Has the Disability Rights Movement Stagnated?

03/18/2015 05:53 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2015
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Let's face it: Disability issues do not receive as much mainstream attention as other social justice issues. In their own ways, other social justice movements are "hot topics" in the news these days, although often controversially. Feminism receives significant positive attention when Emma Watson talks about the HeforShe Campaign, and negative attention when people dispute its relevance and accuracy in today's society. Newsworthy topics regarding rights for racial minorities stem from the immigration debate, to Ferguson, to a remembrance of the march in Selma that drew the participation of the president. LGBT rights continue to be covered as more and more states achieve marriage equality.

Social justice is never a competition, and each group has its own unique challenges that should receive attention, so the recognition that these movements receive is extremely justified. But why don't disability stories generate this kind of attention within mainstream society? The stories are there, ranging from heartwarming tales to major issues of discrimination and violence towards people with disabilities. PwDs are not significantly more privileged than any other minority. According to the World Health Organization, children with disabilities and adults with mental health conditions are four times more likely to be the victims of violence than their peers without disabilities. Forty percent of homeless persons in the United States have disabilities. A recent study in the UK found that 77 percent of recent graduates are afraid of disclosing a disability to their employer for fear of discrimination. Worldwide, barriers to inclusivity for people with disabilities continue to be significant. While various organizations work tirelessly to promote equal rights, disability rights just don't seem to be captivating the public in the same way. Even on The Huffington Post, while specific sections exist for Women's, LGBT, Latino and Black Voices, no dedicated news section exists for Disability Voices.

Why don't disability issues generate mainstream attention? There could be a number of factors that contribute to its lack of momentum. First, there may be a greater perception that people with disabilities are less productive and able members of the public than people without disabilities. The fear of discrimination that was mentioned in the UK study was generated by the fact that some employers believe employees with disabilities will not be able to keep up with their job duties. Many people, including those who are not blatantly biased against people with disabilities, may believe that people with disabilities are less capable of taking care of themselves and carrying out major responsibilities. Meanwhile, the perception that women, racial minorities, and LGBT individuals are less capable is more isolated to those who are solidly prejudiced against these groups, and the general population is more accepting of the idea that these groups are fully capable of living and working at a normal level of ability (still, microagressions and societal conditioning of prejudice against these groups exist and must be challenged).

Other issues that may affect the disability rights movement's momentum are barriers to accessibility and to participation. Because disability is a medical issue, many individuals with disabilities may not be able to fully participate because they are too busy overcoming their medical barriers to devote energy to disability rights. Many people with chronic conditions are familiar with "the spoon theory," which explains that individuals with chronic conditions have to make tradeoffs and negotiate where using their limited energy (represented in the story as spoons) is important. People who are currently going through difficult medical conditions, who may be facing complications or relapses, must devote their attention to their immediate needs, including work, family and their own medical needs, and may not be able to take up the responsibility of advocacy. It is also more difficult for people to congregate and advocate when they face barriers including accessibility needs even as simple as finding a wheelchair-accessible meeting place, or disseminating informational videos that include closed captioning.

Finally, fear of increased discrimination may be one of the most significant barriers to disability rights. Unlike gender and race, disability in many cases can still be hidden. A large number of PwDs cannot be visibly identified as having a disability. People with invisible disabilities are told to hide their disabilities and to avoid disclosing anything about their medical situation, as they have a better chance of being treated "normally" if they do not let on to their conditions. This incentivizes hiding disability status, and so many people are afraid of speaking up because they feel that they will fare better and experience less discrimination. This is a fruitless action, as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that the most frequent disability discrimination complaints actually came from people with invisible disabilities. Even people who are well-established in their careers do not talk about how their disability impacted their growth. There is a shocking shortage of mentors with disabilities in every field. Even those who have achieved greatly still seem to fear that they will be the subject of discrimination if they start to discuss their challenges.

Of course, not all PwDs have an invisible disability, and those who can be visibly identified are the subject of just as much or more discrimination than their invisibly disabled peers, especially early in the hiring process. The government places a special emphasis on hiring persons with "targeted disabilities," which generally tend to be more noticeable conditions including paralysis, blindness, deafness, and intellectual disabilities. Its reasoning behind this policy is that these individuals face the greatest discrimination in employment and have a harder time being placed in a job. However, even when disability is visible, many individuals are told to avoid discussing it for the purpose of minimizing its perceived impact on their lives.

The disability rights movement needs a jolt of energy. It deserves the recognition of the public. Significant barriers exist within and outside of the movement due to the stigma of disability, but people can overcome them by educating themselves and recognizing that this discrimination is pervasive in society. Most importantly, individuals without disabilities should remember that they could become part of this community at any time, and that generating discussion on disability topics could not only benefit the millions of people with disabilities, but themselves and their loved ones as well.