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Progress, But No End in Sight in Struggle for Disabled Rights

By John Masson
March 27, 2013

Disabled people and their advocates have made a lot of progress since 1967, when as many as 200,000 people with a wide range of physical and cognitive disabilities were institutionalized around the United States.

Since that peak year for institutionalization, though, America has made steady if slow progress in the way it treats people whose abilities differ from the norm, said Christine Hench, chief operating officer of JARC, a Detroit-area nonprofit dedicated to enriching the lives of people with disabilities.

"It's not about curing the person with a disability," Hench said. "It's about ensuring access to what we all should have access to."

Hench delivered last week's Human Rights Week keynote to a roomful of Michigan Law students during a lunchtime talk. She was joined by Harold Folkoff, who has been a public speaker for about 35 years despite contending with three disabilities: mild cerebral palsy, hearing impairment, and vision impairment.

"We can do the same things everybody else can do," Folkoff said of people with disabilities. "We just might do them on a smaller scale."

Folkoff highlighted the four main problems facing disabled people trying to live their lives with minimal assistance: affordable housing, adequate transportation, appropriate employment, and dismissive attitudes still displayed in insensitive language used to describe people with disabilities.

Hench provided a brief history of disabled people and social attitudes towards them, from their earliest mention in Egyptian texts circa 1552 BCE to the present day. Hench talked about the widespread practice of institutionalization, which pressured families to park their disabled children in giant, state-run institutions, as well as even more sinister approaches such as forced sterilization and other manifestations of eugenics, the philosophy of improving genetic stock that peaked during the early 20th century and was eagerly adopted by the Nazis.

Hench even mentioned the so-called Ugly Laws, prevalent in the late 19th century, that prohibited "unsightly or disgusting persons...from being seen in public" in such places as San Francisco.

"Some people still feel it's a shame—a pox on the family," to have a relative who's disabled, said Hench, who won U-M's prestigious James T. Neubacher Award in 2010.

But reforms in how American deal with disabled people began, to some extent, after World War I, and even more so after World War II, Hench said, thanks in large measure to the huge number of returning soldiers with disabling wounds. Early reforms focused on treatment and rehabilitation more than on accessibility, although those reforms ultimately built to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.

"That's the most significant legislation for the disabled in the world," Hench said.

But progress is still needed. Schools can still disproportionately seclude and restrain disabled students. Many states still maintain large institutions, and some, like Texas, still routinely institutionalize children. Poverty and un- and under-employment are still far too prevalent among those with disabilities.

Folkoff, who urged the students to become lawyers who remain sensitive to the special needs of disabled people, finished up with a couple of key points:

"Our whole identity is not being disabled," he said. "Don't pity us—approach us!"

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