One of the ways in which people with physical disabilities may become most marginalized occurs when travel becomes a problem. The freedom that comes from having the ability to travel is unmatched and undisputed. Residing in the community where one desires to live, socializing and performing meaningful and dignified work become much easier. When people with disabilities might otherwise have opportunities to work, employers still deny them employment where they might otherwise thrive, because they are unable to commute. At a time when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has made accommodations in the workplace a household word, this would seem unthinkable.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for Americans with disabilities aged 16 and older was 8 percent in 2018, compared to 3.7 percent for those without disabilities. Additionally, their labor force participation rate (20.8 percent) in 2018 was much lower than the rate for people without disabilities (68.4 percent).
An estimated 25.5 million Americans report having travel-limiting disabilities, according to data from the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics. About half of this population (13.4 million) is aged 18 to 64, and only about a fifth of this group report working part-time or full-time. These gaps in employment stem from several factors, not the least of which include significant barriers in accessing transportation needed to travel to-and-from work.
Imagine how much less of a burden and how much more freedom people with disabilities would have if self-driving cars were made widely available. There are very few areas of life in which people with disabilities do not need to face challenges posed by their travel limitations, and a car that drives itself would be an enormous step toward reducing those challenges, if not eliminating them altogether. Few would argue how this would increase employment prospects in particular and overall quality of life for people with travel-restricting disabilities.
Regarding the many benefits that autonomous transportation can bring for people with disabilities, Sheryl Gross-Glaser, director of the nonprofit Community Transportation Association of America, correctly notes in clear, timely fashion that,
“Autonomous vehicles hold incredible promise for people with disabilities to enjoy
the enormous freedom that most adults have to live spontaneously and to be
One of the most significant, overarching goals of disability liberation is for people to have experiences, enjoyment and overall daily existence with the convivence that is comparable to their able-bodied counterparts. As technology advances, so too Gross-Glaser says, can freedom and independence for people with varying types of impairments. She continues,
“But just as we need to enable someone with a walker or wheelchair to enter and exit
a vehicle, we need redundant technologies that serve people with auditory or visual impairments and technologies and designs that assist people with cognitive disabilities. Those exist, and they should be used in designing autonomous vehicles so that all autonomous vehicles will be accessible.”
In addition to personal autonomous vehicles, another way the technology can be used is in the area of public transportation, allowing for broader availability that doesn’t depend on the presence of a driver. A fleet of accessible, self-driving taxicabs, buses, and streetcars may be liberating for all. Hailing a ride from an app may not even need a driver or a dispatcher attached to it.
The essence of technology at its best is that it makes tasks easier to perform than they previously were. There are lots of ways that the infrastructure of the outside world must become more accessible. Despite the significant accommodations resulting from passage of the ADA, that larger goal has not been met. However, just as wheelchair users have the potential to be pedestrians in ways they would not without that assistive technology, the autonomous vehicle has the potential to turn people with travel restricting disabilities, for all intents and purposes, into drivers and independent travelers.
By Jeremy Einbinder for CAN DO WORK
There is a tendency in “mainstream” educational systems to marginalize people with learning differences, to make them feel so separate as to be not worthy of instruction. Broadly speaking, such as in the case of the autistic “spectrum,” what is generally considered to be “low functioning” is used to deny agency and allows the established institutions to cast people aside whom they view to not be worth the effort. Whereas people who do struggle, but have the outward appearance and presentation of functioning “normally” or at a “high” level may be denied support.
In an article for The Nation, David M. Perry talks about the ways in which his child, who has Down Syndrome is regularly denigrated along these lines. Going through the process of getting his son support, Perry explains,
“The first social worker came over to assess our son, and we cheerfully talked about how great he was, then later were told we qualified for very little. Yet every other parent and teacher kept talking about ‘waivers’ that we should qualify for—but a waiver from what? What service or requirement was getting waived? We struggled through form after form, lost in the bureaucratic hurdles that stood between us and help.”
It is evident from this anecdote alone that the process should be streamlined, that students should simply have whatever supports they need. Means-testing in this fashion is a destructive practice, wasting the time of both parents and students, denying the kids the support they may need through such endless bureaucracy, when learning could in actuality be much more flexible as a standard.
“Eventually we found out that a social worker had used "mild" for my son's developmental disability on his first assessment, so we had to argue with the state that, in fact, his disabilities were not mild.”
This is especially demeaning. Children with disabilities are in a world which constantly makes them feel like they are not enough, which makes them feel like they can’t be seen as fully human, and that is to a large extent because of the supports that they do not receive. Essentially, Kelly is pleading with the state to recognize that his son does in fact need support, and the only way to do that is to assure them that his son’s case is not “mild” and therefore that it is worthy of actual consideration.
This should not be so difficult. The disability rights movement has been around for generations and the struggle continues.
A USA today article explains,
“Special education made giant leaps on the coattails of the civil rights movement. After more than a decade of congressional study, The Education of All Handicapped Children Act was passed in 1975, signed by President Gerald Ford in November of that year. In 1997, the law was renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).”
The mandate for Disability rights has been around for generations, and for all the progress it has made, it has remained stagnant. Inclusion and diversity are vital. Nobody learns the exact same way, and accommodations should not be means-tested. In this sense, individualizing approaches to education becomes crucial. According to a philosophy known as “Universal Design for Learning,” which Temple University detailed in a study, the approach is “An inclusive learning environment that is universally designed takes into account all relevant dimensions of difference that an instructor expects to encounter” among the students. In order to realize this, students with learning differences need the necessary attention not to just survive education, but the thrive within it.
Referring to the then-recent passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, the New York Times wrote in an editorial: “The act does more than enlarge the independence of disabled Americans. It enlarges civil rights and humanity, for all Americans.”
As with many civil rights decisions throughout American history, we must observe two common themes: First off, that the majority of the credit for the struggle to enact change goes to activists, demonstrators and those who engage in direct action and confrontation. Secondly, that the spirit of equality meant to course through American society as a result of landmark wins for civil rights is incredibly difficult to maintain.
For all of the gains that the ADA has made since it’s passage over 30 years ago, its enactment, both in theory and in practice, leave a lot to be desired. Even taking into account the strides in public physical accessibility of community spaces, there is still so much work to be done, even in its most visible form. The fact is that making things physically accessible costs money, and is not always profitable for a business to undergo, especially for a population that many still seem to forget exists, even though they are visible. Crucially, however, there is certainly more to disability than its visible components.
Andrew Purlang, a non-profit executive and disability advocate writes in a Forbes article on the ADA,
“We value its protections, its guidance on how to ensure equal access, and the way it explains disability issues in terms of civil rights rather than just a personal, medical matter. At the same time, we recognize the law’s limitations, its vulnerability to abuse and neglect, and the uneven record of the real changes it has brought about. The ADA has changed the literal landscape and the conceptual language of disability life in America. But it has also fallen short on full community accessibility, long term care, employment, and on equally protecting all people with every kind of disability, not just white, educated, middle-class people in wheelchairs.”
People with invisible mental, intellectual or social disabilities unfortunately remain under-acknowledged despite the progress that has been made so far. Social infrastructure, education, and economics geared by default toward people with very specific tendencies. These include learning styles, productivity habits, ability or willingness to follow particular directions, sleep schedules and energy levels, the ability to keep anxiety and compulsions in check, and the ability to pay attention and complete tasks in the exact way an employer or manager wants. This is independent of whether or not the people compelled to do the work feel any sort of meaningful connection to it.
The fact remains that in the world as it is currently organized, an individual has to have money to survive. Most people, in order to get money, must be employed, or survive on a usually meager welfare state that otherizes people with disabilities and further alienates them from the rest of the population, especially if their impairments (as judged by neurotypical able-bodied people to be so) are invisible.
It is relatively simple for buildings and infrastructure physically accessible. More ramps, elevators, wider hallways, and other changes to architectural design. It may be so much harder to design a world in which people of social, mental and intellectual differences, along with physical ones, are given the opportunity to thrive to the best of their potential. Such a world is not built yet. It is evident that we not only have to change the physical structures of the public sphere, but also the very ideals on which this society have been based.