"Disability Issues" Everyone Should Care About

by s.e. smith

Disability has been cropping up in the news lately, thanks to Republican threats to the Affordable Care Act, which could devastate the disability community, as Jody Allard noted at VICE. Given how rarely we appear in the news, it's a bit startling to see us on everyone's minds — and a little bit sad, because disability issues are a whole lot bigger than just health care. Understanding the larger concerns of the disability community may help some nondisabled people realize the full extent of disablism — discrimination against disabled people — and rethink their relationship to disability.

According to the most recent census data, around 20 percent of the population is disabled. That's a whole lot of people, and it means that the community is not a monolith, with respect to health care or anything else. Our needs are widely varied, so don't take this list as a rundown of everything that every single disabled person in America cares about. Hopefully, though, it will expand your perception of "disability issues," which tend to be extremely intersectional. Anyone from any walk of society, background, and life experience can be or become disabled, and often, disability amplifies an existing oppression.

Here are eight disability issues everyone should care about in 2017.

Police Reform

After decades of police violence and agitation to change the way America approaches law enforcement, police reform is finally hitting the public consciousness. Unfortunately, one aspect of that conversation is lagging: The discussion about police violence and disability. It's difficult to get hard statistics, but as many as half of police killings involve disabled people typically mentally ill people and those with developmental or intellectual disabilities. Many of those victims are also people of color — intersectionality at work. It starts even earlier than that, with even the U.S. Department of Education admitting that disabled students are suspended at a much higher rate than their nondisabled peers, putting them right into the school-to-prison pipeline.

Many law enforcement agencies lack even basic training in how to handle encounters with disabled people who may be agitated, confused, or unable to follow requests. This has been compounded by cuts to mental health services, which have left police officers as first responders in mental health crises, when they should really be last responders. Some cities are trying to turn this around with mental health crisis teams, but it's a long, slow battle, made harder by the fact that the connection between disability and police violence is rarely discussed.

Voting Rights

While voter suppression really hit headlines last year, voting rights activists have been working on this issue for decades. That includes disability rights activists, who are painfully aware of the specific issues that affect their community, making it much harder to vote while disabled. That starts with the fact that some people are disenfranchised on the basis of their disabilities, with the Bazelon Center highlighting voter suppression laws that declare people "unfit to vote" because of who they are.

Being allowed to vote, however, doesn't mean you can vote. Disability participation lags in elections, with a 2012 Rutgers study finding that disabled people turned out to vote at a lower rate than nondisabled people. One reason is polling place inaccessibility: Some people physically can't vote because they can't get into the polling place, have difficulty getting around once inside, or can't use the voting machines.

Another issue is the voter suppression laws targeting low-income people of color, which also ding the disability community: It's harder to get identification, for example, when you're disabled, or to travel to vote. Many disabled people don't have photo ID because they don't need it or can't afford it — and that means they get turned away at the polls. In the 2014 midterms, the Washington Post highlighted how hard it is to get an approved ID if you're disabled.

Access To Education

A free public education is a cornerstone of American life, right? For the disability community, though, no such thing is guaranteed — especially if Jeff Sessions is confirmed, because he has a very negative record on education rights for the disability community. Laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act are supposed to make it easier for disabled students to access an education, but on the ground, the truth is more complicated. These laws mandate that disabled students be accommodated, with a preference for mainstreaming, in which they attend classes with nondisabled students.

Some disabled children are subjected to restraint and seclusion and hidden away in the corner of a campus. Others struggle to access even basic classroom accommodations like more time on tests or accessibility on campus so they can get where they need to go. As discussed above, disabled students are more likely to be suspended and expelled, with schools exercising their right to discipline students and pushing disabled pupils off campus, depriving them of educational opportunities. In 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center sued over this issue — not for the first or last time.


Disability and poverty are extremely closely yoked in American life. Researchers at the University of California, Davis, found that overall, disabled people had a poverty rate double that of nondisabled people, though this varied by specific disability. Looking at the community as a whole, disabled people have a much lower socioeconomic status, notes the American Psychological Association, and that's not a coincidence.

Some of the reasons for poverty in the disability community include employment discrimination, unequal access to education, and high health care costs. Disabled people are caught in a benefits trap that squeezes them into poverty, because the government curtails and cuts off Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, and other benefits at very low income levels. People who can't afford their own care need these programs and are forced into poverty to retain them, even if they'd rather be working and engaging with society. That endangers their wellbeing, but it also hurts society, in a real lose-lose.

Employment Discrimination

Though employment discrimination is illegal, that doesn't stop it from happening. Some disabled people are simply denied jobs on the basis of their disabilities, while others find that once they do land a job, the work environment is extremely hostile. That includes harassment, being denied promotions, and being refused reasonable accommodations that make it possible to work comfortably and safely. Recent research at Wharton highlighted the fact that this discrimination is systemic, with many companies lacking the internal structures and accountability needed to accommodate disabled jobseekers.

Disability discrimination at work is a particularly big problem for people with evident physical impairments. This includes wheelchair users and others who use mobility aids, blind people, and people with limb loss. People considered "ugly" or unpleasant to look at because of their disabilities may also face discrimination from employers who think they don't belong in public facing positions. The Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that the disability unemployment rate is often around double that of nondisabled people, and while employment discrimination and lost opportunities aren't the only reason why, they're definitely contributing factors.

Sexual Violence

The National Crime Victimization Survey found that disabled people experience rates of sexual violence that are much higher than the nondisabled population. (Sensing a theme?) There are a lot of reasons for that, and one is disablism, which RAINN points out makes disabled people easy targets — rapists assume that their crimes won't be investigated or pursued when they target disabled people, and that their victims may not be believed if they report.

It goes deeper than that, though. Some disabled people need aides and support to complete tasks of daily living, and when they're abused by "caregivers" they may not have resources to report. Caregivers may control their access to the outside world, or may threaten them — "if you report, I'll leave you on your own." In institutional settings, abuse is a rampant problem, as Frontline chronicled in the chilling "Life and Death in Assisted Living." Disabled people also often have limited access to sexual education, and may not even understand that they have consent, agency, and the right to control their own bodies.

Access To Health Care

Some disabled people have complex health care needs — others go to the doctor rarely. But statistically speaking, disabled people are more likely to need health services, and to need involved, specialist care, than nondisabled people. Access to health care is vital for the disability community, and it needs to be comprehensive and consistent. Missing needed appointments, therapies, and medications can be fatal, and some disabled people need thousands of dollars worth of health care every month — someone in an institution can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, according to the National Council on Disability.

The Affordable Care Act helped disabled people who didn't qualify for government health care, or who couldn't have their needs met on Medicare and Medicaid, access treatment. Medicaid expansions, standardized coverage, putting a stop to preexisting condition discrimination, and ending rescission all made it possible for more disabled people to get, and keep, their health insurance, and thus access care more reliably. If disabled people sound panicked about the end of Obamacare, it's because they are.

Structural Racism

People of color are more likely to be disabled than white people, proportionally speaking, according to Census data. Moreover, research demonstrates that these disparities become worse over time. A number of factors contribute to this problem. One is environmental racism, which increases the risk of being born with a congenital disability, or of acquiring disability at a young age — as illustrated in Flint, Mi. But people of color also face issues like occupational segregation and health care disparities — they're more likely to be injured on the job and to be working in physically demanding trades, for example, and less likely to get early preventative care for conditions that can become disabling.

Targeting racism in employment, health care, environment, and a host of other settings will help make communities of color healthier, and make it easier for people to manage their chronic congenital or acquired disabilities. That would lead to fewer disparities in health care outcomes, and a more just world. Fighting racism overall, regardless of its impact on disability, is also a moral imperative.

Image: Bustle