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Centering Ableism in Our Commitment to Advance Social Equity

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By S. Nicole Diggs
October 10, 2022

Checking boxes. Over the span of our lives, we will select from preset categories within tiny boxes that define our identities and determine whether we can purchase a home, access medical care, apply for a job and/or receive state-issued licenses. Our selection options will ask us to identify our race, gender, age range, education level, religion, income level and even sexuality. These options are often used as “qualifiers” to either grant or deny access to opportunities. However, there is one specific identity option that may cause a bit more reluctance to select. This is because it has historically been used to deny access to economic opportunities as it signals an inferior status when compared to able-bodied people. The identity is “disability,” which informs perceptions of ability and the treatment of disabled people.

For more than 30 years, the federal government has fought to protect the rights of individuals with disabilities through the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA] of 1990. Yet, to date, individuals with disabilities continue to experience above average rates of poverty, incarceration, social segregation and serve as a barrier towards economic opportunities. As a result, disability has emerged as a priority in advancing social equity.

The ADA defines disability as someone who: has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; has a history or record of such an impairment; or is perceived by others as having such an impairment. Two main themes appear in this definition. First, at its core, the ADA makes a point to emphasize how one’s disability affects their daily lives, not the diagnosis itself. This means that at any given time, anyone can, and possibly will, experience some form of disability over the span of their lifetime. Defining disability in this manner expands the scope of how we should think about disabilities beyond mobility and physical impairments (or visible differences). According to the CDC, 1 in 4 Black adults, 1 in 4 White adults, and 1 in 6 Latino/Hispanic adults in the United States have some type of disability including those that are physical, cognitive, developmental, intellectual, sensory, mental and/or chronic. However, in practice, invisible disabilities are often minimized or require one to provide more extensive “proof” of disability to receive accommodations because society still holds to a reductive understanding of what “disability” means. To this end, the stats presented by the CDC are more likely inaccurate because people with invisible disabilities may opt not to self-disclose in an effort to avoid extra scrutiny.

The second theme in the ADA’s definition, is how disability is a socially constructed identity that intersects with other identities (e.g., race, ethnicity, class, religion, age, gender or sexuality). To this end, people with disabilities (visible and non-visible) live at the intersection of all identities but the outcomes of living with a disability does not affect everyone the same. Justice reforms, such as ADA, almost exclusively focus on singular forms of identity: race, gender, age or (physical/visible) disability. Intersectional approaches, in efforts to advance social equity, recognize the needs of those with multiple intersecting marginalized identities based on race, age, gender and disability. For example, when racism, sexism and ableism intersect they produce higher interlocking forms of oppression that create situations of double (or triple) the societal disadvantages. It also renders the needs and experiences of those who are most marginalized as invisible.

There are infinite ways to create more inclusive equitable lived experiences and policies for all but we have to center disability and ableism in mainstream social justice, diversity, equity and inclusion policy discourse. Affirming the needs of our most vulnerable is an essential part of the continuing struggle for civil rights. There is a common misconception that equity is a zero-sum game in which supporting one group hurts the other. However, in reality, when we create situations that allow everyone to participate, everyone wins (the collateral beauty). One potent example, the curb-cut effect which describes how addressing disadvantages or exclusions experienced by one group of people creates an environment that enables everyone to participate and contribute fully. The curb-cut movement illustrates how positive externalities accrue to everyone when policies are designed to achieve equity for the most vulnerable.

Disability is part of diversity and intersects with all identities so there can be no justice if we neglect it. We operate within broken systems that avoid explicitly acknowledging injustices embedded in policy decisions. It is important for governmental agencies to center disability rights and justice in policy discussion to advance social equity for ALL.

Please join ASPA Section on Democracy and Social Justice (SDSJ) on Monday, October 17th at 1 pm EST for “Centering Ableism in our Commitment to Advance Social Equity.” The panel features Shelby Bedford (University of Illinois Springfield), Ashley Robbins (North Carolina Central University), Ashley Glass (Black Women Cultivating Change) and moderator, S. Nicole Diggs, (North Carolina Central University). Register for the conference by clicking here.

Author: S. Nicole Diggs, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the Master of Public Administration Program at North Carolina Central University and a Board member of the Section on Democracy and Social Justice. Email: [email protected] LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/s-nicole-diggs-86718940/ Twitter: @NicoleDiggs20

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