When parents look at the future for our kids with disabilities, there’s a lot that’s unknowable. For us, as I’ve said before, it’s the biggest unknowable in the world. We do everything we can to stack the deck in our children’s odds, and we look for the path to a sympathetic future, in the same way we always have. As our kids get closer to that adult life, our efforts become a little more desperate, because we know what the statistics say. We can’t know the future, but we can do the math. And we can read the news.
On this 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, that news isn’t great. According to NPR, the poverty and unemployment gap for people with disabilities has worsened in the twenty-five years since the ADA was enacted. If you have a disability in this country, your chances of being poor are double that of the general population. And if you’re an adult with a disability, your chances of being unemployed are about eighty-five percent. EIGHTY-FIVE PERCENT.
Those numbers really have gotten worse. In 1990, at the time the law was passed, 28.8 percent of adults with disabilities were employed. By 2013, that number was down to 14.4 percent. The article gives a number of possible reasons for the low numbers, such as employers’ fears of the kinds of accommodations they’d be required to provide. But it didn’t really explain why the already abysmal 1990 numbers have gotten so much worse, despite the changes in federal law.
I’m not sure I have a theory, either. The article suggests that with the passage of the ADA, many were led to believe that the struggle for disability rights was over, when in fact it was just beginning. It’s more like people with disabilities who have been fighting for equality were finally told “We recognize the battle you’ve been waging, now here’s a bazooka.” Or perhaps more accurately, “Here’s a rock.”
Are there some reasonable theories about what is happening? Is there something more rational and empirically demonstrable than the idea that people are simply becoming worse? Less willing to help their fellow citizens, less inclined to take a chance on someone who is different and might need some accommodation? I try not to be a huge downer about this, I really do. But even ten years ago, I don’t remember living by the now-crucial adage “Don’t read the comments”, particularly when reading articles about the human rights of people with disabilities.
Twenty-five years ago, we thought the issue was important enough to put the force of federal law behind it. Has the ADA failed to bring meaningful change to the lives of our disabled loved ones? I don’t believe that for a second. More likely, is it possible that without the ADA, things would have spiraled downward even more precipitously in the lives of those with disabilities?
Can we learn to value our disabled citizens? Will we ever become capable of recognizing their intrinsic human worth?
Schuyler has been finishing up her part for our joint presentation next week. One of the questions she answered was what does she want to do in the future. I’m really proud of her answer.
“Maybe to help sick children and the poor and people like me with little monsters of their own.”
Like just about every young person with a disability, Schuyler will have a great deal to offer the world if given half a chance. She and others just like her are filled with the desire to do great things, if only we as a society can figure out how to make a working space for them. It shouldn’t be this hard.
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