Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of the American’s with Disabilities Act. Like every law written and enforced by flawed human beings it could use some serious tweaking, but it’s important for you to understand it’s the only thing that gives people with disabilities a decent shot at participating in public life.
I was 11 years old when the A.D.A was passed, and totally unconcerned about the law because youth and ignorance sheltered me from absorbing the full blow of discrimination. Back then (as with every kid) it was all about getting to do everything the other kids were doing. My biggest concern was getting left out. That continued to be the case in my 20s when the other kids were off to college and their own apartments, and even into my early 30s when my peers were starting to settle into their careers.
My most recent round of job searching forced me to get honest with myself about how disability has affected me economically. I refused to entertain the idea when I was younger, because I felt like I still had time. I was confident someone would give me a chance, and my skills would win over any concern an employer could have. Now I understand that otherwise reasonable people will panic about justifying me to their boss, and the thing about me that freaks them out is the only thing I can’t change.
Now I’m 36, and my focus has started to shift from getting the same opportunities as my peers to what my future will look like if I don’t.
I have two degrees, stellar test scores, a list of well documented, in-demand skills and exactly two years and two months of full-time employment IN MY ENTIRE LIFE. There are only three short years between now and when my earning potential will statistically begin to decline.
I’ve rarely made it paycheck to paycheck, so if I manage to save any money it’s easily lost to any extra expense that comes up. Many times I’ve relied on credit cards to fill the gap. I have zero retirement, zero life insurance, zero long-term care. The kind of preventative care most insurance policies cover doesn’t include the ongoing physical and occupational therapy people like me need to function optimally. It’s not likely I’ll remain independent in my later years, since I could already use some help. What will happen to me?
What’s that you say? I can always sit home and collect Social Security Disability? Even the maximum possible benefit amount is not enough to pay rent in almost any market, and I haven’t had the chance to pay into the system much. Unemployment paid me almost double with my SSI check would be. Don’t get me started on the frustration and indignity that’s part and parcel of that system.
At some point, just about everyone I try to enlighten on this subject has told me it can’t possibly be the biggest factor in my under-employment. I wholeheartedly accepted that, because the alternative is terrifying. Unfortunately, my experience and this research from The Center for American Progress confirms the problem:
One in 5 Americans have some form of disability that affects their daily life. Almost 70% of them live below the poverty line. Last year, only 31% of working-age people with disabilities participated in the national workforce, compared to 80% of non-disabled people in the same age group.
It’s NOT just me. I’m NOT insecure, paranoid, overreacting or any of that other stuff people wish we would believe when the truth is too uncomfortable.
It’s hard to hold the public’s attention to this problem because, like the needs of so many disenfranchised people, it doesn’t apply to everyone. But it IS your problem; you just don’t know it yet. Your skin color, ethnicity or sexual orientation won’t change. Your religion won’t likely change. Unfortunately, the disabled community is one anybody can enter at any time.
The A.D.A is an amazing gift in overcoming society’s physical barriers, but no law can realistically order people to open their minds. It turns out our greatest obstacle is not a flight of stairs. It’s public perception.