Disability Prejudice

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Disability Prejudice

All people deal with prejudice (a negative attitude towards others based on a prejudgment about those individuals based on little prior knowledge or experience). While some people are victims of prejudice, all are susceptible to developing prejudices against others. Most people hold negative attitudes either consciously or subconsciously toward persons with disabilities. These negative attitudes lead to prejudice and discrimination.

People with disabilities live in every country in the world. In 2005, the United Nations (an international organization created to resolve conflicts in the world and provide humanitarian aid where needed) estimated there were 500 million disabled persons worldwide. In the United States, one in seven Americans is disabled.

People with disabilities are a diverse group—the visually, hearing, and speech disabled; persons with mental retardation; persons who have lost a limb; persons with restricted mobility such as those with spinal cord injuries; persons with learning disabilities; persons with various illnesses such as muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, or seizures. Muscular dystrophy is a disease that causes gradual wasting away of muscle tissue, eventually leaving a person wheelchair- or bed-bound. Cystic fibrosis is an inherited disease, whose most visible symptom is difficulty in breathing due to accumulation of mucous in the body's airways.

In the United States, as throughout the world, there has been a long history of prejudice against persons with disabilities. In his book No Pity, author Joseph P. Shapiro quotes Patrisha Wright of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund as saying, "All disabled people share one common experience—discrimination." Prejudice and discrimination against persons with disabilities result in a lack of accessibility to economic and educational opportunities, inadequate medical care, and exclusion from social interaction. This lack of accessibility leads to poverty, social isolation, and political powerlessness.

Disability prejudice is not widely understood, even among political, legal, and social institutions that are depended upon to put anti-discrimination laws in place. Most individuals who take time to educate themselves about the persistent prejudice against persons with disabilities are themselves disabled or have a disabled relative or friend. Non-disabled people commonly stereotype disabled persons as sick, dumb, repulsive, or even violent. Society's fears about disabilities are often just as handicapping to an individual as his or her actual disability. Social, educational, and economic opportunities are denied disabled individuals because of society's concerns, fears, embarrassments, and even pity.

Special Olympics

Eunice Kennedy Shriver (1921–), the fifth of nine children born to Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald, has been an advocate for the rights of persons with mental retardation her entire adult life. The sister of Democratic U.S. president John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63), Shriver founded Special Olympics in December 1968. Special Olympics is dedicated to empowering persons with mental retardation through sports training and competition based on the worldwide Olympic spirit.

Very successful and greatly enjoyed by people with mental retardation, Special Olympics are held in local communities throughout the United States and over 150 countries. Over 1.3 million disabled children and adults have participated.

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, persons with disabilities and their families became increasingly less tolerant of prejudice and discrimination after witnessing gains made by other social groups against prejudice, such as racial minorities and women. In the United States, frustration gave rise to the disability rights movement. The movement included persons with various disabilities, but their fundamental demands were the same—an end to discrimination, civil rights for persons with disabilities, and a chance to participate fully in society. The new activism resulted in legislation to prevent discrimination against persons with disabilities. The three core laws enacted by Congress are Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1974 that in 1990 was renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. Taken together, Section 504, IDEA, and ADA give persons with disabilities legal access to life activities that are available to non-disabled Americans.

Disability categories

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines disability, in Section 3, as "physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual."

As written, the ADA can be somewhat hard to understand as to exactly what can be considered a disability. For example, obesity is not considered a disabling condition. However, individuals who are obese are sometimes limited in activities, such as physical activities due to stamina, and regularly experience prejudice and discrimination.

The Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is more specific and lists the following categories of disabilities;

Specific learning disabilities

Speech or language impairments

  • Mental retardation (IQ is 70 or below)
  • Emotional or behavior disorders
  • Deaf/blindness (person both deaf and blind)
  • Visual impairments
  • Hearing impairments
  • Orthopedic (physical) impairments
  • Other health impairments (as epilepsy, muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, asthma)
  • Autism (a development disorder)
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Multiple disabilities

See box "Websites For Learning About Disabilities" for further definition of specific disabilities.

Specific learning disabilities

A category commonly misunderstood by the general public is learning disabilities. Students with learning disabilities (LD) make up about 50 percent of students with disabilities in America. People with learning disabilities may have a number of disorders, including one or more of the following: significant difficulty learning to read (dyslexia), difficulty with basic mathematics computations (dyscalculia), difficulty in forming letters correctly (dysgraphia), difficulty understanding instructions, difficulty reasoning, difficulties with memory, and difficulties with social interaction. The difficulties are lifelong and result from some type of brain dysfunction. They are not due to poor home environment or inadequate teaching.

Websites For Learning About Disabilities

Specific Learning Disabilities:

  • National Center for Learning Disabilities. http://www.ncld.org
  • The International Dyslexia Association. http://www.interdys.org
  • Learning Disabilities Association of America. http://www.ldanatl.org/
  • LD Online. http://www.ldonline.org

Speech or Language Impairments:

  • American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. http://www.asha.org

Mental Retardation:

  • American Association on Mental Retardation. http://www.aamr.org

Emotional or Behavior Disorders:

  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. http://www.samhsa.gov

Deaf/Blindness (person both deaf and blind):

  • National Center on Low-Incidence Disabilities. http://www.NCLID.unco.edu

Visual Impairments:

  • American Foundation for the Blind. http://www.afb.org
  • National Association for Parents of Children with Visual Impairments. http://www.napvi.org

Hearing Impairments:

Orthopedic (physical) Impairments:


  • Autism Society of America. http://www.autism-society.org

Traumatic Brain Injury:

  • Brain Injury Association of America. http://www.biausa.org/

Multiple Disabilities:

  • TASH, the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps. http://www.tash.org

Overall intellectual ability of an individual is generally determined by intelligence quotient tests, known more commonly as IQ tests. In U.S. schools, IQ testing is given to children in the early elementary grades. Testing covers a number of areas including mental and social reasoning development, character traits, reading, and play interests. By the 1920s IQ testing in the United States was widespread and continues to be the chief indicator of intellectual ability in the early twenty-first century. Learning disabilities are characterized by a wide discrepancy (differing values) in ability and achievement. For example, a student with a normal IQ of 103 who scores in the very low percentile rankings on achievement tests, perhaps fifth percentile, would be a person with learning disabilities. Persons with learning disabilities differ from persons who are simply "not getting it" or slower to pick up skills in reading, math, and writing because they have a neurobiological basis to their difficulties, meaning some type of dysfunction in the brain. Whereas non-learning disabled students who are slow to pick up skills can be helped and catch up with additional tutoring, learning disabled students' difficulties require highly specific specialized instruction to make progress.

History of purposeful unequal treatment

Section 2, Findings and Purposes, of the ADA states, "historically, society has tended to isolate and segregate individuals with disabilities … [they] have been faced with restrictions and limitations, subjected to a history of purposeful unequal treatment, and relegated [limited] to a position of political powerlessness in our society, based on characteristics that are beyond the control of such individuals…."

Since the beginning of U.S. history until the mid-1900s, attitudes and actions toward persons with disabilities were characterized by rejection, forcible removal from society, and neglect. Beginning in the early 1800s, the first institutions for disabled persons were established. The institutions, known as "asylums," isolated the disabled from family and regular society. Asylums for the "deaf and dumb" opened in Connecticut in 1817 and in Kentucky in 1823, and in 1829 the New England Asylum for the Blind opened in Watertown, Massachusetts. In 1833, the State Lunatic Hospital opened in Worcester, Massachusetts, and in 1859 the Massachusetts School for Idiotic and Feebleminded Youth was established. In 1846, Edouard Seguin (1812–1880) published a landmark book on the subject of mental retardation entitled The Moral Treatment, Hygiene, and Education of Idiots and Other Backward Children. In 1874, the California Supreme Court in Ward v. Flood ruled that public schools principals could deny entrance to any child they did not believe had the ability to enter the school's lowest grade. Denied entrance was based entirely on the principal's subjective opinion of the child. By 1915, one of the first widely used special educational texts was titled Laggards in Our Schools by Leonard P. Ayres (1891–1972). A laggard is a person who falls behind or is last.

As evidenced by the early institutions' names and titles of authoritative books, negative labels have been applied to persons with disabilities for centuries. The following is a list of labels and terms commonly applied to persons with disabilities from early U.S. history continuing into the 1950s. The terms were used by persons responsible for the care and education of the disabled as well as the general public.

IdiotDeaf and dumb
ImbecileMentally defective
PervertBackward children
Incorrigible and truant boys

Largely as an outgrowth of studies by psychologist Henry Goddard (1866–1957) in the 1910s and 1920s, the number of state institutions for feeblemindedness or "mental defectives" increased. In 1912 Goddard published his book The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble Mindedness. Although his research was based on hearsay from interviews with members and acquaintances of the Kallikak family, Goddard claimed his studies proved that feeblemindedness was inherited from generation to generation.

Goddard's book ushered in extreme forms of prejudice against individuals with disabilities including the eugenics movement. The eugenics movement's stated goal was to improve human genetic qualities. Toward this goal individuals with disabilities and mental illnesses were sterilized. The individual did not even have to have any "defects"; it was enough cause for sterilization if a person was the child of a "defective" parent. The eugenics movement led to increased euthanasia. Euthanasia is the practice of killing or permitting the death of a hopelessly ill or injured individual. Babies with disabilities were allowed to die and adults with disabilities were assisted with committing suicide.

In 1923, forty states had institutions housing approximately forty-three thousand mentally defective persons. Twenty-three states by 1929 had legalized "eugenical" sterilization of the mentally defective so they could not produce children. Several states had such laws on their books until the 1970s.

Pioneering advocates

A few pioneering persons in early U.S. history struggled to improve the lives of the disabled. In 1817 Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (1787–1851) established the American Asylum for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb in Hartford, Connecticut. Modern-day Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., was named for the Gallaudet family. In 1887, teacher Anne Mansfield Sullivan (1866–1936) began work with Helen Keller (1880–1968), who was both blind and deaf but ultimately became a role model for disabled people. The National Education Association established a Department of Special Education in 1897, but it failed to survive.

In the first half of the twentieth century children with obvious significant mental and physical disabilities were kept out of public schools and usually institutionalized. Other children who had less obvious disabilities were admitted to public schools. However, they found it impossible to keep up with schoolwork. Educators began the practice of placing children who could not succeed in the typical classroom into separate classes that offered little educational substance but kept them apart from the children considered normal achievers. In 1944, Elise H. Martens of the U.S. Office of Education boldly put forth the idea that all children, with no exceptions, should be educated in public schools. It was thirty or more years before legislation requiring what Martens suggested passed through Congress.

Famous people who advocated for persons with disabilities included author Pearl S. Buck (1892–1973), Hollywood stars Roy Rogers (1911–1998) and his wife Dale Evans (1912–2001), and the politically powerful Kennedy family. However, the roots of prejudice ran deep within American society. Their success came primarily in raising public awareness.

Roots of disability prejudice

Studies in psychology reveal that prejudices against the disabled are rooted in negative stereotyping, stigmatization, psychological discomfort, and pity. Each of these topics will be explored in the following sections. Due to these factors, the non-disabled often develop prejudices subconsciously and once acquired, these prejudices are not easily overcome.

Negative stereotyping

Negative stereotyping means believing all members of a certain group share the same negative characteristics. For example, a prevalent concern of employers when considering whether or not to hire disabled persons is that they might have high absentee rates. Many studies show this stereotype of absenteeism has no basis but continues to be a concern.

In the twenty-first century, a person belonging to a minority race is likely to be judged on his or her individual characteristics such as trustworthiness, ability to get along with others, skill, and experience. However, a disabled person is often only judged by his or her disability. Non-disabled people view a disability—physical or mental—as a negative characteristic. All of a disabled person's characteristics—mental, physical, and social—are then judged in a negative light.

Different, useless, unfortunate, and sick are just a few negative stereotypes applied to persons with disabilities. Research has identified specific stereotypes that non-disabled people commonly attribute to specific disabilities. Persons with mental retardation or mental illness are stereotyped as violent. Blind people often encounter non-disabled individuals who shout at them as if they were also deaf. Many people stereotype persons with severe physical disabilities as also mentally impaired. Negative perceptions about disabled persons result in their exclusion from groups or activities regardless of their actual abilities.


A stigma is an identifying mark or characteristic that reduces an individual to a slightly less-than-human status in the minds of non-disabled persons. Disabled persons throughout history have had to contend with severe stigmatization.

Beautiful bodies radiating good health are associated with the good and noble people. Although the thirty-second president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45), used a wheelchair, pictures of Roosevelt sitting in his chair were almost never seen in the 1940s. Dedicated in 1997, the Roosevelt memorial located in Washington, D.C., stirred controversy when a statue of the late president showed him seated but with a coat covering his wheelchair. Under protest of organizations representing persons with physical disabilities, the statue was changed revealing that Roosevelt was seated in a wheelchair.

From biblical times, physical deformities have been associated with punishment for sin. In Western culture, many fabled stories have evil characters that are missing an arm or leg. The evil Captain Hook from the children's tale Peter Pan was missing a hand; in its place was a hook. The frightening Captain Ahab in the American classic Moby Dick was obsessed with finding the whale that severed his leg and scarred his body. His wooden leg could be heard thumping heavily as he paced the deck of his ship.

Nowhere is stigmatization more evident than with people disabled by mental retardation. Society has long viewed those individuals as subhuman. Because of fear or embarrassment, most non-disabled persons choose to avoid contact with the mentally retarded.

Society has historically perceived mental illness such as depression or schizophrenia as something people do to themselves, something they could avoid if they only had a better character. A majority of Americans believe the cause of mental illness is emotional weakness. This stigma lingers in the twenty-first century, even though research clearly has shown mental illness results from changes in the brain's chemistry.

Psychological discomfort

In addition to stereotyping and stigmatization, persons with disabilities are held back from fully participating in society because most non-disabled persons feel very uncomfortable interacting with them. Many individuals feel embarrassment or awkwardness around disabled persons.

Non-disabled persons often fear they do not know how to talk to disabled persons, what to say or how to say it. Others are reminded of the ever-present possibility in daily life of an accident that could leave them impaired and dependent on others. Other non-disabled individuals simply view interaction with disabled persons as displeasing. Psychological discomfort keeps disabled persons separated and Isolated.

Pity and need

Many non-disabled people see the disabled as persons to be pitied and assume they are helpless and incompetent. Insisting the disabled must be protected rather than respected, the non-disabled unconsciously discriminate by keeping the disabled dependent others for constant assistance. This form of prejudice, although stemming from sympathy and pity, keeps the disabled socially and economically unproductive.

The Disability Rights Movement

In 1970, Ed Roberts (1939–1995), a quadriplegic (no use of arms and legs) disabled by polio (a viral disease that destroys nerve cells, frequently leading to paralysis) at the age of fourteen, received a government grant to establish a program for students with physical disabilities at the University of California, Berkeley. While publicly expressing doubt that Roberts could succeed, the university's officials had admitted Roberts in 1962 out of courtesy for his determined attitude. Even though he found few buildings accessible to someone in a wheelchair, he succeeded at Berkeley by convincing university administrators to improve various kinds of access, such as breaks in curbs for people using wheelchairs, paving the way for more students with physical abilities. Meanwhile, it was difficult for Roberts to complete his education. For example, no access existed for dormitories so he had to live in the infirmary (university health center). The program Roberts founded in 1970 helped disabled students navigate their way around Berkeley. In 1972, Roberts expanded his program that he called Center for Independent Living (CIL) to provide a wide range of services, such as housing assistance, employment services, and financial counseling. CIL also became a national advocate for legislation to end discrimination against persons with disabilities and to instill pride and empowerment within the disabled community. In 2006 CIL's headquarters remains in Berkeley with offices also located in nearby Oakland, California.

In 1970, activist Judy Heumann (1947–), a student who had been disabled by polio when she was 18 months old, founded Disabled in Action (DIA). Heumann hoped to become a teacher and attended Long Island University in New York. However, New York City would not issue her a teacher's license because she used a wheelchair and school officials assumed she could not control students. Publicity of Heumann's situation was reported in the media and resulted in an outpouring of support from disabled persons across the country who had also been discriminated against in one way or another. With a greater understanding and awareness of the pervasiveness of discrimination of the disabled, Heumann established the DIA. Its goals are to end discrimination against the disabled by seeking new legislation and enforcing existing legislation giving equal rights to the disabled through educational programs and public demonstrations. Heumann and other persons with disabilities marched under the DIA banner in Washington, D.C., in 1972, along with other groups advocating civil rights for the disabled. The disability rights movement was born.

The disability rights movement took inspiration from the black civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s by people standing up to authority and no longer accepting continued discriminatory treatment. Persons with disabilities demanded their voices be heard. They spoke about attitude barriers caused by Americans stereotyping them as pitiful, sick, useless, dumb, and even violent. They also spoke about physical architectural barriers, such as stairs and curbs, which kept those in wheelchairs at home since they could not navigate to school, stores, and employment. The disabled would no longer be silent, content to accept any charity that came their way.

Section 504

The first significant piece of legislation resulting from disabled persons' activism was the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a federal act known as Public Law (P.L.) 93-112. Section 504 of the law was the first civil rights legislation in the United States written to specifically protect persons with disabilities. The soon-to-be famous Section 504 began,

"No otherwise qualified individuals with handicaps in the United States … shall, solely by reason of his/her handicap, 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…."

These words became a cornerstone of civil rights for persons with disabilities. Disabilities, called handicaps in Section 504, are defined as any impairment that significantly limits one or more major life activities, such as walking, seeing, hearing, and learning. The law protected people with disabilities from discrimination in programs receiving federal funding. Programs receiving federal funds—including schools, transportation systems, libraries, and hospitals—had to be accessible to disabled persons or risk losing their federal funding.

After a law is passed, the appropriate departments within the federal government must write rules and regulations for enforcing it. The Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) completed writing the regulations for P.L. 93-112 in spring of 1977, and the signature of the head of HEW, Secretary Joseph Califano (1931–), was required. It was not until P.L. 93-112 passed through Congress and the regulation written that business and community leaders realized what had been done. Regulations would require them to come up with money to build ramps, elevators, and fit buses with lifts for wheelchairs. Intense opposition to Section 504 developed as public awareness of the issue grew and some feared the costs of making accommodations. Listening to business leaders, Califano hesitated at signing P.L. 93-112. Califano expressed concern over the cost to businesses to comply with the regulations. Disability activists unleashed a firestorm of protests.

Protest demonstrations were held at HEW offices nationwide. In a sit-in protest, three hundred disabled activists occupied Califano's office in Washington, D.C., for 24 hours. The most powerful and moving demonstration occurred at the HEW in San Francisco, California. Organized by Judy Heumann, the HEW offices were occupied by disabled persons for twenty-five days. Officials cut off phone and food service. Communication difficulties were easily overcome as deaf persons standing in the windows used American Sign Language to "talk" to persons on the street. Food arrived from restaurants and groups around the city. Finally on April 28, 1977, Califano, under intense public pressure, signed the regulations for P.L. 93-112 that included Section 504. Disability activists knew they had taken a giant step forward in their fight against prejudice and discrimination.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

The second major civil rights legislation for the disabled was passed in 1974, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. Parents of disabled children had been told for decades that their children could not be educated at public schools. Parents were told to either keep their children home or send them to special private schools, generally expensive and far from home. Then in 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruled that the segregation (separation based on race) of students by race was unconstitutional. The Court ruled that an education must be available to all children on an equal basis so that they could have an equal opportunity to succeed in life. Parents of children with disabilities began to ask why the principle of equal access to education was not applied to their children. In the 1960s and early 1970s parents challenged the legality of excluding their disabled children from public educational programs available to non-disabled children.

In a series of cases in the early 1970s, courts began to rule on behalf of students with disabilities, saying they could not be denied a free public education. An example is Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children (PARC) v. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, decided in 1972. In the PARC case, the court ruled that children with mental retardation had the right to a free public education and that they could benefit from an education designed to meet their specific needs.

The 1974 Education for All Handicapped Children Act ordered states to create educational opportunities for all students. One year later, the act was amended (added to) and became known as Education of the Handicapped Act, Public Law 94-142.

P.L. 94-142, renamed in 1990 as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), is the basis for education of students with disabilities. P.L. 94-142 contains three revolutionary principles. First is "zero reject." No child can be denied a free public education regardless of the severity of his disability. Each state is required to put in force a system of "child find," to seek out all of those disabled children not in public school and enroll them. Second, the school must provide an "appropriate" public education, that is, use specialized instruction and services to allow the student to obtain an education. Third, the student must be educated in the "least restrictive environment (LRE)": within the regular classroom setting or a setting as much like a regular classroom as possible. P.L. 94-142 assures that students with disabilities will be educated in their neighborhood schools with non-disabled students.

Protests at Gallaudet University

In 1988, another major disability rights protest occurred at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. Established in 1864, Gallaudet was a highly respected university for deaf students. However, its president had always been a person with hearing. When in March 1988 the school filled the vacant president's position with another hearing president, the students erupted in protest. Shutting the school down for a week, students demanded a deaf president be appointed. The students were victorious when I. King Jordan (1943–) was named president. Jordan, formerly the dean of students, was a deaf man. In Deborah Kent's book The Disability Rights Movement, Jordan is quoted, "We can no longer accept limits on what we can achieve."

The Gallaudet demonstrations were covered extensively in the media. Fully aware of the black and women's civil rights movements, Americans, most for the first time, began to realize that a civil rights movement among persons with disabilities existed. At Gallaudet, Americans saw deaf students fighting for a deaf person to guide their university. Like the movement as a whole, disabled individuals were no longer willing to be guided and led only by the non-disabled. No longer would they allow society's pity, fears, and stereotyping to hold them back. What they demanded was full participation in society.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

While Gallaudet demonstrations were very visible to the American public, a small group of persons with disabilities, the National Council on the Handicapped, was holding meetings only a few miles away. Appointed by Republican president Ronald Reagan (1911–2004; served 1981–89), the little-known council was crafting a bill to give civil rights protection to persons with disabilities. Two key members of the council were its thirty-nine-year-old attorney Robert L. Burgdorf Jr. and fifty-eight-year-old disability advocate Justin Dart Jr., son of one of President Reagan's close personal friends, a California millionaire who had headed Rexall Drugs, a large, successful company. Both Burgdorf and Dart contracted polio in 1948. Burgdorf was an infant and was left with a paralyzed upper right arm. Dart was eighteen years old and lost the use of both legs. The obscure council on which they served was quietly writing the comprehensive legislation that would protect the rights of all individuals with disabilities. Advocacy groups for disability rights such as the National Council on Disability (NCD), founded in 1978, pushed for passage of ADA. Senator Tom Harkin (1939–) of Iowa and Senator Edward Kennedy (1932–) of Massachusetts provided key help in directing the bill's passage in Congress.

On July 26, 1990, Republican president George H. W. Bush (1924–; served 1989–93) signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The goals of ADA were to provide opportunity for persons with disabilities to participate fully in the workforce and social life of the country, to earn living wages, and to live independently.

ADA provisions established sweeping protections in employment (Title I), public services (Title II), public accommodations (Title III), telecommunications (Title IV), and building design (Title V). The protections were still solidly in place in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

ADA Provisions

Title I Employment

Employers cannot discriminate against an individual because of the individual's disability in matters of "application procedures, hiring, advancement, or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training…."

Title II Public services

Public services must be accessible to the disabled. Public services means any services provided by federal, state, and local governments such as city bus transportation or school bus service, access to facilities such as social security offices, access to voting places, and access to city hall, and state and federal buildings housing a host of government agencies.

Title III Public accommodations and services operated by private entities

Title III prohibits discrimination by persons who own, lease, or operate establishments that provide public accommodations. Public accommodations include places where the general public buys goods, receives services, and enjoys entertainment. Examples include hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, stadiums, grocery stores, clothing stores, Laundromats, banks, professional offices as those of doctors, lawyers, and accountants, hospitals, airports, parks, zoos, private as well as public schools, and social service centers as daycare or senior citizens centers.

Title IV Telecommunications

Title IV requires improved accessibility to communication services for the hearing and speech impaired. Examples are relay services through telephones and closed captioning of public service announcements, such as printed messages across television screens in case of a weather or emergency alert.

Title V

Section 501, Construction, requires that buildings are accessible to the disabled. This section is responsible for ramps and extensive use of elevators in buildings.

ADA struck at the roots of prejudice against people with disabilities. Special interest groups such as business associations viciously opposed ADA. They believed finding money for modifications to buildings would be almost impossible, and predicted that an avalanche of lawsuits would result against businesses for various violations of ADA requirements. Predictions of early opponents of ADA did not happen to any great extent. By 2000, polls revealed over 80 percent of business leaders favored ADA.

ADA forced millions of business community and education leaders to recognize people with disabilities as members of the human race, as citizens who can advocate for their rights with legal support. Because of ADA requirements, people with disabilities can access buildings and entire communities. Improvements under ADA include ramps, lifts on buses, parking places for disabled, Braille instructions at elevators and at ATMs, wide and automatic doors, modified working places and bathrooms, listening devices, printed captions, and telephone relays. More and more people with severe disabilities train for, apply for, and get jobs. Nevertheless, even with ADA, disability rights activists believe it will take many, many years for ADA and the disabled community to reach all of its goals.

Into the twenty-first century

In 2001, Republican president George W. Bush (1946–; served 2001–) signed the New Freedom Initiative to build on the progress made with ADA. The New Freedom Initiative expands the use of technology to aid in increased employment and educational opportunities. A new government website, Disability Info.gov, is a resource of programs and technology relevant to the daily lives of people with disabilities, their family, employers, friends, service providers, and community members.

In 2005, the National Council on Disabilities' studies indicate that while prejudice remains, gains for the disabled have been made in at least five areas: (1) people with disabilities are experiencing less discrimination in employment; (2) a higher percentage of students with disabilities are graduating from high school and attending college; (3) public transportation systems have become more accessible to those people using wheelchairs; (4) significantly more persons with disabilities are voting; and (5) technology changes and updates are aiding the disabled in the workplace and at home. Discrimination in housing and lack of affordable housing are still major problems.


At ADA's passage in 1990, Congress and persons who spoke out for the disabled knew from decades of study by the U.S. Department of Labor that workers with disabilities were productive, adjusted well to work settings, and had safety records identical to non-disabled. Changes in workplace to accommodate disabled workers generally involved little cost. Such accommodations often involved as little as putting a ramp over a set of stairs or providing turn-around space at a workbench.

United Nations and Worldwide Disability

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the United Nations (UN) estimated five hundred million individuals (10 percent of the world's population) were people with disabilities. Upwards of 20 percent of the population in some countries are disabled, which means through family ties at least one half of those countries' populations are affected in some manner by disability. The number of persons with disabilities increases as the world population increases. The number also increases due to lack of proper medical care, natural disasters, war, and outbreaks of violence within countries. Therefore, the UN found it vital to work to improve education, economic opportunity, and access to medical care for persons with disabilities.

Societies in every country harbor prejudice against the disabled. In the form of social attitudes and physical barriers, prejudice isolates the disabled leaving them with little hope of making a living or participating in society. Founded in 1945 on the principle of equality for all, the UN works to end prejudice and the resulting discrimination against the disabled. Three agencies within the UN are especially active in addressing the disabled population. The World Health Organization (WHO) provides technical assistance to countries to equalize access to proper medical care for persons with disabilities. The International Labour Office (ILO) promotes increased economic opportunities for disabled persons. The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) works on behalf of children with disabilities.

From the 1950s to the start of the twenty-first century, the UN programs transformed from providing services to care for individuals with disabilities to breaking down barriers, allowing the disabled a chance to live independently and self-sufficiently within their communities. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the disabled, no longer willing to lead lives of passively accepting services, demanded more extensive participation in society. To aid in this goal, in 1975 the UN's Commission for Social Development recommended countries begin eliminating physical architectural barriers, such as providing buildings with ramps and elevators as well as stairs.

On December 9, 1975, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons. The Declaration stated that disabled persons were entitled to the same rights as the non-disabled in all areas of life—rights to an education, medical services, employment, legal aid, to live with their families, and to be protected against abuse and discrimination. On December 16, 1975, the UN General Assembly proclaimed 1981 as the International Year of the Disabled Persons with programs devoted to bringing persons with disabilities into full participation within their societies. In December 1982 the UN proclaimed 1983 through 1992 the Decade of Disabled Persons. During the decade UN agencies recognized disabled persons as full citizens of the world. It encouraged educating persons with disabilities within the regular school system and teaching skills, such as independent living, to prepare individuals for making a living. International development agencies and organizations were encouraged to work together toward these goals.

At the start of the twenty-first century UN planners addressed the issue of making new information technologies available to persons with disabilities. Through computer literacy, international resources become available to disabled persons online on the Internet. Those resources can link and enable disabled persons to build a powerful international community for the advancement of their political and economic gains.

A poll taken by Louis Harris and Associates, a private polling business, in 2000, just ten years after passage of the American Disabilities Act (ADA,) found that only 56 percent of persons with disabilities who were capable and ready to work were employed. These numbers did reflect a significant improvement since enactment of ADA in 1990. A similar Harris poll in 1986 revealed only 46 percent of disabled persons who were able to work were employed. Nevertheless, the 2000 figures fall far behind the employment numbers of non-disabled persons. Those who do not work collect federal disability and welfare checks. Yet the majority of these people want to be productive taxpaying citizens.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, studies indicate that the majority of non-disabled persons still, however quietly and hidden, hold prejudices against persons with disabilities. These prejudices continue to impact disabled persons economically, by limiting their ability to join the workforce and make a living.


Just as prejudice has negatively affected employment, it continues to affect educational opportunities. In the twenty-first century, educational opportunities for disabled students, despite IDEA, are still impacted by prejudice. Educators struggle to follow the requirements of IDEA. Only a tiny fraction, about 7 percent, of federal funding promised to schools for implementing IDEA has reached school districts.

Many general classroom teachers are honest when they say they are uncomfortable with disabled students in their classrooms. Parents of non-disabled students complain that disabled students instructed in the general classroom take too much of the teacher's time, are distracting to other students, and are sometimes repulsive. Many teachers, especially at the high school level, are highly reluctant to accommodate students with disabilities. While by law they must agree to individualize studies for disabled students, in reality their extremely busy schedules allow little time for individualized instruction, and resistance and prejudice against such students creeps in.

A 2000 Harris poll found the high school dropout rate of students with disabilities was over twice that of non-disabled students. However, since the passage of IDEA and ADA, the graduation rate has significantly improved. In 1986, 61 percent of students with disabilities graduated from high school. In 2000, almost 80 percent graduated. The same poll indicated 12 percent of persons with disabilities received college degrees compared to 23 percent of the non-disabled population.

Combating prejudices in the twenty-first century

Persons with disabilities continued to struggle in the twenty-first century for full participation in society. Many national organizations continued to promote policies, programs, and procedures to ensure equal opportunity of all persons with disabilities. Together Section 504, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and ADA require that people with disabilities are able to access educational programs and services, activities, and employment opportunities available to non-disabled persons. They protect civil rights of people with disabilities, making clear discrimination will not be tolerated. The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice is the chief enforcer of laws that prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities.

For More Information


Friend, Marilyn. Special Education: Contemporary Perspectives for School Professionals. New York: Pearson Education, 2005.

Kent, Deborah. Cornerstones of Freedom: The Disability Rights Movement. New York: Children's Press, 1996.

Lattarulo, Lori A. Disability, Society, and the Individual. Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen Publishers, 2001.

Nazzaro, Jean N. Exceptional Timetables: Historic Events Affecting the Handicapped and Gifted. Reston, VA: Council for Exceptional Children, 1977.

Shapiro, Joseph P. No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1994.

U.S. Supreme Court. University of Alabama at Birmingham Board of Trustees v. Patricia Garrett. October Term, 1999.


"ADA Home Page." Civil Rights Division, U.S. Department of Justice. http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada/adahom1.htm (accessed on November 6, 2006).

Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund. http://www.dredf.org (accessed on November 22, 2006).

"Enable." United Nations. http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/enable (accessed on November 22, 2006).

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Disability Prejudice

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