Dear Meryl Streep, There's Still Work to Be Done

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Dear Meryl Streep,

There’s still work to be done.

At the Golden Globes on Sunday night, Meryl Streep called out Trump for publicly mocking a disabled reporter and high fived Hollywood for its inclusiveness, identifying her community as “crawling with outsiders and foreigners.” While I was excited to see a major star use such a huge platform to defend the dignity of Mr Kovaleski and speak out against the unjust treatment of persons with disabilities, Hollywood is not yet deserving of a pat on the back for total inclusion, especially as it relates to disability representation.

Across multiple media, including television and film, disability is still grossly underrepresented, misrepresented or just plain ignored. In her speech, Streep said “An actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us, and let you feel what that feels like.” But in the world of entertainment, disability stories are often little more than stereotypes of victims and burdens, heroes or freaks; lazy tropes that are used to make us feel specific emotions. These careless characterizations are not just hurtful, they’re dangerous. They inform how we see disabled people in real life and lead us to believe they are low-status individuals. The real stories of disability are still not being told.

The arts are by nature forward-thinking and innovative. Media is one of the most effective vehicles to elicit change in hearts and minds. Hollywood has a real opportunity to influence and normalize how we see disability, just as it has for other marginalized groups.

Thank you Ms. Streep for shining a massive light on this issue. I hope this is just the beginning of this conversation about the accurate and authentic inclusion and representation of disability in Hollywood and across all media.

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10 Common Misconceptions About People With Physical Disabilities

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I’d like to talk about misconceptions — things assumed by culture as a whole. These ideas about people with physically disabilities are often false:

1. A physical disability automatically means a mental disability as well.

2. Wheelchair users are confined to their chairs and it’s a miracle when we actually walk.

3. We can’t speak or do anything for ourselves, so look to whoever is with us instead of talking to us.

4. We can’t be self-sufficient and independent, go to college or get real jobs.

5. We are not whole or good enough. We need fixing and healing. Pray for us in public.

6. A physical disability means more inability than ability.

7. We need a lot of physical therapy, surgeries, constant caregiving, adaptive equipment, etc. and are miserable.

8. A physical disability means we instantly relate to another person with a disability.

9. We can’t date, get married, or have fulfilling romantic relationships.

10. We are inspirations for reaching “normal” milestones and leading “normal” lives.

We need to bring these misconceptions into the light. Those living with physical disabilities are always people first — valuable human beings. We carry the same hopes, dreams, and ambitions in our hearts. We want to be a part of culture, actively involved in the community around us, not separate.

There is a growing gap between what culture says and what we know to be true, because assumptions pervade the air.

However, we can fight the misconceptions. We can bridge the gap, but we can’t do it alone. We need our family and friends to speak up with us.

Speak on our behalf when we are not present.

Start the hard conversations.

Remind others to stop assuming anything based on outward appearance.

Even if a person looks different, please try your best to not make them feel different. That person just wants to be seen, known, and loved as an equal.

For every misconception I face, I’m that much more thankful for everyone who loves the real me.

Will you bravely ignore all these misconceptions? Can you give us a chance?

Read more at Laura C. Robb.

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What Everyone Needs to Understand During Invisible Disability Week

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People with invisible disabilities share what others can do to reduce the stigma of invisible disabilities.

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You Can Now Get a Disability-Inclusive Paper Doll Set

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Matlida Jane Clothing includes a paper doll set for girls of all abilities.

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How to Make Technology More Inclusive for People With Disabilities

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Recently I got to hear a very sharp speaker, Jeff Kline, at a national conference on best practices. He is at the cutting edge of using technology to unlock the potential of people with disabilities. The Program Director of Statewide Electronic and Information Resources Accessibility at Texas Department of Information Resources, Kline is also the author of “Strategic IT Accessibility: Enabling the Organization.”  Before government service, Mr. Kline managed IBM’s Worldwide Accessibility Consulting and Business Transformation initiatives. His 26 year IBM tenure also included management in industrial design, software development, and system usability.

Personally, I am a disaster when it comes to technology. But it is a lifesaver for many people with disabilities. It can help a lot of people with disabilities excel and contribute to society. Thus, I asked Jeff some questions, and got some very helpful answers.

1. What is Information Technology(IT) Accessibility and Inclusive Design?

a. IT accessibility means that people with disabilities (PwDs) can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with information technology, allowing them to participate equally in the economic and social aspects of society. It also has benefits to others, such as people with changing abilities caused by aging. Inclusive Design ensures that products and services are accessible and usable by everyone, including PwDs.

2. IT has become an integral part of today’s society. It touches nearly every aspect of daily life. Can you describe some of the challenges that IT presents for people with disabilities?

a. For example, blind individuals rely on an assistive technology called a screen reader to interact with a website or application. The screen reader speaks what is displayed and identifies each element on the screen such as a link, or a picture, table, radio button form field, etc.  If the website or application is not coded to include accessibility specifications, the assistive technology cannot identify and read these elements to the user in a meaningful way, rendering the site very difficult, or in many cases, impossible for a blind person to use.

b. Individuals with mobility impairments may use other types of assistive technologies such as head trackers or mouth sticks which also rely on proper accessibility coding. Without captions in videos, Deaf users have limited access to video information. Despite significant progress, many manufacturers and software development organizations still do not understand, plan for, design, or develop their technology with inclusive design in mind.

3. What are underlying reasons why so many IT products and services are not fully accessible to PwDs?

a. While technology can still be a challenge, particularly for large “legacy” offerings where the original code may have been created before accessibility criteria was required or understood, there is now a robust body of knowledge and tools for developing and delivering accessible offerings. The underlying reason I see is the lack of commitment, culture, policy, and governance structure within organizations to put policies in place that consistently drive the development of accessible or inclusive products and services.

4. You’ve talked about the challenges for PwDs and the underlying reasons for inaccessible IT. Are there any other impacts that our readers need to be aware of?

a. Inaccessible or non-inclusive IT creates barriers to education, training, employment opportunities, online government services, social media, and other aspects of life for PwDs that many of us take for granted. Additionally, public and private sector organizations also must realize that IT accessibility barriers are considered discriminatory under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), and there has been a strong uptick in IT accessibility related lawsuits. The US Department of Justice is more frequently intervening in these lawsuits on behalf of plaintiffs.

5. Can you tell us a little about your role within Texas state government, and what is being done there to close this broad gap of making IT accessible to PwDs?

a. My role is to provide leadership, guidance, and oversight in IT accessibility to over 170 Texas state agencies and publicly funded universities, to help facilitate the development, procurement, and use of accessible IT.  Responsibilities include rulemaking, policy development, consulting, outreach, and accessibility services and information.

Additionally, I am deeply involved in the integration of accessibility criteria into our state IT procurement processes to help obtain more accessible products and services from the vendor community. For our vendors to be able to consistently produce and provide accessible IT, they need to consider IT accessibility at a strategic  level, so we have recently implemented a new step in state IT procurement using the Policy Driven Adoption of Accessibility (PDAA) model developed by myself, my counterparts in Minnesota and Massachusetts, a group of state CIOs, and the National Association of State CIOs (NASCIO). The model requires vendors to complete a self-assessment at the beginning of the procurement process.

The self-assessment calculates the maturity of their IT accessibility policies and programs using PDAA’s maturity model. Our customers can use the results to gauge vendors’ abilities to build and report about accessible products and services. Most importantly, we want all vendors to use the assessment results as a guide for implementing accessibility practices and policies within their organizations, ultimately resulting in more accessible products and services in the long term.

Want to know more? Buy Jeff’s book on Amazon.

Learn more at RespectAbility.

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Meryl Streep at Golden Globe awards calling out Donald Trump for mocking people with disabilities.

Meryl Streep Calling Trump Out for Disability Bias Should Be Just the Beginning

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As a woman with a disability, I was deeply moved by Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globes. Thank you, Ms. Streep, for acknowledging the discrimination people with disabilities face, including from our country’s own President-elect. When the person who will soon occupy the highest office in the land openly mocks people with disabilities, it’s no wonder we have incidents like the horrific attack in Chicago, and so many others that don’t result in adequate media attention or justice, like the rape of a mentally disabled football player by his teammates. As a domestic violence survivor and violent crime survivor, I know all too well that people with disabilities are far more likely to be targeted for hate and harm based on who we are. Yet hardly anyone talks about it.

Last night, Meryl Streep took a step towards changing that. Her words have the power to start a national conversation about disabilities and ableism — a form of prejudice that is just as insidious as racism and sexism but far less acknowledged. And so I’m hoping last night will be just her opening salvo, and that she will continue to learn about our issues and help amplify our voices. You see, Donald Trump is poised to do far worse things to people with disabilities than make fun of us. Our health care and our lives are at risk if a number of his stated goals come to pass. Millions of people with disabilities could lose health insurance if the Affordable Care Act is repealed, and the high-risk pools he proposes for people with pre-existing conditions have historically been disastrous, with high premiums, low lifetime caps on funding, and multi-year waiting lists to get any coverage at all.

Trump’s plans for Medicaid are even worse. Currently, millions of people like me receive funding for personal care aides through Medicaid home and community-based services. I use a power wheelchair and need help with daily tasks including dressing and bathing but am able to live independently in my own house and work nearly full-time thanks to a Medicaid waiver. If Medicaid is privatized or changed to block grants, home care funding would almost certainly be cut, endangering the lives of people with disabilities and forcing some of us into nursing homes. Should I, a 30-something Stanford University graduate, editor, writer, and blogger with an active life have everything I’ve worked for ripped away and be trapped in a room next to a 90-year-old with Alzheimer’s? That’s how Donald Trump could harm people with disabilities, and it’s a lot worse than some mocking hand gestures.

The 2016 campaign was the first time disability issues ever got more than passing lip service by a candidate. Hillary Clinton actually had specific plans and policies intended to help improve health care, education, and employment for people with disabilities. She included speakers with disabilities at the Democratic National Convention and on the campaign trail. Many in the disability community were especially crushed when she lost, as we had tremendous hope that finally we would see steady and substantive progress towards equality.

Although Republicans have a history of greater support for disability issues than one might expect — the Americans With Disabilities Act and ABLE Act both had wide bipartisan support — they were mostly silent this election, except for Trump, who mocked us, and whose history of ADA violations at his hotels shows his lack of concern for accessibility and equality. Unfortunately, our needs are often perceived as expensive, but we can contribute so much to society when given the opportunity.

There are so many issues on which Ms. Streep could be an advocate for people with disabilities. Besides health care, there is police brutality; we often discuss the disproportionate number of Black people killed and beaten by police, but did you know that 60-80% of people killed by police have a disability? Deaf people are shot for failing to obey commands they couldn’t hear. Mentally ill individuals are killed by police after family members called asking for help to take them to a hospital. People who are poor and/or of color and have disabilities tend to have less access to education and health care, and can end up in the school-to-prison pipeline or homeless.

Employment is another critical issue people with disabilities face. I’m fortunate enough to have a job, but I’m in the minority; less than 27% of people with disabilities aged 16-64 are employed. Society may stereotype us as incapable of work, but that’s simply not true; a recent study showed 68% of people with disabilities are making efforts to become employed.

The biggest barriers we face are attitudinal. After graduating from Stanford, I was the last among my friends to find a job. I got interviews with several companies, but their enthusiasm magically evaporated upon seeing my wheelchair. I’m currently an editor at The Mighty; while I love my job, I’ve found that I usually have to work in the disability field to be treated with fairness and understanding. I wish I could expect and receive the same from any company.

While we’re on the topic of employment, there’s a particular issue Ms. Streep is in a unique position to address: the lack of opportunities for actors with disabilities in Hollywood. A report by the Ruderman Family Foundation shows that only 1% of TV characters have disabilities — and out of that 1%, 95% are played by able-bodied actors. This problem is pervasive, and as the record holder for the most Academy Award nominations, I’m sure she has noticed it, but she may not have considered the implications. You see, although actors with disabilities can’t get work, actors without disabilities playing people with disabilities tend to receive dozens of awards and nominations. In fact, 14 of the last 27 Best Actor Oscars were awarded to actors without disabilities playing men with disabilities or serious illnesses. The disability community refers to this as “cripping up,” and it’s part of a long tradition of usually-white actors co-opting the stories of minority groups instead of supporting people from those cultures in representing themselves.

People clearly want to see movies dealing with disability, and these films have the power to transform societal perceptions and promote understanding. So why not cast disabled actors instead? With the wide availability of CGI, even a character who acquires a disability during the course of a movie or TV show can be portrayed by an actor with a disability. One day, playing a character with a physical or developmental disability when you don’t have one should be regarded as offensive, just like blackface is today. Ms. Streep and others in the industry can help by publicly praising actors with disabilities and advocating for well-developed, non-stereotypical characters with disabilities in film and TV. The TV show “Speechless” is a great example, and we need more like it.

To Ms. Streep: your words were a tremendous gift to the disability community. Now, I hope you will help us open that gift and transform it into real change, so people of all abilities can be respected and treated with equality. Please take the next step — or ramp — and reach out to activists with disabilities like me. Even with a man who mocks people like us in the White House, together we can make a difference.

Follow this journey on Free Wheelin’.

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