Labeled Disabled

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was signed in 1990, protected the rights of persons with disabilities (PWDs), prohibited discrimination in employment, and mandated access to public services and facilities in the United States. It seemed that all the years of hard work and lobbying by activists and the disabled community to gain recognition by the federal government had finally paid off.

This historic event would not have been possible without solidarity among members of the disabled community. Evidence from the civil rights movement in the United States showed that the development of distinct political identities was crucial when advocating for the legal rights of women and all races. The disability rights movement adopted this model, which propelled the movement through the 1980s, during the UN Decade of Disabled Persons. In order to demonstrate that discrimination occurred against persons with disabilities, disability itself had to be categorized, defined, and made more visible as part of a political platform. It was necessary to prove that PWDs were a disadvantaged minority group, by calling attention to the labels (some more derogatory than others) that denote differences in ability – blind, deaf, handicapped, mentally retarded, etc.  Similarly, medical professionals realized that without proper categorization and diagnosis, patients would not receive adequate treatment and services.

This need to pull apart and examine difference, is part of a broader trend in American culture to celebrate diversity, and embrace the “salad bowl” philosophy. The disability “community” has become a sub-culture underrepresented by the media, with its own language, needs, aspirations, and shared identities. The therapeutic, psychological, and social benefits of belonging to a community are undeniable. However, we need to think about disability on a broader scale. Since the passing of the ADA, how much progress has America really made in terms of culturally mainstreaming disability issues? How much attention is given to disability in mainstream news, films, books, magazines, and advertising?  In other words, have we as a society gone so far in creating niches for our individual interests that we are now working counter-productively? After the ADA, disability fell off our public radar, in much the same way that racism as a hot-button issue disappeared since the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

While labels are useful for political purposes, I think they also inherently leave society socially fragmented when interest groups don’t see the benefit of sharing their lifestyles in mainstream fora. Take, for example, feminists who believe that men should not be included in the feminist movement because women would lose a vital forum where they can express themselves independently of men. This argument has lost its popularity, as both men and women came to realize how impractical and counter-intuitive separatism really is. Excluding men may temporarily empower women, but it’s not sustainable and it certainly wouldn’t fundamentally change the experience of women. Along similar lines, the disability community needs to forcefully (and, if necessary, radically) engage the wider community of non-disabled persons and challenge the divisions between disabled and non-disabled interests. One way to do this is to navigate the initial social uneasiness by confronting the “differences.” I recall a line from a popular poem by African American feminist Pat Parker– “The first thing you do is to forget that I’m Black. Second, you must never forget that I’m Black.” This is type of confrontation is lacking when it comes to discussing disability. As a society we still have a long way to go in bringing disability out of the rehab centers, hospitals, workshops, classrooms, disability-focused clubs and organizations, and private homes, and into mainstream dialogues. And, as with the feminist movement, the responsibility to reach out lies first with those who are part of the disability community.

Sarah Amin is a Program and Research Intern with the SISGI Group’s Research Division focusing on Human Rights Advocacy, International Disability Rights and Gender Equality/Gender Mainstreaming. To learn more about the SISGI Group visit

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