Pennsylvania's 'Let's Think Again' Campaign Calls Out Disability Stigma

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“Hiring disabled people is a huge risk.”

“Most ‘disabled’ people are just scamming the system.”

“I could never do what disabled people do. They’re such an inspiration.”

Those are a few of the phrases printed on paper thought bubbles recently posted in Pennsylvania as part of a statewide Stigma Project.

A Stigma Project thought bubble reading 'There's no such thing as a learning disability - people just need to work harder' is displayed next to the 'What are you thinking?' slogan.   A Stigma Project thought bubble reading 'They call it 'ADHD'. I call it bad parenting' is displayed next to the 'What are you thinking?' slogan.

The campaign, co-sponsored by the Pennsylvania Developmental Disabilities Council and Pennsylvania-based marketing firm Suasion, aims to call attention to stigmatizing thoughts surrounding disability.

Last month, representatives from Suasion, along with student volunteers from Millersville University, posted signs with these provocative statements and others derived from focus groups consisting of people with and without disabilities. The thought bubbles were accompanied by the slogan “What Are You Thinking?” in hopes of encouraging passersby to consider what organizers see as subtle stigma.

“Stigma is not owned by people with disabilities. It’s the attitudes and beliefs of the general public that we need to change,” Graham Mulholland, executive director of the Pennsylvania Developmental Disabilities Council, told The Mighty. “We were looking for a campaign that directly confronted the beliefs that people had about people with disabilities.”

bubble that says they call it adhd i call it bad parenting

A volunteer holds up a 'What Are You Thinking?' thought bubble next to a decorative statue of a pig in Pennsylvania.

Mulholland said the campaign’s provocative approach was designed to be refreshing.

“Enough is enough,” Mulholland said. “[We’re] not going to use a cute kind of approach anymore. We want to challenge people.”

As motivation for the campaign, Mulholland and Suasion representatives cited a 2014 study, conducted for the Pennsylvania Mental Health Consumers’ Association, that found 79 percent of respondents thought society perceived people with disabilities “with discomfort and awkwardness.”

Though the paper campaign has come to a close, Suasion and its partners aim to keep the conversation alive through a website created for the campaign, LetsThinkAgain.org, which features videos of people with disabilities reading and reacting to the phrases on the thought bubbles. The organization has also created a pledge to end stigma and a quiz to help users gauge their stigma, both of which are available on the website.

Users can also connect with the campaign via its Facebook and Twitter feeds.

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The Wheelchair Ride at the Airport That Marked One of the Best Days of My Life

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Cabs letting off passengers and disgorging luggage clogged the curb at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C. My friend had driven me because she doesn’t believe in taking cabs to the airport when you have someone to take you. Gotta love her.

This was my first time flying in a long, long time because I’d been very sick and mostly housebound. Now I was up and around some. Escaping my everyday world — where my limitations drew tight borders — felt exhilarating.

I managed to pull my little roll-along inside the door where I asked the first official-looking person I saw where to get the wheelchair I’d reserved. Turns out I was right next to the pick-up point.

What a treat for me to watch all the people. Business travelers in crisp attire and traveling light marched past briskly. Entire families in colorful clothes hauling huge suitcases swooshed by.

Ten, then 15, then almost 20 minutes went by. Even though I’d allowed a lot of time, I was getting nervous. I’d never felt helpless like that in public; the only way I was getting to the gate was with a chair.

Then an attendant approached out of the crowd and held my arm as I climbed aboard. She set my bag on the rack underneath, and we started rolling. This was going to be great.

All at once, though, powerful negative feelings slammed me. I found myself quelling the urge to sob. I thought I might throw up. Tears escaped from the corners of my eyes. 

I’m absolutely helpless when it comes to travel, I thought. I can’t do it without assistance.

What was going on? Of course I knew I needed help. I couldn’t walk more than a few yards, had to park right next to destinations like the grocery store, and often used a cane.

But now I felt awkward, self-conscious, angry and helpless. Why me, when everyone around me is healthy and self-sufficient?

Maybe it was sitting down while everyone else was moving along upright. I was looking at people’s belt buckles or craning my neck to see faces. And being pushed in a wheelchair by a stranger felt like such a public acknowledgment of my disabilities.

She was very kind. At security she gently slipped my shoes from my feet, put my bag and purse up on the conveyor belt, and helped me up so I could walk through the checkpoint.

Then she gathered my stuff and put me back together in the chair on the other side. It was all so overwhelming.

Flash-forward two years. I’m on the way to my son’s college graduation. Traveling once again on my own, I pack light so I can manage my suitcase.

The wheelchair attendant arrives almost immediately and flashes me a bright, friendly smile. I smile right back and slip into the chair.

Going through security, I feel relief. No way could I stand in a line without being overcome with pain and sickness. Too taxing. I’m beaming with gratitude and excitement.

The ride was fantastic. Smiling and relaxed on the long trip to what seemed to be the farthest gate, I asked her to take a photo of me in the chair. I took a selfie of us. 

What changed?

I’ve become successful at accepting help. For quite a while, I struggled through many activities alone, wasting energy I could have been saving for healing.

I came late to asking for meals, help with errands, a ride to appointments. Maybe it was pride that kept me from accepting help when offered. Maybe part of me wanted everyone to think I was fine. I hope others can open their eyes to the immense beauty of help a lot sooner than I did.

I’ll never forget that first wheelchair ride. It marked one of the worst days of my life. And one of the best. Because those turning wheels marked a turning point in how I cope with my illness. And ultimately, they set me free.

The Mighty is asking its readers the following: Share with us the moment, if you’ve had it, where you knew everything was going to be OK. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines. 

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Tax-Free Savings Accounts for People With Disabilities Launching This Summer

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Several states will begin offering tax-free savings accounts for people with disabilities as early as this summer.

The new accounts, modeled after 529 college plans, will allow people with disabilities to save up to $100,000 without endangering their eligibility for Social Security and other government-provided benefits — and keep their Medicaid, to boot.

The result of the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act, which President Obama signed  in December 2014, the accounts will feature tax-free interest. People who incurred their medical condition before the age of 26 will be able to use ABLE funds toward expenses such as education, healthcare, transportation and housing.

The first state to announce a launch date for its ABLE program is Nebraska — which will begin offering accounts June 30 — but some say Ohio could open its accounts prior to that. Both Ohio and Nebraska’s programs will be available to people with disabilities nationwide.

“It’s exciting that after working on this legislation for 10 years that individuals with Down syndrome and other disabilities will be able to open accounts as soon as next month,” Sara Hart Weir, president of the National Down Syndrome Society, told DisabilityScoop.

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What I Wish People Understood About Disability Rights

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I have been without my wheelchair for seven months. On October 19, 2015, I was due to fly out of London City Airport when I was denied boarding on a British Airways flight due to my disability. When the airport staff returned my wheelchair to me at the gate, the wheelchair had been damaged so badly it was no longer safe to drive. Despite taking legal action against both British Airways and London City Airport, I’m still no closer to knowing what happened or having my mobility back.

In recent weeks, friends have started urging me to let it go, to just move on with my life and forget about getting justice. Big corporations are just too powerful, I’m told. I should worry about protecting myself. My friends who say this fail to understand just how vital the battle for disability rights is and how this civil rights battle will have an impact on their own lives. I’m not out for vengeance. I am desperately seeking progress. 

Here are seven things I wish my friends understood about the fight for disability rights. 

1. It’s not about being nice! All human beings should be afforded a certain level of dignity because humans have an innate value. The second you associate disability rights with being a nice person, you are make the protection of those rights optional. A wheelchair ramp isn’t a nice thing to have; it’s a thing that enables me to enter a building I have right to enter.

2. My wheelchair is part of my body. You break my wheelchair, you break my legs. You separate me from my wheelchair and you are directly responsible for disabling me. It doesn’t matter that I can get work done at my computer and make the best out of a bad situation, I still have the right to be able to leave me house independently.

3. If you wish I was different, we have a problem. Entropy happens, bodies break down, disability affects people of all cultures regardless of age, class or any other condition. If disability is the natural order of things, why am I the one who should change? Maybe rather than hoping one day I’ll wake up healed, you should hope for a society that can face the frailty of the human condition better.

4. The rights of the disabled will someday become the rights you inherit. If you live long enough, you will become disabled. You won’t wake up a different race, or gender or a member of any other disenfranchised group. But you might wake up paralyzed from the neck down. Because I was born with a disability, I’m pretty well equipped for getting by in this world. If you find yourself in a car accident tomorrow and lose your ability to walk, you won’t have that benefit. When I fight for disability rights, it’s not just my rights I’m fighting for — I’m fighting for yours.

5. Yes, equal access seems impossible. So did stopping the slave trade. It wasn’t that long ago that abolitionists were considered “crazy.” The idea of women voting once seemed like a can of worms not worth opening. The divine right of kings once seemed like a given. Just because something seems like an institution doesn’t mean it can’t be torn down. Don’t waste my time explaining why equal access is difficult to achieve. I understand the complications, but they are not good excuses to stop progress.

6. I am disabled, but I have a right to be pissed off at you if you’ve earned it. There seems to be an ongoing belief that because I’m disabled, I have no boundaries. That you can invite me to a show in an inaccessible venue, abandon me when I can’t get in and assuage your guilt the next morning by acting like it never happened. It’s not my job to be a doormat. If you don’t treat me well, I will call you out on it. If it continues, I will leave. My boundaries are as real and legitimate as yours, and just because you feed me dinner or help me wash my hair doesn’t mean we have some unbreakable bond.

7. We still have a long way to go. Yes, there are laws that protect the rights of those of us with disabilities, but some law in government doesn’t stop the day-to-day discrimination we face. Many people don’t see that they discriminate against disabled people because such behavior is still the norm. I once had a woman who is well respected in Hollywood tell me she “doesn’t care about disability rights.” Laws don’t create social progress. Changing hearts and minds does.

The Mighty is asking the following: Describe a moment you were traveling that was either incredibly challenging or where you faced adversity. Tell us how you handled it or wish you had handled it. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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Polling Places May Not Be Accessible, Investigation Says

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NBC Washington’s News4 I-Team reported Tuesday that dozens of polling places in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia may not be accessible to voters with disabilities. Though officials at the district’s Board of Elections were formally notified about some of the problems, which include heavy doors, steep ramps, narrow doorways and broken doorbells, some issues may not be resolved by Washington D.C.’s primary election on June 14.

News4’s I-Team reviewed internal audits revealing that during the 2014 election season, 37 of 89 polling places had accessibility issues, including four the team reviewed with Ian Watlington, a disability advocacy specialist with the National Disability Rights Network and wheelchair user.

The D.C. Board of Elections told News4 it has fixed these issues, but a memo it issued in December 2015 told a different story.

“The lack of cooperation from managers of certain facilities used as polling places have a direct impact on accessibility at certain polling places,” the memo read, according to News4. “The lack of alternative polling place options for relocation requires that the (Board of Elections) continue to use certain facilities despite accessibility issues.”

The D.C. Board of Elections’ online listing contains a space for information on whether a voting facility is “Accessible to seniors and people with disabilities.” This field is blank for each of the 143 polling places.

Margarita Mikhaylova, Compliance Officer and Acting Public Information Officer of the D.C. Board of Elections, told The Mighty that come election day, her agency will do everything in its power to ensure voter access.

“BOE inspects each and every polling site thoroughly,” Mikhaylova wrote in email. “Obviously, the final test of whether or not the voting program is accessible to all voters comes on Election Day, through onsite modifications, the use of poll workers dedicated to helping voters who request assistance, and other measures as necessary.”

Mikhaylova said the Board of Elections works with owners of polling places to make “reasonable improvements.” The agency makes several alternatives available for voters who feel their polling place is inaccessible, including submitting a request to send their ballot to a different location and “no-excuse” absentee voting.

On election day, Mikhaylova said the Board of Elections will provide curbside voting as well as “Voter Assistance Clerks” posted outside to assist voters in getting into and around polling places.

Mikhaylova added that the Board of Elections will dispatch Americans with Disability Act (ADA) Compliance Assistants on Election Day to monitor voting sites.

“[The ADA Compliance Assistants will] ensure that there are no obstructions on the pathways towards the polling places, that doors are propped open where possible, that bells are functioning properly, as well as any other action that will assist in creating an independent and accessible voting experience,” Mikhaylova wrote.

Voting accessibility issues, however, aren’t unique to the D.C. area. A Rutgers University study on accessibility in the 2012 election found that voter turnout was 5.7 percentage points lower among people with disabilities than it was for people without disabilities. Voter registration rates for people with disabilities suffered, too, at 2.3 percentage points lower than that of people without disabilities. And according to the Rutgers survey, nearly one-third (30.1 percent) of voters with disabilities said they experienced difficulty in voting at a polling place in 2012.

In California, disability advocates reported stigma surrounding the use of a voting machine, according to KQED News.

“There’s a lot of stigma in institutionalized ableism around that machine,” Ted Jackson, director of community organizing for the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers, told KQED. “Poll workers are afraid to suggest it and quite frankly, from having dealt with a lot of our county elections officials, I think a lot of them have a little stigma about that machine, too.”

Last week, a federal judge ruled that blind voters in Ohio are being discriminated against due to a lack of electronic absentee voting procedures. As it stands, the state only makes absentee ballots available on paper, so blind voters must rely on others to read and complete their ballots for them. Representatives of Disability Rights Ohio, which filed the suit on behalf of the National Federation of the Blind, say there is little chance for alternative absentee voting methods to be established in time for November’s general election.

Are you a voter with a disability? What has your election day experiences been like in the past? Let us know in the comments below.

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Lowe's to Pay $8.6 Million to Settle Disability Discrimination Lawsuit

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Lowes warehouse
By Coolcaesar at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1932604

Lowe’s will pay $8.6 million to settle claims that the home improvement store fired thousands of employees with disabilities. The allegations from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) claim the company “engaged in a pattern and practice of discrimination against people with disabilities by firing them and by failing to provide accommodations to them when their medical leaves of absence exceeded Lowe’s 180-day (and, subsequently, 240-day) maximum leave policy.” This violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which “prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, transportation, public accommodation, communications, and government activities.”

The settlement also requires Lowe’s to retain a consultant with ADA experience “to review and revise company policies as appropriate; implement effective training for both supervisors and staff on the ADA; develop a centralized tracking system for employee requests for accommodation; maintain an accommodation log; and post documentation related to this settlement.” Lowe’s must submit regular reports to the EEOC verifying compliance.

“This settlement sends a clear message to employers that policies that limit the amount of leave may violate the ADA when they call for the automatic firing of employees with a disability after they reach a rigid, inflexible leave limit,” EEOC General Counsel David Lopez said in a press release. “We hope that our efforts here will encourage employers to voluntarily comply with the ADA.”

“We modified our leave of absence policies in 2010 to further inform employees of their rights under the ADA and have since centralized our leave-of-absence management to ensure consistency in applying our policies and help employees manage their leaves of absence and accommodations,” Karen Cobb, a spokeswoman for Lowe’s, told Disability Scoop. “We worked cooperatively with the EEOC to reach a fair resolution.”

Lowe’s has not yet responded to The Mighty’s request for comment.

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