Disability: An Identity That All Can Share

December 21, 2021
A woman with wavy long hair smiles. She has eyeglasses resting on her head.

Author, filmmaker, and disability policy strategist Day Al-Mohamed.

International Day of Persons with Disabilities is December 3, and we have daily reminders of how inclusiveness in society has benefited all. The day is recognized and celebrated by a myriad of nations. It was first proclaimed by the United Nations as an annual observance in 1992, with the goal to promote “an understanding of disability issues and mobilize support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities.”

In early December, I always see blog posts and memes in the disability community about this but it doesn’t seem to be very visible and I find myself wondering, why not? Is it because most people just don’t know? Disability is a huge part of American society. There are more than 61 million people with disabilities living in the United States today. That is 1 in 4 adults. Someone you know absolutely has a disability.

What is Disability

A woman in jeans and red shirt lies on ground and holds camera in front of her, strap around her neck. Lying down at her side his a black lab looking in same direction. A locomotive on tracks is next to her.

Day Al-Mohamed and guide dog Gamma.

“Disability is an inescapable element of human existence and experience. Although it is rarely acknowledged as such, it is also a fundamental aspect of human diversity.” (Federal Statutory Definitions of Disability)

But what does that mean? What does having a disability look like? It seems like such a simple question but there are so many descriptions and definitions of what a disability is. It varies by country and culture, and even by individual organizations/agencies. In fact, the US Federal government alone, has more than 60 different definitions of disability!

The International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) defines disability as having three dimensions:

  1. Impairment (loss of a limb, low vision or memory loss).
  2. Activity limitation, (difficulty seeing, hearing, walking, or problem solving).
  3. Participation restrictions (restrictions in working, engaging in social and recreational activities, and obtaining health care and preventive services).

As for what disability looks like…well, a person with a disability can look like anyone else.  Disability exists on a continuum. Two people with the same type of disability can be affected in very different ways. Not to mention disabilities that may be hidden or not easy to see.

Disability is one of the only identities that can happen to anyone at any time.  This means when you get a concussion and afterwards you have trouble processing – you’ve got a disability; when your grandma needs a walker – she’s got a disability; when your friend develops diabetes or has anxiety – they’ve got a disability.

The truth is that disability is a natural part of the human condition. This is especially true when you consider aging and how technology has allowed us to live longer. More than 30% of Americans over age 65, and over 50% of those over age 75 have some kind of disability.

A Quick History of Disability in America

I’m a history buff, and even I was surprised to learn that disability has been present from the very founding of America. Gouverneur Morris, one of the Founding Fathers and Penman of the Constitution, was an amputee! You might not recognize the name, but I am sure you will recognize some if his most famous and recognizable words: “We, the People, of these United States…”

And he’s not the only one. Disability became much more visible nationally after the Civil War when nearly 300,000 soldiers from the Union Army alone returned home injured. Many could no longer work their farms or in the factories as they had before. From this new disabled population, the first comprehensive pension system for disabled veterans was born.  There is a great rumor about the Veteran’s Pension Building in Washington, DC (which is now the Building Museum): that its stairs were built wide enough and shallow enough to allow disabled veterans to ride their horses up them to the Pension Office. I’m not sure if it is true, but it is a fun story.

Close up of brick staircase with low steps

Steps at the National Building Museum. Photo: Steve Roeder

Ideas around disability changed after World War I when more than 200,000 veterans returned home with a disability. The focus became employment. Congress passed the Smith-Sears Vocational Rehabilitation Act to provide rehabilitation and vocational training for disabled veterans. These training programs grew and expanded even more after World War II. On August 11, 1945, President Harry S. Truman declared the first week of October “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week.”

It is during this time period we begin to see disability defined as a medical problem or deficiency, with the goal being to either cure the individual or provide “medical management” of the disabling condition. Sadly, this “Medical Model of Disability” dominated American views on disability for the next 50 years.

An illustration with a man with amputated leg and crutch standing in archway looking out towards hillside. An American flag is featured as well as image of nurse and other soldier. Poster says "Facing the Future. Uncle Sam offers trining to every man disabled in the service. See that your man takes it. Ask the Red Cross.

Facing the Future LOC Poster Disability Employment WWI Ask the Red Cross. Artist is CF Chambers

The problem with the medical model is that it blames the individual for their own inability to accomplish something. Can you imagine? If you have trouble working because of a disability, then you’re a “burden to society.” You need to be trained to work like non-disabled people do. If you think or behave differently (perhaps because of a brain injury, mental health condition, or what is now called autism), then you need to be trained to act like everyone else. It didn’t matter if the way you currently worked was successful for you and those around you.

This attitude led to increased stigma for anyone who didn’t meet the mainstream definition of “normal.” It became shameful to be disabled, and over the years this stigma and devaluing of disabled lives led to the creation of segregated systems, institutions for housing the disabled, eugenics concepts such as sterilization, and even medical experimentation on people with disabilities.

Newspaper article with headline Disabled protest lack of HEW action. A photo shows a crowd of people including four in wheelchairs in foreground

Rocky Mountain News, Wed., April 6, 1977, Denver, Colo. Story by Alan Cuningham. Photo by John Gordon

Things began to change with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights movement talked about how political, environmental, and societal factors were barriers to individual success. People with disabilities embraced this idea. They called out segregation, stigma, and discrimination as greater barriers to disabled people than their actual disabilities; and insisted that with the right supports and accommodations, people with disabilities could be full participants in American society. This idea of a “Social Model of Disability” would become the core concept of a new disability-led rights movement.

My first explanation of this model and of disability as a political movement came with the story of the “504 Sit-Ins.” In 1973, Congress passed the Rehabilitation Act. What made this law different from disability laws that came before it was Section 504 of the Act which had a sentence that said:

“No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States, as defined in section 706(8) of this title, shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance…”

Rather than the Medical Model that focused on how to “fix” or “improve” the person with the disability, Section 504 was modeled after Civil Rights legislation. It recognized that disabled people were discriminated against and demanded that society stop excluding people with disabilities.

When the government refused to implement the law (through regulations), more than 150 people with disabilities staged a sit-in at the offices of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in San Francisco (footage of the sit-in is part of the award-winning documentary Crip Camp). They stayed for 25 days, the longest sit-in at a federal building ever. Their success was the first real turning point in changing the view of people with disabilities from pitiable and needing help to a powerful minority community with rights and demands of their own.

The Rehabilitation Act stopped discrimination against people with disabilities from any program or agency that received money from the federal government. That’s one of the reasons that today, the most accessible buildings are often schools and hospitals. But it didn’t encourage private businesses to be accessible to people with disabilities: grocery stores, movie theaters, restaurants, and of course, individual employers. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) expanded the Rehabilitation Act to include all of those places. (The ADA’s requirements do not apply to employers with less than 10 employees.) People with disabilities could truly be a part of the American Dream.

President Bush Sr. sits at a small desk outside with men in wheelchairs to either side of him. The photo is signed: To Justin Dart. Without your drive, your 'believing' and your leadership this day would not have beeen possible. With respect and friendship, George Bush

President George H. W. Bush signing the ADA. Image courtesy of National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institution

Why Celebrate Disability?

There are several reasons why the celebration of disability is so important. As we’ve seen in our quick journey through disability history in America, disability is socially constructed. While the history of disability reflects the resilience, diversity, and adaptability of a marginalized community, the International Day of People with Disabilities is also a celebration of how much disability has given to us. Disability benefits society. How, you ask? Let’s take a look at a few of the most obvious ways.

Curb Cuts in Sidewalks

People with children walk on crosswalk. A little girl is on scooter and a man pushes a stroller.

A curb cut is seen in sidewalk at left.

Remember the last time you had to hop a shopping cart over a curb? These ubiquitous ramps up and down off of curbs on sidewalks not only allow wheelchair users to travel unhindered, they also assist other pedestrians: people pushing strollers with babies or young children, workers with heavy loads on dollys, older adults, or those with wheeled bags. While that seems common sense, an actual study at a Florida shopping mall showed that 9 out of 10 “unencumbered pedestrians” go out of their way to use a curb cut. Curb cuts benefit everyone.

Accessible Stalls

Admit it: if that larger accessible stall is open, you take it. We all do. If you are a parent, think about that moment of relief when you find a stall large enough to accommodate both you and your small child. Or think about the many times you’ve had wheeled luggage in an airport and how thankful you were for that stall. Accessible stalls make a significant difference for wheelchair users, those with walkers, and people who might require additional help, but they are popular with everyone else, too.

Closed Captioning

While on-screen text was created for those who are D/deaf or hard of hearing (HoH), so many others benefit from it. For those for whom English is a second language or those with processing disorders, captions can allow for improved comprehension. Closed captioning also allows viewers to access the on-screen content in environments where it may not be possible to easily access the audio. Think about every nail salon, airport, gym, or dentist’s office you’ve been to – likely all of their televisions use captions.

All the above are part of something called the “curb cut effect.” This effect recognizes that disability is not about individual struggle but how the individual’s experiences intersect with mainstream social, political, economic and cultural life. This effect has allowed me, as a blind woman, to travel alone, order food at a restaurant, and use public facilities (such as bathrooms and public transit) among a million other things that would normally be completely inaccessible to me. Imagine not knowing where the edge of the train platform was? Or what was on a menu?  Or which restroom to use?

Accessible design is good design — it benefits people who don’t have disabilities as well as people who do. Accessibility is all about removing barriers and providing the benefits for everyone.” -Steve Ballmer, former Microsoft CEO (2000-2014)

When we promote the rights of and include people with disabilities at every level of society and development, everyone benefits. And that, is truly something to celebrate.

Happy International Day of People with Disabilities!

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

Day Al-Mohamed is an author, filmmaker, and disability policy strategist with over 15 years of experience. She wrote and directed, The Invalid Corps (Maryland Public Television, 2020), and the pilot for her historical disability series – RENEGADES: Kitty O’Neil – was just released on American Masters PBS, July 2021. She is a Founding Member of FWD-Doc (Documentary Filmmakers with Disabilities) and was honored to be named a 2021 Documentary New Leader by DOC NYC.  However, she is most proud of being invited to teach a workshop on storytelling at the White House in February 2016.  She lives in Washington, DC, with her wife, NR Brown, and guide dog, Gamma.

The WNET Group’s new Community Connections column, developed by  Community Engagement in partnership with Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, lifts up the communities and icons behind National Heritage observances.