Barriers, Stereotypes, and Recognition: Celebrating Disability Awareness

Caleb Sharp, Staff Writer

This March, we aim to address the stigmatization around disabled persons by celebrating Disability Awareness Month and sharing tips on how you can facilitate healthy interactions between yourself and disabled people. Before diving into approaches to help disabled persons feel communally and interpersonally accepted, it’s important to cover key moments in the history of disability awareness.

As is the case for most minority groups, disabled persons were treated poorly by the general populace and their needs were often overlooked. 

According to National Today, which recounts the history and information surrounding various holidays such as Black History Month and Indigenous People’s Day, disabled persons “were treated violently and lived in poor, unhygienic environments. Many were ‘passed on,’ a practice of carting off people to be dropped in another town.” 

However, the ways in which the government and society at large treated disabled persons would drastically change for the better during the 20th century. 

The initial stirrings of disability awareness were advocated for by veterans of WWI and WWII, many of whom returned from war with disabilities such as PTSD and loss of vision or hearing. The concerns surrounding disability awareness and accommodation levied towards the government by veterans brought the rights of disabled people to the forefront of national concern, as everyday citizens became increasingly aware of the lived experiences of disabled persons. Despite the considerable strides made in favor of disability awareness during this period of time, the government would not legislatively act upon these concerns until decades later. 

In 1973, Congress passed the Rehabilitation Act. This piece of legislation protected the civil rights of disabled persons by providing equal opportunity federal employment, which prevented hiring and workplace discrimination on the basis of disability. Additionally, the Rehabilitation Act mandated equal access to public spaces (think wheelchair ramps, braille signs). While the Rehabilitation Act paved the way for future disability equality legislation, its effect was limited mostly to federally-owned land/businesses.

Seeking to expand the rights afforded to disabled persons through the Rehabilitation Act, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. The ADA required all public spaces and businesses, not just federally owned ones, to accommodate disabled persons nationwide. 

And here we find ourselves today, three decades after the passing of the ADA, with a greater appreciation for and understanding of the hardships disabled persons have had to deal with throughout history. What can we do to further support disabled persons in our community and in our personal lives?

A great first step is to learn about the history of disability awareness, which has already been covered up to this point. Simply learning about the history of disability awareness gives one greater insight into the lived experiences of disabled persons, which is invaluable information in of itself. 

The second step involves language. Specifically, carefully tailoring one’s language in social interactions with disabled persons. 

There are those who, with good intentions, make the mistake of focalizing their language around a disabled person’s disability. An example of this would be if a non-disabled person constantly helped, such as reading signs out loud or identifying certain objects, to a visually impaired person without them asking for assistance. While the intention of the non-disabled person is good-natured, such behavior may cause the visually impaired person to feel as if the non-disabled person only sees them for their disability instead of as a unique individual who happens to have a disability. 

The last step involves a more direct, physical approach to supporting disabled persons, that step being volunteer work. 

There are countless disability volunteer organizations that are always looking for more volunteers to help out. Organizations such as the National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities (N.A.C.D.D.) and the National Disability Institute aid disabled persons, with many local charters dotted across the country. Local organizations such as Ashley House operate many pediatric assistance facilities across Washington state, with locations in Olympia, Tacoma, and Federal Way. 

A little goes a long way. Whether it’s learning about the history of disability awareness or doing volunteer work with disability assistance organizations, simply showing interest in the lived experiences of disabled persons contributes to building a stronger, more accepting society. 

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