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Prelude to Drafting the Original ADA Bill - Part 7

Issuance of Final Results of Harris Poll of People with Disabilities

The early momentum generated by the publication of Toward Independence got a boost in March when the International Center for the Disabled and Louis Harris and Associates issued the final results of the national poll of individuals with disabilities, under the title The ICD Survey of Disabled Americans: Bringing Disabled Americans into the Mainstream. In the Introduction to the survey report, the Harris agency observed: “This is the first major national survey to study disabled people’s attitudes and experiences. … [N]o substantial nationwide survey has sought to learn the impact of disability; what disabled people think about being disabled; and what they think must be done to enable them to participate fully in the life of the nation.”[1] The Council, led by Jerry Milbank, had concluded that it needed answers to such questions to guide its policy recommendations, and made it happen through the aegis of ICD and Louis Harris and Associates. The final survey findings were consistent with the information shared at the Preview Briefing in January, but they provided additional conclusions and more specific ones, that were documented and fleshed out by concrete details and by comparisons with peers without disabilities. Apart from a wealth of demographic information, including categories of disability, severity levels, age of onset, age at interview, gender, marital status, race, region, education, employment status, and household income, the poll provided solid information concerning the life situations, needs, and experiences of individuals with disabilities in the U.S. that could inform and significantly influence disability policy determinations. The Harris organization identified 23 “Survey Highlights” it derived from the poll data.

One disturbing insight that emerged from the final survey results was the extent to which people with disabilities were not participating in society. The data showed an overall picture of a greatly isolated, largely stay-at-home population. While the U.S. has designated “full participation” as one of its central objectives for people with disabilities, the poll documented that, in fact, they were, as a group, distinguished by low levels of involvement in community affairs and ordinary everyday activities. Individuals with disabilities were found to attend movies, plays, sports performances, or to go to restaurants, much less often than other people did. A much higher proportion of persons with disabilities reported that they never shopped in grocery stores. They were much less likely to attend a church or a synagogue; and two-thirds said that they were not active in any religious, volunteer, or recreation group, in contrast to 60% of other Americans who said they were. The Harris agency determined that “being disabled means having less social life than non-disabled persons,”[2] and more than half of people with disabilities reported that having a disability had limited their sexual activity. On the whole, the report declared that Americans with disabilities were “less involved in community life” than other Americans.[3]

The survey also documented other vital ways in which people with disabilities were a disadvantaged group. Across all education levels, they had far less schooling than other Americans; forty percent of people with disabilities age 16 and over did not finish high school, nearly three times the rate for those without disabilities. They were also much poorer. People with disabilities were twice as likely as people without disabilities to have household incomes under $15,000; more than half of people with disabilities lived in such households. And more than one-fourth of individuals with disabilities, over twice the rate for other Americans, were in households earning less than $7,500. The rate of poverty was especially disturbing in regard to elderly people with disabilities, with one third reporting a household income of $7,500 or less. The survey report authors made the observation that having a disability “means having much less education and money and … less of almost everything in life than most other Americans.”[4] The ICD survey devoted considerable attention to employment, obviously interconnected with heightened rates of poverty and under-education. The report termed working or not working “the Great Divide” between people with disabilities and those without, and concluded that “[n]ot working is perhaps the truest definition of what it means to be disabled in this country.” The report writers added the observation that “[i]t is in the area of work, even more than social life and activities, that disability excludes people most from mainstream American life.”[5] The survey revealed that two-thirds of Americans with disabilities of working age were not employed (only one in four worked full-time, and another 10% worked part-time). The Louis Harris team commented that “[n]o other demographic group under 65 of any size has such a small proportion working.”[6]

Encouragingly in terms of attitudes of people with disabilities, but dispiritingly in terms of the reality they face, two-thirds of people with disabilities who were not employed said they wanted to work. The first of these two findings – that two-thirds of working-age persons with disabilities do not have jobs, or, stated conversely, that only one-third were employed – fully validated prior studies, echoed by the Council in Toward Independence, that were mentioned in the previous section. The other finding – that two thirds of those without jobs indicated that they desired to be employed, conversely that one-third did not want employment – was weirdly congruent to the second of what Lex called the “one-third/one-third” findings, that only one-third of working-age people with a work disability who were not working were on the federal dole. In any event, they provided very important factual information about the employment status of people with disabilities. As to the impact of work on people’s lives, the report stressed that it “makes a vast qualitative difference.”[7] Individuals with disabilities who had jobs had more money, were more satisfied with life, and were much less likely to say that their disability had prevented them from reaching their full abilities as a person.

The survey had also explored what kinds of barriers caused or played a role in the disadvantaged situation of people with disabilities in our society. Interviewees who said that their disability constrained their activities and social lives identified several important barriers that contributed to their predicament. These included fear that their disability would cause them to be hurt or victimized by crime, the need for help from other people in getting around, lack of access to public transportation or someone to drive them places, and lack of access to public buildings and bathrooms. A significant number of those interviewed identified other problems that held them back, including denials of educational opportunities, denials of life and health insurance, and various forms of social rejection – others shying away or feeling sorry for them. In addition, the survey identified some factors leading to the severe underemployment of workers with disabilities. One fourth of working-age persons with disabilities reported that they had personally encountered job discrimination because of their disability. And nearly half (47%) of those with disabilities who did not have jobs or were not employed full-time said that an important reason why they were not working was that employers would not recognize that they were capable of doing a full-time job due to their disabilities. The critical importance of “reasonable accommodations” for many workers with disabilities was documented in the survey finding that 35% of people with disabilities who were currently working, or who had previously worked full-time while having a disability, said that their employer made some sort of accommodation for their disability.

The survey results afforded insights into the relationship of Americans with disabilities with government disability policies and programs, and their views about them. People with disabilities strongly endorsed federal government efforts to give better opportunities to those with disabilities; more specifically, most persons with disabilities persons indicated that they soundly supported efforts by government and employers to bring more individuals with disabilities into the working mainstream of society, while also providing for those who were genuinely unable to work. The majority of interviewees who were not working, and out of the labor force, reported that they had to depend on government benefits or insurance payments for support. The report writers found that, in general, benefits were going to the right people; the majority of those receiving benefits were responsible for supporting themselves, they had less education and less money, and they were more severely disabled than other people with disabilities. The report disclosed, however, that most individuals with disabilities were not familiar with some of the most widely available disability service programs, and a 53% majority of people with disabilities reported that it is difficult to find out about these services.

For the first time in any national poll, the Harris survey asked individuals with disabilities about the extent to which they did or did not feel a sense of common identity with other people with disabilities and whether they believed that antidiscrimination laws should address discrimination against Americans with disabilities. An impressive and somewhat surprising finding of the study was that about three-quarters of people with disabilities had some sense of common identity with others with disabilities. In the Accommodating the Spectrum report for the Civil Rights Commission, I had noted that the disability classification lumps together all sorts of physical and mental differences considered “abnormal” by society.[8] The result is that people grouped together as “disabled” may have almost nothing in common with each other. An individual who is deaf, a person with a learning disability, someone with an amputated limb, a person with epilepsy, an individual with an intellectual disability, someone with HIV, and so on, have very different conditions that cause them to be considered as having a disability; conditions denominated disabilities frequently share nothing with each other except the label. And yet the poll results disclosed a high degree of group identification among people with disabilities, including by interviewees who reported only a slight disability and even those who did not consider themselves “disabled.”

My take on this phenomenon is that, despite being incredibly diverse and heterogeneous, people considered to have a disability often share, to some degree, a common “disability experience.” They have been classified as disabled and treated differently in society because of it, including being subjected to exclusion, prejudice, and discrimination. People with disabilities recognize similarities and patterns in the ways they personally have been treated and the ways others with disabilities are treated. And they may recognize, in others deemed to have disabilities, problems, needs, and aspirations similar to their own. As the Louis Harris representatives had indicated in their Preview Briefing to the Council in January, this sense of common identity among persons with disabilities exceeded corresponding figures for other minority groups that Harris had polled, indicating the emergence of a broad disability group consciousness that might provide fertile ground for political coalescence and concerted action.

Matching the three-fourths majority of people with disabilities reporting a sense of common identity, 75% of people with disabilities reported that civil rights laws should protect them from discrimination. Only 17% disagreed. Strong support for protection from discrimination was relatively uniform regardless of the individual’s severity of disability and degree of activity limitations. This finding of the survey was, of course, highly significant in relation to the Council’s priority recommendation of a comprehensive nondiscrimination law. It confirmed the Council’s conviction that Americans with disabilities desired to be protected by law from discrimination, much like other groups who were protected by prior federal civil rights statutes.

Overall, the survey results played a crucial role by documenting what were previously only subjective assessments of the status and views of persons with disabilities. And they provided a ringing endorsement of initiatives to help Americans with disabilities find work and live independent lives. The poll affixed numbers to the pressing problems faced by people with disabilities, and provided a solid factual foundation for the recommendations the Council had fashioned, including the proposal of an ADA. Lex would later say, “I doubt that the recommendations in Toward Independence, and particularly [those regarding] civil rights, would have been taken as seriously by the policy makers had we not had the data.”[9] The publication of the Harris poll survey report also generated a second burst of media attention to the Council and Toward Independence. An article in the federal National Institute of Handicapped Research’s Rehab Brief publication, for example, discussed the Harris poll results in some depth, included a brief summary of Toward Independence, and noted that “[d]ata from the Harris Poll strongly support the recommendations in Toward Independence.[10] The article observed that “[t]he study itself has accomplished some public education. It is frequently quoted by Senators Weicker (CT), Kennedy (MA), Hatch (UT), and Kerry (MA), and referred to in USA Today, a widely read national newspaper, and Mainstream, a specialty magazine for readers with disabilities.”[11]

Continue to Part 8: Other Council Responsibilities

[1] Louis Harris and Associates, The ICD Survey of Disabled Americans: Bringing Disabled Americans into the Mainstream, at p. i (March 1986).

[2] Louis Harris and Associates, The ICD Survey of Disabled Americans: Bringing Disabled Americans into the Mainstream, at p. 2 (March 1986).

[3] Id. at 3.

[4] Id. at 24.

[5] Id. at 47.

[6] Id,

[7] Id. at 4.

[8] U.S. Comm'n on Civil Rights, Accommodating the Spectrum of Individual Abilities 94-96 (1983).

[9] National Council on Disability, Equality of Opportunity: The Making of the Americans with Disabilities Act, pp. 60-61 & n.45 (1997), quoting Frieden interview, December 28, 1996.

[10] National Institute of Handicapped Research, “Disabled Americans Self Perceptions,” Rehab Brief: Bringing Research into Effective Focus, vol. IX, no. 8, p. 4 (1987).

[11] Id. See also, e.g., Robert J. Funk, "Lou Harris Reached Out and Touched the Disabled Community," Mainstream 11, 17-19 (May 1986); Lex Frieden, “Policies for the Disabled Must Encourage Individual Productivity and Independence,” Business and Health, p 60 (April, 1986).