The thirtieth anniversary of the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act comes at a gut-wrenching, disorienting, transformational moment. In the midst of a worldwide catastrophic COVID-19 pandemic, our society is grappling tooth and nail with deep-rooted, systemic racism; gender discrimination and harassment; homophobia and violence against LGBTQ individuals: inhumane treatment of immigrants and asylum-seekers; surging homelessness; police violence; economic recession and unprecedented unemployment and job losses; rising fears of impending foreclosures, evictions, and bankruptcies; poverty and egregious wealth inequality; environmental degradation; and much more.
On top of their harm to American society as a whole, each of these urgent, severe, and fundamental problems negatively impacts individuals with disabilities. The intersectionality of disability with poverty, racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and so on, increases the prejudice that those with disabilities may face and makes them more vulnerable to discrimination.
The coronavirus itself and responses to it have hit people with disabilities especially hard. Examples include:
- inappropriate rationing (overtly or not) of medical treatment, ventilators and other medical devices and equipment, masks and testing, etc., so that individuals do not receive necessary medical care because they have a disability;
- placement and confinement of people with disabilities in nursing homes, groups homes, and congregate living facilities, which have very elevated rates of COVID-19 infections, deaths, and serious complications;
- undercounting cases and deaths of people with disabilities, including inaccurately attributing deaths to underlying disabilities rather than the COVID infection, and generally failing to collect such data at all; and
- despite people with disabilities’ insistence that there should be “Nothing about us without us,” not including persons with disabilities in the planning of treatment protocols (including rationing) and prevention plans.
The struggles for equality, justice, and civil rights today in the United States, share a common goal – to protect Americans from discrimination and prejudice. Historically, the disability rights movement is deeply indebted to the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Rights Movement, the Gay Liberation Movement, and many other protest movements in this country. As we struggle with the pressing issues of today, we ought to recall the visionary words of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, a long-time civil rights advocate who was first elected to Congress in 1990 (and is still serving), the year that the ADA was enacted, who voiced the need for solidarity over four decades ago:
The essential unity among the protected classes is both a practical and a moral imperative. It is a moral imperative because any decent system of values knows no priorities among people deprived of their essential humanity. The only way to approach eradication of the evil of discrimination is to face the high truth that we are all equal—black and brown, female, and disabled. If that equality is not attained internally among us, the essential lesson of equality we are trying to import to the rest of society will be lost.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, May 1979