from The Worldview Literacy Book   copyright 2009            back to worldview theme #52


     For many purposes, disability can be defined as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity."  How such impairment is viewed or treated often depends on one's perspective.  Medical professionals see it as a defect that can be rectified through medical intervention. Rehabilitation professionals want to treat it through physical therapy.  Religious moralists might identify its cause with sin and its cure with prayer and seeking redemption.  Secular humanists concerned about human rights might point the finger at society, even to the extent of connecting the disability's origin with labeling practices and its cure with the need for a change in societal attitudes and the manmade environment. Throughout history, however, disabled people have faced one constant: "Whatever the social setting and whatever the disability, people with disabilities share a common experience of social oppression" as historian Paul Longmore puts it. 

     In the fall of 1962 two students won lawsuits, entered college, and became part of the history of human rights' struggles.  James Meredith became the first Afro-American to attend the University of Mississippi, and Ed Roberts, left paralyzed from the neck down by polio, was lifted out of his wheelchair and carried up some steps to class at University of California at Berkeley.  While newspaper headlines proclaimed things like "Helpless Cripple Attends UC Classes," Roberts watched blacks and women challenge the similar assumptions of inferiority by those who would deny their civil rights.  Besides obvious signs of prejudice, he saw subtle ones as well. "[I got] more and more angry at the way people perceived me as a vegetable with no future," he recalled.  It wasn't long before Roberts, and a handful of other wheelchair bound students, realized that not only did peoples' attitudes toward them get in their way, so did physical barriers all over the campus.  They decided to do something about itthe rest is history!

     Some feel the American disability rights movement, which seeks to improve the quality of life for disabled people by working to insure that they have the same access to participating in society that other people have, began that fall at UC Berkeley.  Others, pointing to Helen Keller (1880-1968), claim that its history is much older. Whatever its origins, one of this movement's first big issues was accessibility.  Those in wheel-chairs need ramps to enter buildings; blind people need books in Braille or talking books; the hearing impaired need sign language interpreters of oral presentations; etc.  The movement was bolstered by the formation of The National Council on Disability (NCD) in 1973 (Figure #52b).  After decades of hard work by many groups, and with NCD help, in 1990 the movement celebrated passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act (Figure #52a).  It now protects an estimated forty to fifty-five million disabled Americans from discrimination (of an estimated 650 million disabled people worldwide).



     Recent decades have seen the growth of another related movement: the independent living movement.  It is based on  beliefs that 1) even the most severely disabled people should be able to live in the community, rather than an institution, if they so choose, and 2) sick, elderly or disabled people should a) have the opportunity and responsibility to make decisions, and b) exercise the right to control their own lives.

     This movement has promoted, among other things, adaptive technology and assisted living.  The former refers to technology which allows disabled people to perform tasks that otherwise would be impossible and/or function more effectively.  The latter often takes the form of supportive housing with services. It represents a middle ground between long term care in one’s home and institutionalized care.  Ideally those opting for this would     1) receive care and supervision in a "home like setting," and        2) have some degree of control over their environment and direction of services—which typically are designed to provide flexibility.  

     As the percentage of the population classed as elderly steadily grows in many Western countries, geriatrics, elderly care, and hospice care have become increasingly important.  Likewise, the Independent Living Movement becomes increasingly relevant (Figure #52c).  As people age, mobility naturally decreases and aches & pains multiply.  Disease adds to their physical pain—all of which can lead to a decreased quality of life and more suffering.  Physical therapy and palliative care can combat this.  The former employs exercises and techniques to reduce pain, inflammation, and help people move better; the latter treats disease symptoms to reduce suffering.    


Figure #52a 

The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990

codified in the United States Legal Code



It is the purpose of this chapter

1) to provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities;

(2) to provide clear, strong, consistent, enforceable standards addressing discrimination against individuals with disabilities;


(3) to ensure that the Federal Government plays a central role in enforcing the standards established in this chapter on behalf of individuals with disabilities; and

(4) to invoke the sweep of congressional authority, including the power to enforce the fourteenth amendment and to regulate commerce, in order to address the major areas of discrimination faced day-to-day by people with disabilities.


Figure #52b

The National Council on Disability

The National Council on Disability (NCD) is an independent federal agency making recommendations to the President and Congress to enhance the quality of life for all Americans with disabilities and their families.  NCD is composed of 15 members appointed by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.  In its 1986 report Toward Independence, NCD first proposed that Congress should enact a civil rights law for people with disabilities.  In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law.  NCD's overall purpose is to promote policies, programs, practices, and procedures that guarantee equal opportunity for all individuals with disabilities, regardless of the nature or severity of the disability; and to empower individuals with disabilities to achieve economic self-sufficiency, independent living, and inclusion and integration into all aspects of society.


Figure #52c

As many of us who have been disabled for many years begin to acknowledge that we too will become old, we have started to look at the elders in our communities.  We have begun to join such groups as the Grey Panthers and have sought to actively participate in the discussions concerning long term planning.  We see that the prejudicial attitudes that non-disabled people have historically held towards disabled people take a large toll on older people as they acquire disabilities and lose some functional capabilities.  As the younger, non-disabled become the older disabled, they become increasingly isolated from friends because of transportation problems, architectural barriers and prejudice.  We see they are plagued by an attitude which has taught them to think that to be disabled is a tragedy. Younger people fail to recognize that the likelihood of their becoming disabled is significant and that they must be adequately prepared.  

excerpted from essay on disability and aging by Judith E. Heumann

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