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Separate is Not Equal – Towards Disability Rights 2.0

30 years ago, disability rights advocates crawled up the steps of the US Capitol to demonstrate to everyone how inaccessible the US is. Their fight was to get the Americans with Disabilities Act passed, and they succeeded. The ADA turned 30 last week.

But, today, those steps are no more accessible than they were.

All around America, there are separate “Handicapped Entrances”. Ramps in the back or off to the side. Most entrances to public buildings are not accessible…. You can get in if you are disabled… around back.

See Show Notes.

There are a couple of “Handicapped Parking spots” making it clear that not all parking spaces are accessible.

For decades, African Americans fought to end the era of “Jim Crow”. Voter suppression. Separate schools.

White entrances and drinking fountains vs. Colored entrances and drinking fountains. White seats in restaurants vs. Colored seats in restaurants.

The turning point came with the Supreme Court decision “Brown vs. the Board of Education” in 1954. This ended the 60 years of state sanctioned discrimination of “Plessey vs. Fergeson”.

“Separate was finally recognized to be not Equal”

In some sense, the major successes of the disability rights movement in the 1970s starting with the inclusion of Section 504 in the Rehabilitation Act to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act 30 years ago were to bring the disability community up from having basically no rights at all, in many cases, no real recognition of their humanity, UP to the level of Jim Crow – It may not be Equal, but at least there was SOMETHING there, even if it is “Separate”… Disability Rights 1.0.

I think, it is time to start working on Disability Rights 2.0

I’m your host, Steven Davis and welcome to the fifth episode of Disability Democracy Radio. Episode 5 is the first of a series of episodes on “Separate is not Equal”. Disability Democracy Radio is a weekly podcast is about practical actions we can take – that YOU can take – to make a difference in your community. The goal of Disability Democracy Radio is to accelerate the disability community revolution. Find out more at disabilitydemocracy.org.

You can’t un-see it. Once you start looking, our world of “disability protection” is basically built on “Separate but Equal”… but there is a lot of “Separate” and very little “Equal”.

Our disability protection laws have EVEN been used as a weapon against us and our fellow Americans. In 2018 in Georgia, one of the many ways Secretary of State Brian Kemp worked to suppress the vote was to close polling places for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. Instead of making the polling places accessible, he shut them down (at least in the poor communities and those mostly populated by “people of color”).

Discrimination is hard-wired into everything we have today for “disability rights”.

Yes, there are “Handicapped Entrances”… but, why are they separate?

While many buildings are older, in the 30 years since the ADA passed, there have been many, many brand new public buildings… and the entrances for disabled people are still off to the side or around back.

This is a statement about status and power.

Just as it was under Jim Crow, it is the same today.

The message is clear.

You are an afterthought.

We “tolerate” you.

… We enter in front. With power and dignity. For you, go around back.

For older buildings, how many actually ARE accessible? How many times does a ramp need to be retro-fitted when “whoops, we hadn’t gotten around to that”?

Building codes don’t even require new houses to be “accessible-ible” – easily transformed into homes that will be welcoming for disabled people.

Who gets to pay to upgrade a house?

The disabled person.

Out of pocket.

We’ve all heard stories about the “Handicapped Parking Police” – people who harass those using handicapped parking spots who don’t “look” handicapped enough.

Why are only a couple of parking places accessible for people with disabilities?

Why not them all?

Public spaces are supposed to be available to everyone, there is no “quota system”… except for people with disabilities.

Same with seating in theaters and restaurants.

Why not make all seating accessible?

It is hard to un-see.

Why aren’t all new houses built to be accessible?

What is our timeline to retrofit and upgrade older buildings to make them not just “separately accessible” but “equally welcoming” to all people?

How come if we’ve found that ramps are helpful for everyone, that we haven’t considered broader accessibility a potential boon for all?

It is hard not to start asking awkward questions.

And physical spaces are just the beginning.

Just a reminder that full episode transcripts and additional resources are available at disabilitydemocracy.org. We welcome your comments, feedback, and suggestions. Let us know how we can make Disability Democracy Radio more accessible and actionable for you.

Disability Rights scholars and activists sometimes talk about the “medical model” of disability and the “social model” of disability.

In short, the “medical model” has dominated how disability was and is perceived – as something to be cured first, than cared for second, and, not always last, contained in a hospital, an institution, or in isolation and stigma.

The “social model” of disability sees the idea of disability itself as a social construct. Something we’ve created as a society either intentionally or accidentally. In a world without reading or cars that go at 60 miles an hour, poor vision like I have is an inconvenience. If glasses didn’t exist, I would be substantially disabled. In fact, it is a social construct that my poor vision isn’t really considered a disability at all as it is quite routine and can be “supported” by glasses. Learning disabilities matter a lot when you have mandatory public schooling with a curriculum structured like ours. Perhaps, when we look at special education, we might start really thinking about what we are doing in education as a whole.

And this is where we need to start looking with Disability Rights 2.0.

Cost is blamed for the delays and failures to fund supports, accommodations, and modifications for people with disabilities.

But those costs are high because the buildings, bureaucracies, systems, and very society that we live in are deeply discriminatory based on ability.

It is everywhere. We are swimming in it and don’t even see it.

Stepping back from traditional disability, look at the lines at restrooms at large public spaces and events…you’ve been there. Guys fly in and fly out. But for women, there is (almost) always a much longer line their restrooms.

Why is that acceptable?

It would seem to be a straightforward engineering problem to accommodate the different needs of men and women to ensure that the “mean time – Line to Flush” would be the same for both restrooms.

This could (and should) be part of our building codes.

And, if one-in-five people live with disability, how come there is almost always only one accessible stall in a restroom… and it is also often used as the changing room for diapers?

Why aren’t all restroom stalls accessible for everyone?

Disability rights and inclusion and the battle against “Separation” runs into one of the hard topics within disability. A topic that I am only going to introduce here because it is actually hard and may be at the crux of Disability Rights 2.0.

That topic is:


This is a hard. How and when do we separate people from other people? When do we take away some of their rights?

Separate is not equal, but it is sometimes the best that we can do.

We need to start with recognizing that this is our failure as a society, not theirs as an individual.

Even if we abolish many of the ways disabled people are separated, there are still cases where they are, and likely always will, be excluded.

In the same Fall of 2016 that my son was diagnosed with autism, a good friend of my daughter, then 6, was diagnosed with cancer. She has recovered, but, for at least a year, she couldn’t go to school. Her immune system was severely compromised by the chemotherapy that she needed to fight the cancer.

She became part of special education. All of her schoolwork came home. She was literally segregated from her fellow students because we currently know of no way to really include her while treating her.

That wound up as a good story with a happy ending (though we probably should talk about chemo brain sometime), but there are others that are more challenging with no good ending.

Kids and adults with some forms of emotional disturbance or mental health issues. Severe autism. Schizophrenia. Others.

There are truly hard cases out there. We cannot and should not look away.

As the disability community, if we seek to defend and define disability rights, we must truly embrace all disabilities. It was, and is, one of the struggles we face within the disability community today. Our own Stigma. Our own hierarchy of disabilities.

Helen Keller spoke out in favor of eugenics (as did many people).

Some organizations of people with physical disabilities during the Disability Rights battles in the 1970s did not want to include those with cognitive disabilities.

Once we start separating out “some disabilities”, we are as guilty of Ableism and our own “social model of disability” as those we otherwise complain about.

And this is where it will always be hard.

My hope is that by looking more closely at our “hard questions”, we will achieve two things.

First, we will lay bare some of the prejudices in our systems and reduce lazy, cheap, or able-ist exclusion and

Second, find a way to honor the human rights of those whose disabilities we are not yet able to fully support or accommodate.

This episode of Disability Democracy Radio was sponsored by Not Without Us. Not Without Us is a 501c4 mutual benefit corporation. Our goal is equality for all disabled adults and kids with disabilities. You can learn more about our work at notwithoutus.org. Our strategy is built on democratic action – whether it is providing support for disability organizations and allies through our directory at disabilitydemocracy.org, training aspiring local candidates for office, endorsing candidates, or directly working on issues.

We’d like to thank Carrie Du Bois and Lisa Azar for their contributions to Not Without Us. You can support Not Without Us with an annual, monthly or one-time donation at notwithoutus.org/join. If you have any questions or comments on this episode, visit disabilitydeomcracy.org – you can email us, leave a comment, or even a voice message. I’m Steven Davis and on behalf of Not Without Us, we think that democracy comes not from a vote every two years, but from the actions we can take every day.

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