A group of women with different disabilities meet to address common barriers and challenges
People with disabilities and their families all over the world have historically fought for rights that apply to their own specific disability (i.e. people who are blind fought for the right to receive an education and the use of Braille materials, people in wheelchairs fought for ramp entrances into buildings, and so forth). But people with many different kinds of disabilities and chronic conditions all face common barriers of discrimination, prejudice, and stereotype. If they, their families and friends, and their advocates combine the influence they have as consumers, voters, individuals, and as groups who communicate through the press and social media, the disability community overall will gain a cohesive identity and force that is not obtainable any other way.
People with disabilities need to be disciplined, open-minded, and strategic to achieve the promise of this principle. Specific disability groups may recognize stereotypes that are directed at them, yet still hold prejudices and stereotypes about people with other disabilities. Some groups may have had past conflicts, and there may be communication challenges, but ultimately coalition leaders must hold together all kinds of disability groups including:
- People with apparent and non-apparent disabilities
- Parents of children with disabilities
- Disabled people’s organizations
- Organizations that offer services to people with disabilities
When things become difficult, emphasize the goals you hold in common: eliminating discrimination, abolishing all disability barriers, sustaining reasonable accommodations, and building equal opportunities. Never sacrifice one group for a short-term victory, even if it’s an important one like the passage of a hard-fought law, because it will always make the coalition weaker over the long-term.
Working across disability groups also establishes a base of people who are knowledgeable about the law and recognize that rights will be achieved only when people with all types of disabilities experience equality. This cross-disability base can mobilize and respond when laws are scrutinized or revised, to uphold shared principles and continue to serve as a unified group for their rights.
A truly inclusive law will lend credibility to coalition leaders as they emphasize cross-disability inclusion as a central theme when talking to politicians, the media, and people with disabilities themselves. This core principle must also guide practical decisions; coalition leaders demonstrate their commitment to inclusion by ensuring that trainings are held in wheelchair accessible venues, sign language interpretation and alternative formats materials provided, and other accommodations made to ensure access to the full range of people in the disability community.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was written to protect people with many different types of disabilities, including cancer, mental health disabilities, HIV/AIDS, history of substance abuse, multiple chronic conditions, and functional limitations.
Just before the ADA was passed into law, restaurant trade associations realized that the law would protect people who have HIV/AIDS from employment discrimination. If the law passed, it would be illegal to refuse to hire, or to fire, against qualified waiters, dishwashers, and cooks, just because the employer knew or suspected that they had HIV/AIDS. Restaurant associations threatened to campaign hard and get politicians on their side unless people with HIV/AIDS were explicitly excluded from the ADA. Instead of bowing to great political and public pressure, the disability leaders and organizations that had come together around the law refused to turn their backs on the HIV/AIDS community, people and groups that had been key allies in the long fight to pass the ADA. They knew what science had already discovered about HIV/AIDS and understood that the condition is not casually contagious. A person with HIV/AIDS, particularly in the early stages of the condition, can safely work around food without putting others at undue risk. If the cross-disability coalition allowed the law to exclude persons with HIV/AIDS, the coalition would basically be participating in the very stereotypes and prejudices that the law was supposed to be fighting. The coalition stood firm, and the law passed.