part of the “real world” the education system is supposed to be preparing them for. Students without disabilities are taught that students with disabilities are different and cannot do the same things they can and it’s really important to be nice to them. 

I have learned that sheltered workshops serve to keep people with disabilities segregated from the general public by giving them jobs that are carried out in isolation or with a group of people with disabilities(i.e. sheltered workshops). There are given “jobs” such as taking bolts off screws and then putting them on again. They are paid subminimum wages to “protect” their ability to qualify for Social Security and Medicaid benefits instead of paying them a fair, living wage that would allow them to pay for the things they need to live a healthy, successful life. 

I have learned that people with disabilities are stripped of their rights when they turn 18 and are put under guardianship of an adult. The guardianship that is designed to “protect” them strips them of making decisions about where they live, what they can spend their money on, who they can spend time with, if and where they can work, if they can have a romantic relationship, etc. etc. As one speaker told us, prisoners on death row have more rights than a person with a disability under a guardianship. 

I have learned that there are people in leadership positions (i.e. government, healthcare, education, etc.) making decisions that directly impact the lives of people with disabilities who have little or no personal knowledge or experience of living with a disability. Many times the decisions that are made may sound good in theory but ultimately are not in the best interest of people with disabilities.

I have learned that it’s really not that difficult to have a child with a disability. It’s very easy to love him and meet his needs because he is my son and that’s what a parent does. 

I have learned that it is not up to anyone other than the person with a disability himself to decide what he can or cannot do; can or cannot learn; can or cannot achieve. It is up to the people in their lives to ensure that they are able to live the life they want.  

I have learned it is the policies and practices in place that make it difficult to have a child with a disability. 

I have also learned that there are solutions to all of the issues and challenges people with disabilities and their families face. 

In the area of education, there are multiple studies that highlight the benefits of fully inclusive classrooms, one of which is higher academic scores for ALL students – both those with and without disabilities. (Interestingly enough, there are no studies that say otherwise.) An inclusive classroom is one in which all students feel a sense of belonging and purpose; all students are integral in building the community in the classroom; no one is expected to change in order to belong. The community is built around the idea of finding commonalities so that everyone can learn from each other. As far as academic content, it is taught with modifications and accommodations in place to support the success of all students, such as having a co-taught class with a general education and special education teacher. Another benefit of inclusive educational settings is that all students are also being prepared to be successful in the real world. 

I have learned that when people with disabilities are taught and given the appropriate supports, they can be successfully employed and earn a living for themselves. There are services such as  vocational rehabilitation that will work with a person with a disability to help him identify the job he wants and then ensure that he has access to the things he needs to be successful in that job. For some people that might be that they are taught certain skills they will need on the job. For others it is helping to fund the education needed to be able to obtain the job they want. They will work with employers to determine how to best help the person with a disability to be successful. People with disabilities deserve to have real jobs, make real wages, and work within real businesses. 

I have learned that supported decision-making is a much more appropriate approach to supporting individuals with disabilities as they enter into adulthood. Instead of placing them under a guardianship, which removes some if not all of their personal rights, developing a supported decision-making team and plan ensures the person with a disability has as much autonomy as possible over her life. Supported decision-making involves the person with a disability at the center, asking her questions such as: What are your goals? What do you need in order to reach those goals? Who can help you if you need it?  Decisions about the person with a disability are made with her instead of simply for her. 

I have learned that people in leadership positions do not necessarily intentionally make decisions that adversely impact people with disabilities. Many times it is simply because they have no personal experience with disabilities and don’t have the information needed to make more informed decisions. Ideally, they would be actively seeking out that information themselves. However, in reality, I have learned that it is usually up to advocates – individuals with disabilities, parents or family members of people with disabilities, people who have personal and/or factual knowledge what it is like to have a disability – to speak up. To request meetings. To present data. To bring the information necessary to those making decisions so that decisions and policies can be made that are truly in the best interest of ALL people.

I learned these things from specialists in these different fields – parents, teachers, government officials, policy makers, and most importantly, self-advocates. One of the most impactful speakers I had the honor of learning from during this course was a self-advocate named Ken Capone who was born with cerebral palsy. His parents were recommended by his doctor to put him in an institution because of his disability. Thankfully, they did not listen to him and raised their son with the rest of their children. They advocated for him to attend school in the general classroom and he graduated from high school with the rest of his class. He now lives independently and has a full-time job. He has a bill named after him, The Ken Capone Equal Employment Act, which makes it illegal in the state of Maryland to pay people with disabilities sub-minimum wage. I learned all of this by listening to him as he used a head stick to type on an iPad and then had it speak his words aloud. And he was able to do that because his parents focused on his abilities. Because he was fully included in the educational system. Because he was supported in finding a job he wanted and enjoyed. Because he had people in his life that advocated for him and supported him in his dreams and goals.

Again, a lot of progress has been made in the past century regarding people with disabilities in our country. I look forward to seeing more changes being made in education, employment, and other policies so that one day people with disabilities do have equal rights, opportunities, and access in our country. Only then will it be enough.

If you’re wondering what you can do to help ensure that the needed progress occurs, first of all, you have to believe that people with disabilities are valuable and deserve equal rights, opportunities, and access. Next, learn more. Ask questions and be open to answers that challenge your existing views and beliefs. Finally, be willing to speak up in support of people with disabilities.

I hope to see “enough” reached for my son and all those with disabilities sooner rather than later.

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