Empowerment, Inclusion, and Equality

As the U.S. celebrates Martin Luther King Day, let’s take a minute to consider how the principles of civil rights and equality apply to disability inclusion.

Civil Rights and Disabilities

Challenging the status quo has never been an easy path. Black civil rights leaders in the 1960s met brutal public hostility and physical abuse. The same thing happened with the women’s suffrage movement of the early twentieth century, and with sexual-orientation/gender-identity movements in recent decades.

People with disabilities are not immune from direct attacks (and are at higher-than-average risk for domestic abuse and criminal victimization). However, people with disabilities—whether or not they openly advocate for inclusion—typically suffer more from being belittled, ignored, or otherwise treated as somehow “less”:

  • Less intellectually competent
  • Less capable of doing anything that deserves acknowledgment
  • Less likely to ever really “grow up”
  • Less sensitive to unfair treatment
  • Less effective in every area of life, regardless of what’s actually affected by disability impairments

It was such attitudes that, for much of history, condemned people with disabilities to life in institutions. The status-quo attitude was that they were incapable of ever making meaningful contributions, so there was no reason to even offer them the chance.

Disability Is Not Destiny

Things have improved considerably over the last century, but people with disabilities still face uphill battles in finding employment, getting full access to public facilities, or even being taken seriously. Congenital mental or emotional disabilities are particularly likely to attract assumptions that a child has little hope of ever living independently, let alone creating a significant legacy. And the child who grows up under such assumptions is likely to absorb them, and continue believing throughout adulthood, “I’ll never be capable of achieving much, so there’s no use trying.”

It’s not only the individual who loses out in such a case. A society where many members never achieve their full potential is a society deprived of countless beneficial contributions—not to mention the drain on caregivers that means even more people operating below their potential. Full human dignity for people with disabilities means:

  • Acknowledgment of their natural talents as valuable (whether or not these talents are in obvious demand)
  • Respectful attention to their questions and insights
  • Encouragement to aim high and follow their grandest dreams
  • The right to approach challenges and find solutions in whatever ways they find natural, without pressure to do it like “everyone else”
  • Educational and career opportunities appropriate to their skills and temperaments, where they can work and achieve to the full extent of their abilities

Equality vs. Entitlement

You may notice that the above list says nothing about having basic needs met, having access to the best assistive technology, or having adequate caretaker availability—not because such things aren’t important, but because they often become end goals rather than ways of smoothing the path toward greater goals.

Many people with disabilities grow up being pitied and overindulged, which in the end proves as detrimental as condescension and shunning. The search for reasonable accommodations becomes a life of demanding to have all personal preferences accommodated. The right to inclusive accessibility morphs into a presumed right to avoid every hardship or challenge, even those universal to humanity or necessary to individual progress. Rather than participating and achieving as an equal among peers, the person involved becomes a true drain on society’s resources, always a taker and never a giver, bitter and isolated and unhappy.

Empowerment and inclusion are not about making anyone more equal than others in any way. The purpose is giving everyone, regardless of abilities or disabilities, opportunities to experience full lives of learning and achieving and contributing. Lives anchored in the joy of understanding that the best success is the kind you put your full self into.   

Recommended Reading and Resources

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