One in four adults in the United States lives with a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They encompass every age, race, ethnicity, and social class. In the public discourse on discrimination, stigma, marginalization and DEI (Diversity, Justice and Inclusion), however, disability is often overlooked.
In a livestream forum led by Yale alumni as part of the IMPACT 2 series, a diverse group of leaders, advocates and disability rights experts discussed the intersectionality of disability justice and the future of the national disability rights movement after the 30th anniversary of Das Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was made possible after a long civil rights battle led and supported by a broad coalition across the country.
The discussion was moderated by Janni Lehrer-Stein ’78, a disability rights attorney who served on the US National Council on Disability, and Benjamin Nadolsky ’18, an advisor to the World Institute on Disability. You are co-chairs of the Yale DiversAbility Alumni Group, an emerging organization that engages and connects alumni with disabilities (and allies) and supports support to advance and improve accessibility within the Yale community and beyond. The speaker line-up consisted of:
- Karen Nakamura ’01 PhD – Robert and Colleen Haas Distinguished Chair of Disability Studies and Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley
- Oluwaferanmi Okanlami, MD, MS – Assistant Professor of Family Medicine, Physical Medicine, and Rehabilitation, and Urology at Michigan Medicine, and Interim Director of Services for Students with Disabilities and Director of Adaptive Exercise and Fitness in the Department of Student Life at the University of Michigan
- Janice Ta ’10 JD – Intellectual property and technology lawyer at Perkins Coie and past president of the National Association of Law Students with Disabilities
- Sid Wolinsky ’61 LLB – Co-founder and former litigation director for Disability Rights Advocates
Why disability rights are important for everyone
Society as a whole benefits society as a whole, according to Wolinsky, a staunch disability rights attorney since the 1960s who has tried numerous anti-discrimination cases as an attorney.
“What is almost always good for people with disabilities is good for everyone – better access to transportation, better access to disaster planning, better access to technology – and we need to keep emphasizing these,” he said.
He pointed out that an important factor in the development of the disability rights movement into a civil rights movement can be traced back to a rethinking of the members of the disability community.
“What happened to the disability movement when it became a civil rights movement was exciting and wonderful because disabled people knew that we were objects of charity and compassion,” he said. “And turning it into a civil rights movement meant turning it from a privilege to an absolute right.”
In discussing the often disproportionate effects of disability on minorities, people of color and underrepresented groups, speakers shared their personal experiences.
Ta, who was born to Chinese parents in a refugee camp in Malaysia and came to the United States as an immigrant, said she fully understood the protection and rights of ADA later in life.
“I didn’t know how difficult it was for other people with disabilities to get employed,” she said. “Now that I’ve grown up and have more contact, I don’t take what I take for granted.”
As a lawyer, Ta said she recognizes the challenges people with disabilities face in their work.
“For me as a lawyer with a very visible disability, I limp. I cannot hide my disability. It’s really easy for me to tell my employers what I need to be successful – I need physical accessibility, ”she said. “But I also know other lawyers who are unable to disclose, for example, learning difficulties or neurological disabilities they may have.”
Despite the protection and rights that the ADA offers, there is still plenty of discrimination and violations.
Okanlami, who calls himself a “proud wheelchair user” after a spinal cord injury in his third year as an orthopedic surgeon at Yale, has seen and experienced discrimination in the medical field.
“I’ve seen how our own job treats people with disabilities,” he said. “I’ve seen how we pathologize this and make something negative out of it.”
Okanlami was born in Nigeria to doctor’s parents and grew up in the American Midwest. He said the discrimination he felt as a disabled person made a more indelible impression on him than the discrimination he experienced as a black man in the United States
“The first time I really felt excluded, marginalized, discriminated against was after my disability,” he said. “Back then I experienced life on the other side of the stethoscope because I have cared for patients with disabilities for years but have not recognized the rights that have been withheld from an entire population that we like to consider the largest minority group we are given the true intersectionality. “
According to Nakamura, educational opportunities for people with disabilities in academia have increased markedly, made possible by the efforts of the early pioneers of the disability rights movement and those who followed in its footsteps.
“All the work that people in the 1960s and 1970s and other activists did comes to fruition,” she said. “We see that more and more disabled children have opportunities to find resources that we can only dream of.”
However, she found that people with disabilities in colleges and universities continue to face significant prejudice, discrimination and intolerance.
“I’ve seen brilliant people drop out of college, drop out of graduate school, drop out trying to get their PhD job, and brilliant people who are no longer assistant professors, get no tenure and don’t even survive the third . Year mark because science is incredibly powerful, ”she said.
Nakamura added that while people with disabilities have better access to higher education, their opportunities for employment have actually decreased.
“Right now we are 30 years after the ADA and the employment rate for disabled people has actually gone down since before the ADA,” she said.
The future of disability rights
Wolinsky, an unabashed defender of the ADA, was also aware of its limitations. In his view, the greatest weakness of the legislation is that it does not enforce itself. As such, he stressed the importance of the disability rights movement in order to continue to exert pressure through the courts, which requires lawyers to play a prominent role.
“There has not been a civil rights movement that would have made great strides without trial attorneys and lawyers,” he said of the particularly important need in the area of disability. “There aren’t enough disability rights lawyers and there aren’t enough disabled people with disabilities.”
In the fight for equal rights and opportunities, Ta said the disabled community must continue to seek the support of others.
“We need allies,” she said. “We need people who can step in, whether it’s funding, community building, or just telling our stories and having people in places where they can help us, our stories to tell.”
She also believed that people with disabilities must continue to assert their rights in the workplace and help guide the public discourse on disabilities from accessibility and accommodation to contributions and benefits.
“I proudly speak about my disability and at work I discuss my disability in terms of what I need to be successful, not my limits,” she said.
According to Okanlami, it is important to enforce anti-discrimination laws, provide physical space and break down ableistist frameworks in society. However, he noted that a change in attitude is also required.
“We are much better at destigmatizing disabilities, realizing that we are intentional and sometimes unintentional but very often intentional, and excluding people based on something that does not determine the quality of their lives or the quality of their work. ” he said.
Okanlami emphasized that building a society that is more just and just and recognizes the worth and worth of each individual begins with how each person treats one another.
“While not everyone believes they can change the world, they can change the way they treat their neighbors,” he said. “You can change the way you involve other people.”
For Nakamura, the disability rights movement itself also needs to evolve to address relevant issues and considerations beyond physical accessibility and housing.
“This next half of the movement really needs to look at justice for intersectional disabilities to really figure out how our systems structurally combine racism and skillfulness,” she said.
In conclusion, Lehrer-Stein reminded the audience that disability does not mean incompetence and that people with disabilities are not the others, but us.
“What you heard today is really who the disabled community is. You have heard of bias, stigma and marginalization, ”she said. “But you’ve heard so much more about pride in disability, the tremendous creativity, talent and power that reigns in this community. We must and always want to be involved. “
For more information on the Yale DiversAbility Alumni Group, please contact Henry Kwan ’05 MA, Director of Common Interest Groups.