WV Annual Disability History Essay Contest
The Disability History Contest Committee is proud to announce the 2017 Disability History Essay Contest in West Virginia! This contest is designed to provide you with an opportunity to showcase your writing skills, share what you have learned about the Disability Rights Movement, use your ability to form and express opinions, and perhaps to earn some money to help you into your future! All high school seniors are invited to submit an entry. Contest rules are located on the bottom of the entry form.
All entries must include the completed entry form and must comply with all contest rules. While federal law prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities we still face barriers every day. Check your community - search, watch, listen - for barriers such as: physical barriers (no ramps, no curb cuts), communication barriers (no Braille signage, no sign language interpreter), and attitudinal barriers (avoiding, not looking in the eyes of, or not talking directly to people with disabilities). Interview people with disabilities (including hidden disabilities like learning disabilities, depression, anxiety, epilepsy, diabetes, etc.) about the improvements made and the barriers that still exist. The essay topic this year is:
"How technology has removed barriers and improved the lives of people with disabilities."
The top award will be presented to the state winner, and awards may be presented to first-place and second-place entries from six Districts of our state. The awards are as follows:
Number of Available Prizes
One Grand Prize
All entries must be postmarked, faxed, or emailed by October 31, 2017 and be submitted to:
WV Statewide Independent Living Council
PO Box 625
Institute, WV 25112-0625
ATTN: Essay Contest
Download the Essay Contest Flyer, Transmittal Letter and Entry form below:
2017 Disability Essay Contest Flyer
2017 Disability Essay Contest Transmittal Letter
2017 Disability Essay Contest Entry Form
Each Fall since 2012, the Statewide Independent Living Council and the State Rehabilitation Council has held the Disability History Essay Contest to celebrate Disability History Week in West Virginia. This contest gives WV High School Seniors an opportunity to showcase their writing skills, share their knowledge of the Disability Rights Movement and perhaps earn some money to help advance their future!
The contest is supported by a generous grant from the WV Division of Rehabilitation Services which allows us to award cash prizes to the winners. The winning essays and their authors are recognized and presented with a check each year at the Senior Awards Ceremony at their respective high schools.
This contest is a collaborative effort of the West Virginia Division of Rehabilitation Services, the Statewide Independent Living Council and the State Rehabilitation Council, with cooperation from the West Virginia Department of Education and the West Virginia Department of Education and the Arts.
The winners and their essays are published each year in our Special Edition Newsletter.
2016 Disability Essay Contest
2015 Disability Essay Contest
2014 Disability Essay Contest
2013 Disability Essay Contest
2012 Disability Essay Contest
2016 Disability Essay Contest
The 2016 State Winner of $3000 is Lindsey Grace Beane, a graduate of Hurricane High School, is active in her school and community through many clubs, organizations, pageantry and dance. She is an active participant of the National Honor Society, DECA club, Key club and founding member of the Students Against Destructive Decision Club (SADD). When not studying, she enjoys spending her time promoting her platform; Defy Disability: Put People First, which has been a passion of hers. She has provided education both in state and out of state through pageantry through the years. She is the current reigning America’s National Teenager which has allowed her to travel across the nation to spread awareness about. She will be attending West Virginia University pursuing a degree in nursing.
Lindsey's essay is below. You can read the other winning essays in our 2017 Special Edition Newsletter.
"The barriers for people with disabilities in my community and how I can make a difference."
Have you ever stopped and thought about what it would be like to not be able to walk? What would it be like to struggle to speak to others in everyday life or perform simple tasks? How would you feel if your family member struggled with a disability and your only wish was for other people to see them as you do - a happy, loving soul who is just like you and me?
I have a close friend named Anthony. As we spent time together, I would see others treat him differently. From subtle stares to blatant ridicule, I could see they saw him for his disability. They judged from a place of unknowing and fear, as their words and behavior revealed their hurtful thoughts. I wanted people to see Anthony like I see Anthony. He is my friend who still loves to watch Sponge Bob with me, because you are never really too old for Sponge Bob. Anthony always keeps a smile on your face with his humor and wit. You never know what he is going to say next, but Anthony always knows what to say. I saw the effect it had on him when people would stare because his walk is different or would make fun of him because he sometimes likes to rock back and forth. As much as it upset me to watch that happen to my friend, I know it hurt him more. I wanted to do something that would make a difference, not only for Anthony, but others in my community who have a disability. Anthony and my other friends who have been diagnosed with a physical or mental disability do not deserve to hear the words "crazy" and "psycho" in the hallways of my school. How could I make a difference in my community? I started my research around disability rights issues and found my passion. I could advocate for Anthony and others by encouraging my peers to treat everyone with respect.
Words are powerful; they can hurt and they often do. The language a society uses shapes their ideas and beliefs, so I learned the concept of "People First Language." People First Language is a method of communication that shows we see the person before their disability. For example, you would never use hurtful words such as "sped" or "crippled" and you would not say things like "that autistic boy." Instead you call the person by their name. You do not use the disability to describe the person. People First Language is the first step toward eliminating hurtful stereotypes and the devaluing of a person with a disability. Robert M. Hensel, disability advocate and Guinness World Record holder for the longest wheelchair wheelie, said, "There is no greater disability in society than the inability to see a person as more." This is why I believe the best way for me to knock down the barriers in my community is to fight the stigma of disability and to make sure we value everyone as individuals with gifts unique to each of us.
People with disabilities face stereotypes, prejudices, and injustices each and every day. For the past two years, I participated in Disability Awareness Day at the West Virginia State Legislature with a focus on promoting the use of People First Language. I was overjoyed when the West Virginia Legislature passed House Bill 2797 one of the items I advocated for on Disability Awareness Day. This bill changed all West Virginia law by removing the term "retarded" from state code. When the bill was signed into law on March 25, 2015, I knew I had made at least a small difference by educating my fellow West Virginians and spreading the importance of People First Language. When I returned as a student advocate for the 2016 Disability Awareness Day, I set my table up just outside the Senate chambers to access as many lawmakers as possible. I focused on advocating for adding a requirement to state code that People First Language be taught in West Virginia schools as a part of Disability Awareness Week. I was able to provide lawmakers and everyone I spoke to with an awareness wristband that promotes People First Language with the slogan, "Defy Disability: Put People First."
I believe it is crucially important to educate both my peers and elementary age children about the importance of People First Language. The greatest strides for change often occur when children learn belief systems that respect and include everyone. I have had the opportunity to go into elementary and middle school classrooms to teach students about People First Language and the importance of putting the person before the disability. I was fortunate to request and receive interactive brochures from the Developmental Disabilities Council that promote the use of People First Language to hand out in my community. When those were depleted, I developed my own interactive presentation about the use of People First Language that definitely kept the interest of the classroom. As I left, I always gave every student one of the, "Defy Disability: Put People First," awareness wristbands. I have discovered that these wristbands are very effective in not only promoting people first language, but also provide the opportunity for continued education about People First Language. I have distributed over 1000 wristbands while promoting the use of People First Language and know that they have led to conversations with those who see them.
My wish is for our culture to progress with the understanding that people have exceptionalities, not disabilities. As I go to college next year, I want to continue learning about the struggles that people living with disabilities face so that I can continue to advocate for kids like Anthony. Everyone has gifts to offer, and we have to look past the labels set by society and promote everyone's abilities, putting people first.
2015 Disability Essay Contest
The 2015 State Winner of $3000 is Blake Huffman, a senior at Winfield High School where he currently has a 3.9 GPA. During his high school years, he has been involved with the General Admission Show Choir, the Marching Generals, the Boys Soccer team, Fuel Bible Club, FCA, National Honor Society, Link Crew, and the Spanish Honorary Society. He is an active member of youth group at Teays Valley Baptist Church and works with the Highways & Hedges Bus Ministry and sings in both the adult and youth choirs. Blake is also an Eagle Scout and was selected as a delegate for Mountaineer Boys State. Blake has logged over 300 community service hours since beginning high school. Blake was diagnosed with Dyslexia his junior year and has worked with the Teays Valley office of WV Division of Rehabilitation. He is extremely excited to be chosen as the 2015 Disability History Essay Contest winner and is very thankful for the opportunity to apply and the funds made available for college.
Blake's essay is below. You can read the other winning essays in our 2016 Special Edition Newsletter.
"How Have the First 25 Years of the Americans with Disabilities Act Changed America?"
Imagine standing atop the stairs and overlooking the grounds of the US Capitol Building on a cool March day. The year is 1990, and 1,000 protestors have made their way to Washington to demand that the House of Representative pass the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Imagine watching as more than 60 activists laid down their wheelchairs, walkers, and crutches and began the ascent to the top of the 83 marble steps. The passing of this legislation would require equal rights for the disabled. The Capitol Crawl, as it is now known, is now seen as one of the most important events leading up to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act passed into law on July 26, 1990. Now imagine walking down the streets of small town America earlier that same year. How different things would things have looked then as compared to the world today. Let's look at the changes in the world today due to The Americans with Disabilities Act. The Act was broken into 5 different titles with each title having a unique effect on the lives of the disabled. Let's look into each of those titles separately.
Title I - Employment
Prior to the ADA many employers would find ways to discriminate against those with disabilities. Accommodations in the workplace were not commonplace. This section of the law brought above positive changes.. Special equipment, scheduling alternatives, and a change in work assignments helped allow those with disabilities to enter the workforce. Special communication devices including blinking fire alarms and braille markings were incorporated into structures to alert deaf and blind employees of an emergency. Entrances and bathrooms were also equipped with wheelchair access. The workplace is a different place.
Title II - Public Entities
With the ADA, every school district, city, county and state had to make all of their services available to the disabled. Whether special testing opportunities in schools for those with reading or developmental deficiencies, equipping school and public buses with wheelchair ramps, making public housing available to everyone, or modifying their streets and sidewalks, the ADA has made significant changes in the world of the disabled. Today, crosswalks are equipped with not only blinking lights, but beeping traffic indicators and voice street directions. Changes have also come to city and state parks. Trails and special parking access has been added to allow those with disabilities to enjoy the outdoors as never before. Our communities are a different place.
Title III - Public Accommodations and Commercial Facilities
The ADA has required that all new construction and renovations make commercial buildings handicap accessible. Special parking, ramps, automatic doors, wider entry ways, braille and audio instructions in elevators, and handicap accessible bathrooms were all enhancements to buildings made due to the provisions of the act. Today, you can walk into most restaurants and request a menu in braille and be able to maneuver a wheelchair without assistance into most commercial establishments. The difference continues.
Title IV - Telecommunications
Prior to the ADA, those who were blind, deaf or dumb had major challenges with communication. Today services like text telephone (TTY/TDD) have opened up the world to the hearing impaired. The hard of hearing or speech impaired can use these services to communicate by typing messages which are then relayed and received back in a way they can understand. Closed captioned TV has allowed those with hearing disabilities to keep up with current events or watch their favorite shows without lip reading. Computer generated relay services also allow communication through the internet and even your smart phone will allow hands-free communication through both visual and audio means. Communication is different, much different.
The final provision of the ADA provided protection from retaliation or coercion. Those exercising their rights under the American Disabilities Act could now do so without the fear of negative backlash. This is a difference, especially to those who have faced retaliation in the past.
Let's now go back to that street in small town America. Twenty five have passed since that July day in 1990. A walk down the street does look and sound different today. The beeping cross walk, the braille menu at Wendy's, a time extension to take standardized testing, or being able to gaze over the New River Gorge at Hawk's Nest, all of these are different as a result of this life changing act. The ADA has made a huge difference in the world and especially in the lives of the disabled. One has to wonder if those brave souls that climbed the Capitol steps that day had any glimpse into the changes seen in the world today. But, the job is not done. The changes are not over and improvements are happening daily. The disabled still face challenges in the world they navigate daily, but the ADA has had and will continue to have a dramatic effect on the lives of the disabled.
2014 Disability Essay Contest
The 2014 State Winner of $2000 is Mason Ryck, a 2015 graduate of Robert C. Byrd High School. Born July 17, 1997 in Augusta, GA, he is the youngest of two siblings, Travis (23), whom resides in Texas and Taylor (20) of Arizona. Mason loves to play lacrosse, picking up the game from his Native American heritage, the Iroquois Mohawks in Canada. He also enjoys boxing and MMA. Mason plans to attend college in Arizona and will be working with his father in industrial construction this summer after graduation.
Mason's essay is below. You can read the other winning essays in our 2015 Special Edition Newsletter.
"Disability Rights Movement"
When I first heard about the 2014 disability history essay contest, I must admit that I had no interest or intent of submitting an entry. Fortunately, my grandfather saw the entry form on our dining room table and encouraged me to enter. He didn't share or elaborate his reasons on why I should enter, except to state the Disability Acts were some of the most important pieces of legislation ever enacted in United States history. Intrigued by his comment, I began to conduct my own research on the topic.
What I found was mind boggling and a real eye opener for a seventeen year old who had no understanding of what people with disabilities had overcome. For centuries, people with disabilities were labeled as helpless, deformed, abnormal, and non-productive. They were viewed as a burden on society which were better served in an asylum, institution, or a circus for entertainment. The disabled were ridiculed based on their physical or mental features rather than their potential value and benefit to society. The Trans Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, West Virginia was constructed and opened in 1864 to house such physical and mental afflictions.
It wasn't until the early 1900's that the disability movement began its fight for equal rights and protection for people with disabilities. The catalyst for the movement began shortly after World War I when disabled veterans were provided rehabilitation for their military service to this nation. However, the public mainstream continued to view the disabled as abnormal with the primary focus being on a medical fix or permanent cure. This public perception continued even though Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the first American president to have a disability, recognized the need for more rehabilitative care for all the disabled.
Following World War II, veterans once again became vocal about their physical and mental disabilities incurred as a result of war. Veterans were now demanding more employment opportunities so they could re-enter back into society as productive American citizens. This outcry resulted in disabled veterans being entitled to both rehabilitative care and vocational training. However, these veteran benefits did little to address the public access and transportation issues confronting the disabled. In addition, the veteran programs weren't available to the general public thus leaving millions without rights, care, or opportunities.
In the early 1960's the disability movement aligned itself with the Civil Rights movement, demanding equal rights and treatment of all people regardless of race, gender, or disability. During this period, the disability movement was primarily spearheaded by the parents of disabled children. They demanded their children be provided the same educational opportunities as other children, without having to be institutionalized. Legislation was eventually enacted in the mid 1960's protecting the civil rights of people regardless of race and gender; however, it wasn't until the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that the civil rights of people with disabilities were protected. For the first time in US history, people with disabilities were now protected by law for equal employment opportunities. This milestone legislation eventually led to the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975, entitling disabled children equal access to the same public education as other children. In 1996, the act was renamed the Individuals with Disability Education Act (IDEA). In addition to a name change, the new law provided that the parents of disabled children be involved in any educational decisions affecting their children. To facilitate decision making, educators and parents were to complete an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for each disabled child.
Although significant progress had been made in providing and protecting the rights of the disabled in government agencies and public schools, it wasn't until the passage of the American Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 that required all businesses to provide the disabled with equal employment opportunities, equal access rights, and reasonable accommodation. Reasonable accommodation mandated that all businesses would support the disabled through job restructuring, work site modifications, and specially adaptive equipment and technology. Failure to meet these requirements could result in a discrimination complaint on the basis of disability.
Today more than 50 million individuals have benefitted from the disability movement and legislative acts of the 20th century. Disabled people from all walks of life are now fulfilling there lifelong dreams with protection from discrimination or concerns of being institutionalized. They are not only successful in life but have made significant contributions to society as artists, athletes, educators, actors, politicians, public servants, and in numerous other professions and occupations. Some famous people with disabilities who have made a positive impact on society include Stephen Hawking, Christopher Reeve, Peyton Manning, and Helen Keller.
Equally important are the numerous advancements that have been made in medicine, science, and research as the result of the disability movement. Today, there are state of the art prosthetic devices that allow amputees to accomplish physical movements and activities that were once impossible to achieve. Advances in technology now allow those with spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, and hearing and visual impairments to perform activities of daily living that many of us take for granted. Housing alterations and adaptive equipment are allowing the disabled to drive automobiles and live independently without assistance from family members, health workers, or local agencies.
I can personally attest to the positive impact the disability movement has had on my own family. A number of my family members have recognized disabilities that in the past would have resulted in institutional care and lack of opportunities. Those disabilities include military injuries, mental illness, visual and hearing impairments, speech impediments, and cleft palate malnormalities. Although I have never viewed these loved ones as disabled, less than fifty years ago society would have labeled and stigmatized them preventing these family members from equal employment opportunities. I now understand and appreciate my grandfather's comment that the disability acts were some of the most important pieces of legislation to ever be passed in US history.
2013 Disability Essay Contest
The 2013 State Winner of $2000 is Alexandra Nicole Rundle from East Fairmont High School. She attends WVU studying Pre-Forensics and is holding a 3.0 GPA. She continues to volunteer in her community on several venues. Alexandra is a part time student worker at WVU in the Career services office where she assists students with a variety of needs including referrals to the disability services office.
Alexandra's essay is below. You can read the other winning essays in our 2014 Special Edition Newsletter.
“How the disability rights movement has shaped our world”
Being an individual with a significant disability at an early age, my first computation was that only the small percentage of people with a disability had any knowledge or even cared about the disability movement. A movement that has shaped our society and opened many doors to promote access to services and supports in our great country for all individuals with disabilities. I spend many of weeks in the children’s hospital receiving treatments for my illness.
At the age of two my ordeal began. Yes it is true that during this period, l could not grasp much of what was going on around me or how it affected my entire family. I could recall my brother, mother, father, grandparents and relatives gathered around me trying to comfort my every minute. As l got older, I learned more and more about advocacy skills, disability rights and the disability movement that had begun many years ago. A movement that surely made my young life easier related to accessing health care and my educational needs. I also learned that over time more and more individuals have made a positive commitment to change.
It has now been over 20 years since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Through the determination and drive of families and individuals with a passion for equality and independence, more and more people have learned about the challenges and tributes of those that have fought the fight and I continue to learn and live independently.
At the time, l could not imagine a grown man, a man that just wanted to go to college like anybody else, fighting so hard for what he wanted. This man, Ed Roberts also had a dream. He had to leave his sole means of independence at the time, his wheelchair to be carried thru the doors of a college that he so desperately wanted to attend. Also facing other barriers, he agreed to live in a segregated section of the campus due the use of his iron lung and became the first quadriplegic to go to college even earning his Masters Degree. His legacy made it possible for others to achieve their dreams. There was no accessible entrance at the time and barriers still existed; but for him and many others a larger door was opened. For many at the time, there was no equal respect, no access to services for whom many were called “handicapped”, but time will change and change it did.
l attribute most of my knowledge to my Father. He has spent most of his life and career helping others. He has worked as an Advocate in many systems of care. l recall him being away from home all the time. As time went on I understood why. He was attempting to teach others how to advocate for what they wanted , including myself, in an effort to make life a little better and a lot more independent for some. He taught me the same, so here I stand today expressing my feelings.
So, what is my continued impression of how the disability movement has shaped the world? I truly believe it started out with just a few that had big dreams, wishes, desires and that were tired of hearing “NO”. Many individuals worked to build a foundation for others that also cared about the mission. The disability rights movement began in the 1960’s encouraged by African Americans seeking equal civil rights and treatment as well as assistance from woman and the Women’s Rights Movement. At this time, many individuals with different disabilities such as mental, physical, cognitive, visual and hearing impairments came together to fight for their cause. Much like the African American generation faced back in the 1960’s when they decided to be silent no more.
The movement indicated that people with disabilities are indeed the experts of their needs. In 1968 the first federal disability rights legislation passed. The Architectural Barrier Act provided that all federally constructed buildings and facilities were accessible for individuals with physical disabilities. Another groundbreaking piece of legislation passed in 1973, the Rehabilitation Act. This was the first civil rights law requiring equal opportunity for people with disabilities. Primary this law prohibited any entity receiving federal funds to discriminate on the basis of disability. Other important laws during this time frame had a significant and positive impact on allowing individuals to gain employment, education and access to public buildings and services. The passing of the Education for Handicapped Children’s Act helped provide access to education for children with disabilities. Before the passing of these initial laws, many people with disabilities were treated as sub-human. Individuals felt incompetent and pitied. In my opinion, the entire fight to this day was to gain independence through accommodations. Just to have an avenue to live, work, play, etc, just like anyone else.
During this era of time, the largest federal or national protest (sit-in) related to the disability movement took place and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act was enacted. This demonstrated how grass roots advocacy can be effective. Section 504 expanded significantly the laws regarding discrimination based on disability. An important individual whom put massive time and effort into the movement was Edward Roberts.
In 1990, a dramatic event occurred following many years of civil rights advocacy. Although the advocacy efforts and the actions of thousands ultimately resulted in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Many called Justin Dart “the father of the ADA” and “the godfather of the disability rights movement” Justin Dart often stated that ”the ADA was the civil rights act of the future”. Indeed it was. I would encourage anyone reading this essay to take a few minutes and educated you about the foundation of these movements. The ADA enhanced the independence of all Americans with a disability. The law was comprehensive and addressed many needs including access to education, employment, public services and accessible entrances and parking.
The disability movement has made a major impact in my life and many Americans that have a disability. It has paved the way for future generations to excel with independence, provide accommodation instead of pity. To continue the growth of the movement, many fought as hard of a battle as those who fought our wars, thus leading to growth and freedom of our country.
Without the disability right movement thousands of individuals including myself would not have had the opportunity to live the lives we have today. The movement brought a sense of importance and respect, as well as independence and purpose to our lives. The movement has transformed our lives and our society. It is our time, my time to ensure the purpose continues.
2012 Disability Essay Contest
The 2012 State Winner of $2000 is Heidi Dennison from Nicholas County High School.
Heidi's essay is below. You can read the other winning essays in our 2013 Special Edition Newsletter.
“The significance of the disability rights movement in today’s world”
If one flips through the pages of any American History book, one would find chapters dedicated to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s for the African Americans.The stories of how African Americans suffered for their rights are almost common knowledge because leaders like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. are historic heroes. However, this is not so for the disability rights movement. One would find few pages dedicated to this movement. Names like Ed Roberts and Judy Heumarm are not so common, but these two individuals played just as important of a role in changing history as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. The movement led by Mr. Roberts, Ms. Heumann, and others like them changed the course of American history. Thanks to the efforts of many citizens, acts have been passed by Congress that has changed the lives of people with disabilities significantly, including that of my Aunt Linda.
Before the Rehabilitation Act was passed in 1973, people with disabilities lived rough lives. Often times, individuals with disabilities were not only viewed as incompetent or feeble- minded but as less than human. Very few accommodations were made to meet the needs of these people. For example, buildings did not have passable doorways or restrooms for those who used wheelchairs. Children with special needs did not receive the opportunity to get an education like other students. In fact, many were placed in institutions where they would stay away from those who were viewed as normal. Sadly, the common philosophy was to keep them out of sight and out of mind. There were a few prominent people who set out on the daunting task to change the ideals of citizens and of Congress. A man by the name of Ed Roberts, who had overcome serious obstacles of having polio and becoming a quadriplegic, was among one of the most influential people in the movement. He was among the first people with disabilities to attend college. “Roberts and fellow disability rights leaders would challenge widely held myths that people with disabilities were incapable of being educated, working, caring for themselves, or becoming contributing members of society”. Judy Heumann also made significant strides in fighting for rights of those with disabilities. Ms. Heumann formed a group called Disabled in Action which held protests to gain support against employment discrimination.
Change didn’t come quickly. A few acts were passed in Congress such as the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This act, gave particle rights to people with disabilities, but it was not the complete freedom so many wished for.
Almost twenty years later, in 1990, The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into effect. According to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Americans with Disabilities Act was, “the nation’s first comprehensive civil rights law addressing the needs of people with disabilities, prohibiting discrimination in employment, public services, public accommodations, and telecommunications” This act enhanced life for more than forty- nine million Americans
Since Americans Disability Act was signed, changes have been made to meet the needs of people with disabilities. For instance, many public buildings are mandated to have entrance ramps for those in wheelchairs. Also, handicap parking spaces are provided in front of almost all business. Employers with fifteen or more employees are not allowed to discriminate eligible applicants based on disability (Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago). There are numerous accommodations made for those with disabilities.
lf the disability rights movement had not begun, my Aunt Linda, who was born in 1966, with a genetic deficiency called phenylketonuria (PKU), would not have had the opportunity to reach her full potential. When she was born, doctors tried to convince my grandparents that it was in their best interest to place her in an institution, but being the strong-willed parents they were, they went against the doctors’ suggestions.
Aunt Linda was raised at home alongside her brothers. The PKU caused mild mental impairment which made learning a great challenge. Due to the strides made in the early l970s for rights of those with disabilities, she obtained a high school diploma. The ADA has also given her the freedom to obtain a job at a local therapy business, which gives her a since of purpose. Her story is just one of millions that have been changed thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Not only did the Americans with Disabilities Act provide protection under the law for those with disabilities, but it gave the individuals with disabilities sense of identity. Gone are the days that those with special needs are forced to live in institutions. No longer are they seen as less than human or feeble-minded. American History books may not discuss the details behind the disability rights movement, but this does not alter the significance it made in the lives of those who live with disabilities. Many advances were made by those like Mr. Roberts and Mrs. Heumann, who did not give up until the results they desired were accomplished. Because of the Americans with Disabilities Act, many lives have been transformed including my Aunt Linda’s. Judy Heumann once said, “Disability only becomes a tragedy for us when society fails to provide the things we need to lead our lives” (Shapiro). Through the collaborate efforts of many Americans, the lives of those who have disabilities no longer is considered tragic but significant.
In 1954 the Supreme Court decided in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas that segregated public schools violated equal protection, helping to trigger officially a second Civil Rights movement. (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, 1954). Brown began a conversation that has engendered staggering social change, sweeping legal reform, as well as frequent -- and often paroxysmal -- crises of conscience, transforming the way we think and talk about civil rights. The conversation has had many participants as other excluded populations have called for the elimination of other kinds of human oppression. Patriarchy, class domination, and disability prejudice have been exposed and discredited in the language of the Supreme Court's historic decision. Indeed, entire academic disciplines have sprung up to address these significant issues. Disability Studies is one such example, providing us with a rich understanding of the role of disability in our respective societies. It is, however, a field that is substantially disconnected from a generation of civil rights jurisprudence, as well as legal scholarship around rights. Such developments have arisen from novel legal conflicts, the changing nature of our understanding of equality, our growing awareness of the tenacity and complexity of prejudice, and the often rancorous arguments within the legal academy about the role of law as an instrument of human oppression. Using the lens of an examination of Disability Rights, the latest volume of The International Library of Essays on Rights, in this commentary I raise concerns about this growing separation from mainstream legal scholarship out of a profound concern that the two fields will increasingly fail to benefit from the perspective of the other, rendering Disability Studies less effective in the legal arena and legal scholarship less aware of the perspectives of individuals with disabilities that can transform our understanding of equality and human rights.
The contributors to this volume, and much of the field, would likely describe themselves as heirs to the legacy of Brown, yet the Brown decision itself serves as a useful framework to consider the costs of the continuing lack of dialogue with legal scholarship. I preface the discussion with what I perceive to be a fundamental disagreement about the nature of rights. Next I call for a more holistic understanding of disability prejudice -- as well as other forms of discrimination -- that reflects the social, psychological as well as economic aspects of inequality. I then endorse the recommended increase in historical research around disability but caution against the use of a narrow chronological lens or substantive methodology that excludes non-industrialized, pre-modern or non-Western societies. Finally, I close with a discussion of one area of legal scholarship of particular importance to liberation movements; the exchanges between Critical Legal Studies and minority scholarship around rights.
The first point of significant divergence from Brown in Disability Rights is a fundamental disagreement about the nature of rights. In the Foreword, McCrudden asserted that "this volume convey[s] the important idea that approaches to disability rights may be drawn on ... as a source of legal non-discrimination rights." (Blanck, 2005). Beyond its circularity, the idea that rights are drawn from approaches to rights is somewhat troubling. We can generally agree that the body of human rights (whether we call them disability or not) is distinct from legal rights defined as those that are capable of vindication through our legal systems. Thus, disability rights, as a species of human rights, are indeed the source of legal rights to remedy nondiscrimination. Societies create legal rights through organic instruments such as constitutions and through legislation or judicial decisions as a vehicle to implement and enforce human rights. Human rights existed prior to, and independent of any legal authority, and are inherent in being human. That individuals with disabilities have been subject to deprivation of the entire panoply of human rights is amply supported by our history and experience, and thus we must guard against incursions upon our fundamental rights that are not structured around narrow understandings of equality. But if approaches to human rights are sources of legal rights, then rights merely result from a policy debate that brings together various problem-solving techniques. Rights, however, are universal and should transcend intellectual methodologies or political systems.
The idea that rights are the creation of some policy-making process reappears when McCrudden sets out two possible public policy models for "how issues of disability should be addressed" -- a medical model or a civil rights model. The first treats individuals with disabilities as "objects of policy," resulting in economic and social programs important for subsistence but ultimately constraining and segregating people with disabilities. In the second, those with disabilities are treated as "rights-bearing individuals," empowered and integrated into the society. Blanck also notes the "historical shift in disability laws and policies -- from a model of charity, to medical oversight, and then to civil rights." The models are part of the policy-making process, methodologies to address "issues of disability." The implication is that rights themselves are the product of that policymaking. Contributors to Part I extend this perceived dependency of rights upon policy, making it harder to present rights as transcendent, apart from any particular social policy or political regime. Gleason emphasizes that the disability rights movement is, in part, a reaction to social oppression. He fails to recognize that only the movement is a reaction to oppression, not the rights themselves. Disability rights existed prior to their infringement by majorities and the state, and the rights movement arose to combat that infringement. Likewise, Oliver grounds at least the political foundations of disability rights in a socialist social policy. The priority of rights gets lost in the shuffle.
Another point of divergence from the perspective of Brown occurs with the simplification by some contributors of the complex nature of disability prejudice. In Brown the Supreme Court for the first time directly examined the effect of segregation on public school children, on the victims of discrimination. The Court began familiarly enough, framing the question presented as whether "segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race deprives the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities?" (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, 1954). But strikingly, the Brown decision concluded that the true nature of the harm is internal to the child. Separation from other students of similar age and abilities on the basis of race "generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone." (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, 1954). The harm in the message sent to both black and white members of the society is magnified internally in that "[a] sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn." (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, 1954). Largely on the basis of this psychological injury, the Court concluded that separate educational facilities are inherently unequal and thus a violation of equal protection. (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, 1954, citing Clark, 1950; Witmer and Kotinsky 1952; Deutscher and Chein, 1948; Chein, 1949; Brameld, in MacIver, 1949; Frazier, 1949, Myrdal, 1944)
Brown presents a victim-focused perspective embracing not only the detached, institutional aspects of policy, government and economics, but also the ugliness and visceral immediacy of prejudice. Much harm to the victim is psychological. At the same time, discriminatory actions and motivations on the part of the perpetrator have psychological dimensions themselves. This complexity has been ably demonstrated by Harlan Hahn's path-breaking analysis of the anxieties of those who observe individuals with disabilities, and how those anxieties result in social isolation. His essay in this volume adds to that work, reminding us that although a sociopolitical definition of disability emphasizes stigmatizing attitudes as the source of discrimination, scholars have neglected attitudinal research that is at least comparable to the evidence in Brown. In contrast, Gleason and Oliver in effect see disability prejudice as just another form of economic oppression. But while one of the results of discrimination is certainly income inequality, it does not follow that such discrimination is only economic. Disability prejudice is a pervasive feature of our subconscious, social interactions, political and legal institutions, as well as our economic systems. The inordinate emphasis on the economic aspects of disability discrimination may be a byproduct of the ubiquity of public policy and social work practitioners and theorists in disability studies. Much of their attention is focused upon the creation and maintenance of social welfare programs for individuals with disabilities, programs that themselves can accentuate disability value hierarchy by contributing to the perception that individuals with disabilities cannot hold jobs and support themselves. Because such programs focus on economic assistance, a belief that disability discrimination is caused by economic inequality is understandable, but it is a distortion that warps the trajectory of disability rights.
Blanck, Gleason and Oliver rightly criticize disability studies for failing to recognize the importance of historical research on disability. The historical lens ought to be set wide enough to examine societies beyond industrialized nations and the modern era. The ancient practice of leaving disabled newborns on hillsides to die also was a function of disability prejudice. Oliver in particular calls for research into the historical treatment of individuals with disabilities in socialist systems. While we welcome that research, he may be surprised at the results. For example, it is difficult to imagine that the socialist world described by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in the Gulag Archipelago where the state defines dissent as mental deviance would be any less prone to disability prejudice. This reference to mental illness underscores the fact that, apart from Rioux's essay on the equality of well-being, there is little mention in this collection of rights in the context of mental disability. But where a single finding of incompetence entitles the state to near absolute power over an individual's property, relationships, living arrangements and medical decision-making, nowhere is the brutal edge of law more clearly illustrated.
The collection amply demonstrates the rich and fertile results of the interdisciplinary nature of disability studies. It is clear from the writings of the legal practitioners and scholars represented here that they have been positively influenced, indeed energized by insights from other disciplines. What seems to be absent in the work of other disability studies scholars in this collection is a depth of understanding of developments in at least the U. S. legal academy over the last three decades. With the exception of Quinn's insightful analysis of the role of law in oppression, and Asch's use of legal theory, little knowledge is displayed regarding the development of American legal scholarship, even in the area of rights. For example, in the 1970s and 80s a movement known as Critical Legal Studies (CLS) arose, embodying a commitment to the deconstruction of law to reveal its roots in, and service to, class-based oppression. Scholars and activists devoted to feminism and minority rights at first welcomed deconstruction, but chided CLS for not utilizing it to explore law's role in the perpetuation of white supremacy and patriarchy (and we would add disability). The exchange led to the emergence (although elements had been present before) of critical race theory, feminist critical theory and similar intellectual movements that broadened our understanding of law as an instrument of oppression by incorporating issues of race, gender and other forms of difference.
A significant feature of early CLS scholarship was its emphasis on class dominance existing within private law categories such as contracts or property. This stands in marked contrast to most civil rights scholarship -- including this volume -- in which attention is paid primarily to public law including antidiscrimination statutes. This at least leaves the impression that the contributors do not appreciate the role that private law plays in the maintenance of oppression within our societies. When CLS scholars examined rights they concluded that, since individuals rely upon a system in which they believe they will achieve positive results but are ultimately held in their subordinate position, rights themselves are a method of class oppression. Some progressive scholars responded, however, that by undermining rights CLS had in effect silenced the voices of women, racial minorities and other excluded populations who had no other method to effect change and express their aspirations. The debate led to important scholarship that has refined theories of rights both to respond to the CLS critique and minority scholarship. In this collection Asch, reflecting on social justice and personal identity, makes use of insights from critical race theory and feminist theory. But reference to these movements in isolation from the dispute with CLS that, in part, led to their creation, leaves unchallenged the almost reflexive instinct among several contributors to describe disability discrimination in purely economic terms, to fold it within class domination. Researchers and theorists in disability rights need to stake out a position in these debates, and provide their own defense in the context of the disability experience.
What this volume does particularly well is present comparative public law approaches to disability rights, giving us the opportunity to learn from the experiences of other societies to better understand how we might achieve social justice, moving us forward significantly toward a vision of societies where difference is valued. Likewise, the discussion of international developments in disability rights beautifully illustrates the growing international consensus around the fundamental values of human dignity, autonomy, equality and social solidarity. It is all the more puzzling, therefore, that a field so willing to embrace developments outside of US law is apparently unconcerned about legal scholarship around rights that has substantially affected the nature of the discourse here. In the closing essay of the collection, Professor Quinn observes that lawyers are "engaged in the disability rights debate because of a deep-seated faith -- perhaps a naïve faith -- in the possibilities of doing justice through law." While he acknowledges that law "can be an engine of injustice and oppression," he calls us to our more noble aspirations. Rights are too important to be left to the lawyers, but the struggle for rights and their legal protections is a universal one. Legal scholarship cannot be allowed to develop without contributions from the disability experience, while disability scholarship risks increasing marginality unless informed by important controversies about rights. Separation not only leads to inequality in our social institutions, but undermines the legitimacy and relevancy of Disability Studies in both achieving legal solutions and -- as importantly -- transforming our societies to reflect a fervent belief in universal human value.
I would like to extend a very special thank you to Avi Soifer, Dean of the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaii at Manoa for his careful editing, sage advice and gentle humor. Thanks as well to Linda Long-Bellil for the opportunity to comment on this important book.
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, 347 U.S. 483 (1954)
Blanck, P.D. (Ed.) (2005). Disability Rights. Aldershot, United Kingdom: Ashgate Publishing.