Disability rights and human rights — they affect ALL of us

Source: Barbara Alper (Getty Images)

By James Patrick Jordan (National Co-Coordinator)

Talking about disability

Language matters, and in the case of people with disabilities, it matters a lot. Ableism, exclusion, and misconceptions are held up by a foundation of words that are still abundant in U.S. society. Ireland’s National Disability Authority and Brown University both provide clear and succinct guides to how we talk about those with disabilities. This article will try to use terms these guides have recommended throughout.

The very concept of “ability” is a continuum that varies from person to person, and, in fact, varies greatly through the life of any one individual, as they make their journey from cradle to grave. The idea of “people with disabilities” refers to such a broad swath of people that it borders on being ridiculous, lumping those with blindness, those with a learning disability, those who use wheelchairs, those suffering bipolar disorders, those with hearing problems — all in one category.

The reality is that many would describe what most call “disabilities” as “traits,” and in some cases, these traits are binding components for specific and vibrant cultures. For instance, there is a deaf culture built around shared language, experience, and creative expression, a culture defined by its richness and diversity. While recognizing the validity of this position regarding the broad category of disability, for the sake of this article, we will accept and talk about disabilities less to categorize the peoples concerned, than to identify and discuss the categories of human rights abuses against those perceived as living with disabilities. Fundamentally, we are all people with abilities, and those abilities are what best define us. The struggle for the basic human rights of people with disabilities is a struggle for inclusion.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are 61 million people in the United States who are living with disabilities, a rate of 26% of the national population. Looking at it from another angle, one out of four persons in this country is living with a disability.

People with disabilities endure multiple forms of oppression

There is a high correlation between human rights abuses towards people with disabilities and racism. African-U.S.-ers have the highest rate of disabilities of any other group. People with disabilities are victims of police shootings, incarceration, and homelessness at higher rates than the rest of society. People of color with disabilities are literally the most likely persons to be shot and killed by the police.

Ableism is a form of privilege and source of oppression that is so ubiquitous it is widely tolerated and frequently goes unnoticed. Ableism has a close relationship with the racist and class oppression that has driven and defined so much of the history of the United States.

People with disabilities are generally the most vulnerable to a series of social ills, for instance, pollution and climate change. Industrial contamination has been shown to impact prenatal development, and air pollution has been linked to the development of intellectual disabilities. The scourge of war has resulted in the maiming, both physically and mentally, of thousands and thousands of young people sent off to fight for the barons of industry.

Disability and class

As workers, according to a study published by the Pew Research Center, “those with a disability earned a median of $21,572 in 2015, less than 70% of the median earnings for those without a disability ($31,872), according to the Census Bureau. Both figures are for the civilian, non-institutionalized population ages 16 and older, measured in earnings over the past 12 months.”

Many workers with disabilities are victims of extreme exploitation, working in what are called “sheltered workshops” and training programs for fractions of the minimum wage. This exploitation takes place with the approval and support of the U.S. government and therefore constitutes a clear form of both human and labor rights abuse. Rabbi Ruti Regan of the direct action disability right group ADAPT, writes:

“There is a lot of money to be made in exploiting people with disabilities….

For example, Goodwill Industries (among many others) notoriously takes advantage of Section 14(c), a 1930s era provision in the Fair Labor Standards Act that allows so-called sheltered workshops, work centers that only employ disabled people, to pay disabled workers less than minimum wage. While their executives make six-figure salaries, they pay thousands of employees with disabilities less than anyone else, and some as little as pennies an hour, for their work.

But ‘sheltered workshops’ also receive funding from the government. Workshops receive funding from Medicaid to ‘train’ disabled workers for real jobs, but only approximately five percent ever leave for work in the community. Such ‘training’ programs often keep disabled workers in their work centers for years or even decades; workshops are most reluctant to give up the most productive disabled workers for community employment.”

Disability and race

Workers with disabilities who are people of color are triply oppressed. A study by the National Disability Institute tells us:

“The poverty rate for adults with disabilities is more than twice the rate of adults with no disability (27% compared with 12%) [Figure 6]. The relationship between disability and poverty is complicated. People with disabilities are more likely to become impoverished and people living in poverty are more likely to have or acquire a disability. Disability causes poverty because people with disabilities may be excluded from the workforce, have limited educational opportunities or face institutional barriers that restrict their earnings…. Almost 40% of African Americans with disabilities live in poverty, compared with 24% of Non-Hispanic whites, 29% of Latinos and 19% of Asians [Figure 6].”

Source: American Community Survey, 2015

Nearly 6 million African heritage people in the U.S. are living with disabilities and have the highest rate of disabilities of all other segments of the U.S. population. Indigenous people have the highest disability rate among people of traditional working ages. Angel Love Miles explains:

“…The history, implications, and function of ableism in the Black community are different than in the white community or other communities of color. Hence, ableism is a culturally specific, historically contextual phenomenon. African Americans’ disability is largely constructed in relationship to the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and the racist violence associated with them. This history includes medical, scientific, and labor exploitation as well as the overall othering of Black bodies. These practices and the beliefs that informed them produce disabilities and health disparities in our communities. Today, African Americans continue to experience higher rates and worse consequences of disabilities. These include being more likely than their white counterparts to be further segregated in special education, placed in the prison industrial complex, or worse, killed by the police or otherwise institutionalized as a consequence of their disability. African Americans also tend to benefit less from disability policy even though they have the greatest needs. For these reasons and more, Black people experience disability as not only limiting in the conventional ways it is assumed to be, but also as a reminder of racist oppression and/or as perceived evidence of racial inferiority. Hence disability in the Black community is as much born out of racist, class, gender, and other systems of oppression, as it is a natural part of the human experience.

People with intellectual and mental disabilities are especially targeted

A segment of the population of people with disabilities that is especially targeted and discriminated against are those with intellectual disabilities and persistent and chronic mental and emotional traumas. Discrimination and misunderstanding of people with these conditions is historic. The closure of total institutions by the Reagan administration meant that many were cast out with literally nowhere to go. This contributed to a rise in homelessness and the criminalization of those with mental illnesses. While deinstitutionalization was needed, it was accompanied by deep cuts in social services, including all aspects of healthcare and disability services. These cuts helped the Reagan administration to prioritize nuclear weapons production and the start of a new arms race. Many persons with intellectual disabilities and mental illnesses became homeless, and others entered into a new system of private “care” that garnered profits for owners, where workers were paid low wages and received inadequate training, and that depleted resources for basic care. That is still the dominant system to this day.

Homelessness and housing discrimination

The problem of homelessness, mental illnesses and other disabilities is misunderstood by much of the general public. Heidi Schultheis notes:

“Coupled with deinstitutionalization, the nation’s growing affordable housing crisis has exacerbated conditions for people with mental health disabilities who experience homelessness. The leading cause of homelessness is a lack of affordable housing. Therefore, the key to ending homelessness for virtually all populations—with and without disabilities—is affordable, accessible, permanent housing. Yet with climbing rents, stagnant wages, and shrinking public housing stock and project-based subsidies, affordable housing is becoming harder to find. And for people with disabilities, the situation is even more dire because affordable and accessible units are in shorter supply.”

According to the study The State of Homelessness in the US – 2022 by Smiljanic Stasha, 38.6% of the homeless population have disabilities, and 25% have mental illnesses. Only 48% of the homeless population are white and 39.8% are Black, compared with just over 60% of the general population that are non-Hispanic White, versus a Black population of 13.4%.

Closely related to the issue of homelessness, we find that 55% of complaints about housing discrimination regard people with disabilities. One of the reasons cited for this is that “many apartments — even newly constructed ones — do not meet accessibility requirements and landlords have been known to refuse reasonable accommodations or modifications…”

Common crimes, hate crimes and the three categories of human rights violations

Violations of human rights fall into three categories, and all such violations are, by definition, ultimately attributable to the State, the institution that is responsible for protecting the human rights of a nation’s population, and the institution that can systemically impede those rights. The three ways in which the State violates human rights are: 1) directly, through the active commission of human rights violations; 2) indirectly, by the encouragement of proxy actors, such as paramilitaries, para-police, or hate groups who in some way perceive a green light to commit violations from those in positions of political power, or who include State actors in their membership, or who in some way collaborate with State officials; and, 3) via neglect and the failure to protect human rights. We can discern all these aspects regarding people with disabilities, but nowhere are these so brutally apparent as in the areas of crime, punishment, and the criminal justice system. When we look at the entire spectrum of criminal justice, we find that in virtually every possible way, people with disabilities are marked for violence and punishment.

According to a study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, from 2017-2019:

  • People with disabilities were victims of 26% of all nonfatal violent crime, while accounting for about 12% of the population.
  • The rate of violent victimization against people with disabilities (46.2 per 1,000 age 12 or older) was almost four times the rate for persons without disabilities (12.3 per 1,000).
  • One in three robbery victims (33%) had at least one disability.
  • People with cognitive disabilities had the highest rate of violent victimization (83.3 per 1,000) among the disability types measured.
  • 19% of rapes or sexual assaults against people with disabilities were reported to police, compared to 36% of those against persons without disabilities.

Kaira Alfonseca points out, “the data shows that from 2017-2019 disabled people accounted for 26% of nonfatal violent crimes, even though they make up only 12% of the population and are victims of violence at almost four times the rate of non-disabled people.”

People with disabilities are frequently the objects of hate crimes. Since 1997, hate crimes against those with disabilities have risen ten-fold. Since 2016, when 70 cases were reported, there has been some fluctuation in reported hate crimes, according to FBI statistics. In 2018, the number rose sharply to 177 compared to 128 reported in 2017. In 2019, the number of reported cases dropped slightly to 169, and the number dropped again in 2020, to 83.

However, these counts do not provide a clear picture and the data maintained by the FBI is compromised. Hate crimes frequently are unreported because of the hesitancy of victims and lack of training of police officers in the area. There is no uniform system of reporting hate crimes, and many law enforcement bodies do not submit data to the FBI.

Hate crimes, by themselves, as terrible as they are, are not considered human rights abuses if they are committed by individuals or groups that are not in collaboration with or encouraged by State actors. But the candidacy and presidency of Donald Trump provide a vivid example of how a political leader can encourage prejudice and violence. The Washington Post reported that “hate crimes rose the day after Trump was elected.” The FBI reported a 20% increase in hate crimes during the Trump Administration. Within this context, we must consider the increase in these hate crimes as human rights abuses by proxies as they are encouraged by those with political power. Perhaps the most notorious and disgusting example of this is when then-candidate Trump publicly mocked a reporter with disabilities.

Police violence against people with disabilities

People with disabilities are disproportionately the victims of police violence and abuse. Nearly half of all those killed by the police are people with disabilities. For Black persons with disabilities, the issue is compounded. According to Vilissa Thompson, a senior fellow at American Progress,

Freddie Gray, Laquan MacDonald, Kevin Matthews, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Charleena Lyles, Sandra Bland, Quintonio LeGrier, Stephon Watts, Korryn Gaines, Natasha McKenna, Eric Smith, and Daniel Prude are all Black, disabled victims of state violence. In the United States, 50% of people killed by law enforcement are disabled, and more than half of disabled African Americans have been arrested by the time they turn 28 — double the risk in comparison to their white disabled counterparts…”

Mass incarceration and capital punishment target people with disabilities

The prevalence of people with disabilities in the U.S. system of mass incarceration is further evidence of systemic disregard for those with disabilities, both in terms of rates of incarceration, and the poor services and neglect they encounter once behind bars. Nearly two out of five (38%) of those held in state and federal facilities are living with disabilities. In 2017, the ACLU reported:

“Although comprehensive data on the number of prisoners with physical disabilities in jails, prisons, and detention centers across the nation are currently unavailable, as many as 26% of state prisoners report possessing a mobility, hearing, or visual disability, according to one 2003 estimate. When cognitive disabilities and disabilities that limit a prisoner’s ability for self-care are included, the proportion of prisoners with physical disabilities in prisons and jails increase to 32% and 40%, respectively. Moreover, as the prison population ages, reports indicate the number of prisoners living with physical disabilities in American prisons will increase significantly.

Despite these known facts, prisoners with physical disabilities are often denied the services they are entitled to under the law.”

Prisoners in the U.S. mass incarceration system are not only living with disabilities — they are dying with them. The death penalty is the State’s ultimate human rights abuse. David Perry reports in Pacific Standard:

“We know, though, that a high percentage of prisoners are disabled, especially on death row. A recent American Civil Liberties Union report on the abuse of physically disabled prisoners estimates that 30% of all state and federal prisoners, and 40% of all local prisoners, have at least one disability…

A 2014 study in the Hastings Law Journal examining the social histories of the last 100 Americans to be executed found ‘that the overwhelming majority of executed offenders suffered from intellectual impairments, were barely into adulthood, wrestled with severe mental illness, or endured profound childhood trauma. Most executed offenders fell into two or three of these core mitigation areas, all which are characterized by significant intellectual and psychological deficits.’”

Sadly, as one might expect, the problem is even worse for Black persons with disabilities on Death Row. The Death Penalty Information Center reports that in 130 cases they reviewed that were overturned due to disability issues, 80% involved people of color. The report goes on to say, “two-thirds of the intellectually disabled defendants sentenced to death are African American (87, or 66.4%); 19.1% (25) are white; 13.7% (18) are Latinx; and one (0.8%) is Asian. Eleven (8.4%) are foreign nationals…”

The effects of war and militarism

There is a strong correlation between U.S. militarism and the treatment of those with disabilities. The military-industrial complex contributes significantly to the kinds of contamination already referred to as a root cause of disabilities. Also already mentioned is the effect of a federal government that prioritizes military expenditures over social services.

We must consider the degree to which U.S. wars and proxy wars contribute to the prevalence of disabilities around the world. An example of this is the first invasion of and war against Iraq, followed by more than ten years of sanctions. During that war, the US deliberately bombed water purification centers and littered Iraq with depleted uranium shells. Sanctions prevented the repair of the water system and the importation of necessary nutritional and medical supplies. The result was a huge spike in children born underweight with birth defects and the prevalence of deadly diseases that under normal conditions, would have been treatable. During the sanctions, 3-5,000 children under five died each month, and new generations of children came of age suffering from and surrounded by an epidemic of disability, and the inability to provide even the most basic services. When asked about more than 500,000 Iraqi children who had died as a result of sanctions on Iraq, then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright famously and callously declared, “…we think the price is worth it.”

U.S. wars around the world have had a devastating effect on the people sent to fight them. The new form of long-term, permanent, and unwinnable wars since the U.S. entered Afghanistan in 2001, have been especially hard. A report by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that 41% of post-9/11/2021 veterans have disability ratings, compared with 25% of all veterans. The National Council for Mental Wellbeing maintains that:

  • 30% of active duty and reserve military personnel deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan have a mental health condition requiring treatment – approximately 730,000 men and women, with many experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depression.
  • Less than 50% of returning veterans in need receive any mental health treatment.
  • The Veterans Administration reports that approximately 22 veterans die by suicide every day.
  • Lengths of deployments are associated with more emotional difficulties among military children and more mental health problems among U.S. Army wives.

There is no parallel in the world today to the prioritization the U.S. gives to military strength. The U.S. spends more on its military than the next 11 countries combined. But while the U.S. far outspends other countries in support of war, it lags behind “developed country” peers in benefits for people with disabilities.

How does the U.S. compare to other countries?

While the U.S. may have been the first country to pass civil rights legislation to benefit those with disabilities (the ADA, Americans with Disabilities Act), it has been eclipsed by other wealthy nations. A 2014 study by the Commonwealth Fund compared general health care benefits in the U.S. with those in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand Norway, Sweden Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. The U.S. came in last place. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities compared the disability benefits of 36 different countries. The United States was ranked number 28.

The conditions of people living with disabilities are often hidden from view of the general public because of lack of access and because so many are locked into homelessness or sequestered in sheltered workshops and living situations segregated from the rest of society, in jails, in segregated classrooms, denied access to housing.

The reality for people living with disabilities is routine exclusion and systemic human rights abuses. For those who do not identify as persons with disabilities — at least not yet — we make a tremendous mistake if we think this situation does not affect us. This is ableism, pure and simple, and to engage in such thinking does no service to anyone, with or without disabilities. Again, the whole notion of ability and disability is a continuum that we are all on, and our abilities and disabilities will change for most of us over the course of a lifetime.

Our task, then, is to shine light on this problem, to help bring visibility to abuses that are often made invisible. Disability rights are human rights, and the liberation struggles of those with disabilities are struggles for everyone’s liberation.


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Williams, A. (2018, March 23). Hate Crimes Rose the Day After Trump Was elected, FBI Data Show. Retrieved April 21, 2022, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2018/03/23/hate-crimes-rose-the-day-after-trump-was-elected-fbi-data-show/

This article is part of a series to be included in AFGJ’s Human Rights in the U.S. 2022 Report


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