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Political, Business and Faith Leaders Must Stop Forgetting People With Disabilities

Did you know that an estimated 1 in 4 people have disabilities? It’s time our leaders address people with disabilities equally, instead of last. Unless you are a person with a disability, a family member, loved one, or person who has direct contact with people who have disabilities, you probably do not know this. You may even think people with disabilities “are always going to be taken care of.” That is a direct quote I heard from a candidate in the 2008 presidential election. The minute I heard that, I knew the well-meaning candidate had no clue as to what disability issues are in this century. Most people with disabilities do not want “to be taken care of” — they want a life like yours with employment, love, friendship and real inclusion in their communities. And those who need extra support to achieve that life are finding it harder and harder to receive help.

When I say leaders, I mean elected leaders which include national, state, and local leaders, school board members, school district leaders, city managers and mayors. I also mean nonprofit leaders, executive directors, corporate CEOs, and all clergy who lead various faith-based entities.

In every one of those classes of leaders, people with disabilities are often an afterthought. Usually, this is not intentional. But it happens nonetheless, over and over, to the point it seems in 2020 the world of disabilities is taking one step forward and two steps backward.

Case in point: in the wide Democratic field of candidates, excitement is palpable because candidates are announcing and talking about their disability platforms. While this is good news, these platforms are not receiving as much mainstream publicity as those for the Black, Hispanic and LGBTQ communities, senior citizens, etc. In my opinion, the most genuine political moment came from former candidate Andrew Yang, when he told the world he has a son with autism and praised his wife for the work she does raising him. He acknowledged having a child with a disability, and that raising a child with a significant disability is a job. He stated that “special needs are the new normal” in this country.

But let’s move away from politics to the world of public schools. All the data that has been accumulated since the 1990s shows that including the majority of students with disabilities, including those with significant disabilities, results in not only a much better educational outcome, but a better post-high school outcome. Yet in 2020 it is a constant struggle across this country for families to have their children included with proper support. Proper support means trained educators and staff, and adequate staffing levels.

It also means the very first tenet of inclusion — being welcomed. In 2020, the majority of students with significant disabilities are not welcomed in their home school. I have personally experienced this in my daughter’s journey (she has Down syndrome), and everyone I know in my wide network of friends across the country has experienced this, regardless of where they live, their income, or the color of their skin. This discrimination is based on the ignorance that abounds concerning disabilities. And it also exists because schools have never been properly funded to educate students with disabilities. When IDEA was implemented in 1975, the federal government promised to fund 40 percent of a student’s special education costs. In 2020 they fund less than 20 percent, leaving localities left to pay a difference most cannot. So that sadly goes back to politics.

Now let’s address employment. About 80 percent of youth with significant disabilities are unemployed. Another large portion are underemployed. Not because they want to be sitting at home, but because they are not being properly prepared for the workforce, and because in great part we have a workforce that is afraid or unprepared to employ this untapped resource. There is an over-reliance on “job coaches” which is unsustainable. If employers would realize they can train all employees, and adapt to training those with disabilities as part of their corporate culture, I believe magic would happen. Training would actually improve for all employees. Peer friendships and modeling would organically take place. And the overscheduled, underfunded disability support systems already in place could be used on a grander scale to help more people.

Places of worship are to me the saddest areas of discrimination. Again, my family has experienced this when my daughter was a newborn. The interim priest at the time refused to come see us in the hospital and bless her. Later on, he did not want to baptize her.  All my close friends who have children with significant disabilities have experienced discrimination in their place of worship, be it Christian, Jewish or Muslim. There are many families who stopped going to their place of worship, and are sadly missing a rich part of life that can be very comforting and fulfilling.

In 2016, Darren Walker, the CEO of the Ford Foundation said,

“In the same way that I have asked my white friends to step outside their own privileged experience to consider the inequities endured by people of color, I was being held accountable to do the same thing for a group of people I had not fully considered. Moreover, by recognizing my individual privilege and ignorance, I began to clearly perceive the Ford Foundation’s institutional ignorance and privilege as well. It is clear to me that this was a manifestation of the very inequality we were seeking to dismantle, and I am deeply embarrassed by it.”

Mr. Walker was talking about being called on the carpet, so to speak, for ignoring people with disabilities. Mr. Walker’s annual letter to his constituents that year was heard all around nonprofit and some corporate circles. It was called his “mea culpa.”  His admission of forgetting those with disabilities was honest and refreshing. That was four years ago.

I pray in this new decade there will be many more admissions, and leadership initiatives in all aspects of life, so people with disabilities can be seen for who they are. They are individuals with gifts and worth, and they are an integral piece of our society’s fabric. One by one, let’s all help open our fellow citizens’ eyes.

Getty image by George Doyle.