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21 July, 2010

There is still much (for you) to do

Although this may sound obvious and perhaps cliché, as you contemplate your professional purpose within the disability community and how to make our world a more inclusive place, let me remind you that there is still much for you to do to eliminate the physical and emotional struggles that people with disabilities and their families face on a continual and intimate basis. As we will witness next week the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), we cannot deceive ourselves into believing that the pledge of the ADA has touched the lives of all people with disabilities.

Recently, my dad turned me on to an essay written back in 1911 that we both agreed speaks to the physical and emotional struggles that people with disabilities and their families still face today. In 1911, Social Critic, Randolph Bourne (1886–1918), wrote an essay entitled The Handicapped, which was published in the Atlantic Monthly. At that time, Mr. Bourne published his essay anonymously. Mr. Bourne, who had a physical disability, was writing about his day to day physical and emotional struggles as a person with a disability, acceptance of who he was as person with a disability, and his relationship with the world around him.

While reading Mr. Bourne’s essay, I found that his discussion about the same lack of inclusiveness for people with disabilities still exists today. For example, Mr. Bourne discussed his struggles to find and attain employment because of his disability. He described trying to find employment as one of the most “bitterest of struggles”, and by not having the same employment opportunities that people without disabilities had left him lacking confidence and self respect. Arguably, although greater employment protections for people with disabilities currently exist and more than what was available back in 1911, it is a fact that today there is a higher percentage of people with disabilities who are unemployed than people without disabilities. In addition, many people with disabilities work in environments that are not always integrated with people without disabilities and their wages are not always similar to people without disabilities. The bottom line is that the struggle for inclusiveness and equity in employment was apparent then, and still exists today.

In addition to Mr. Bourne’s employment challenges, the overall day to day struggles of his life led to emotional suffering and personal setbacks. He indicated that his lack of confidence stemmed from an overall atmosphere and environment where nobody was very confident in him. This in turn furnished within him a “background of consciousness” that reinforced his physical, but equally important, emotional struggles. Not surprisingly though, Mr. Bourne felt that his very real and own ambitions and energies were similar to people without disabilities. But like many people with disabilities then and now, he was not able to see his ambitions and energies through to their fullest potential. “With repeated chances to fail”, Mr. Bourne stated, “I was discounted at the start; and while people were not cruel or unkind, it was the hopeless finality of the thing that filled one’s heart with despair". Mr. Bourne seemingly felt that he was continually challenged by a physical and cultural environment that was not designed for him. I am convinced that there are many individuals similar to Mr. Bourne that currently feel this way about the world around them and would be eager to unlock their energies and fulfill their ambitions and potential as human beings in a more generic and inclusive environment.

I could go on citing additional references in Mr. Bourne’s essay that compare the similarities in the struggles that people with disabilities faced in 1911 to the ones that people with disabilities still face almost 100 year later, but I think a couple of examples formulate my point. The conclusion for me is that much more still needs to be improved upon in our environment, culture, and world for people with disabilities. Perhaps more importantly for you is that you can create the new advocacy and support that is needed to advance the disabilities movement and end the struggles.

I close by recommending reading Mr. Bourne’s essay, and then ask yourself like I did: What has changed for people with disabilities since 1911? In addition, what can you do now to make the world a better place to live in for people with all abilities? If you do not already, you may want to consider as part of your professional purpose keeping in the background of your consciousness the intimate physical and emotional struggles that people with disabilities still face on a continual basis in our world. Perhaps keeping this thought in your background consciousness will hold the key to motivation for you to advance the disability movement in ways that have not been conceived of by others in the past or currently. Acceptance of all people with all abilities in our world is much needed. As such, there is still much for you to do.


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