Disability Progress Is Real, But So Is Intense Ableism (2023)

Every July, during Disability Pride Month, disabled people and disability communities struggle with the same fundamental question.

Are things really a lot better now for disabled people than they were 50 years ago? Or, is ableism just as bad now, or even worse than in the old days? At times it can be a hotly debated question among people with disabilities. And it implies two other related questions.

First, is the conventional wisdom about inevitable progress and the power of positive education to change attitudes about disability correct? Or, is ableism far too corrosive and deeply embedded in society to be fixed by gentle, cheerful awareness campaigns?

Second, are disabled people who still experience intense ableism today rare anomalies? Or, are they actually closer to the norm, while only a privileged lucky few disabled people enjoy most of the progress we all celebrate?

There has been significant progress on disability rights, opportunity, and respect that have made life markedly better for at least some disabled people. And most disabled people have more recourse and avenues for improvement than existed decades ago. But still for many, being disabled in 2023 is as bad as it was in the 1950s and before.

It’s important to be specific about both progress and ableism today. For example:



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The first examples of progress most often cited are disability rights laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act, and detailed, comprehensive accessibility guidelines like the ADA Accessibility Standards. These created federal, state, and local requirements to make buildings and public environments more accessible. They helped bring about truly vast improvements in accessibility in all sorts of public environments over the last 30 years. And it's not just in the U.S. While specific mandates differ from country to country, accessibility is no longer a new concept, and is a priority to some degree globally.

Still, architectural barriers are still common, especially in older buildings and neighborhoods. Communication and internet accessibility lags behind as well. And companies and governments still too often fail to deliver reliable access to individuals, even as they do somewhat better with standard features like ramps and door widths. People with disabilities still encounter unnecessary barriers every day. Every restaurant with no accessible restroom, curb without a curb ramp, and apartment no wheelchair user could possibly live in makes it hard to fully appreciate the countless access improvements that work so seamlessly that they are all but invisible.

Employment Opportunities

Title I of the ADA includes very specific and innovative provisions to fight employment discrimination against disabled workers and job applicants. And recently, post-pandemic employment rates for people with disabilities have been on the rise – even improving at a slightly higher rate than for people without disabilities. In some ways, job prospects for disabled people are better now than they have ever been.

But employment discrimination is still notoriously hard to prevent, despite the ADA's protections. For many disabled people, it doesn't feel like anyone has their back in the job market. And the overall employment gap between disabled and non-disabled people has always been massive. It still is. A Center for Research on Disability at the University of New Hampshire report on June to July 2023 disability employment statistics offers a stark picture:

  • The Labor Force Participation Rate for people with disabilities went from 37.9 to 40.4 percent – for people without disabilities the rate stayed the same at 78.4 percent.
  • The Employment to Population Ratio for people with disabilities rose from 37 to 37.4 percent – for people without disabilities the rate also stayed the same at 75 percent.

This again demonstrates that while employment rates are improving more at the moment for disabled than for non-disabled people, the overall gap is still massive. Employment gaps of 30 to 40 percent between disabled and non-disabled people are staggering, and a few percentage points in either direction don’t seem to mean much for the average disabled person looking for work and a career. Progress is real. But there is so far to go that it’s hard for many people with disabilities to see or believe.

Financial Security

Income support and health insurance programs for unemployed and low-income Americans with disabilities do exist. And disabled people can and do benefit at least a bit from more thriving economies with more plentiful well-paying jobs, as well as from other aspects of 21st century developed economies.

But poverty rates for people with disabilities are still enormous compared to those for non-disabled people. A 2021 report from The Century Foundation states:

“In 2019, 21.6 percent of disabled people were considered poor under the Census’s Supplemental Poverty Measure, compared with just over 10 percent of people without disabilities.”

A recent Esquire article, "The Cost of Living With a Disability in America.” further explores the high cost of living with disabilities, and the inadequacy of supports designed to make disabled life affordable and stable. Benefits programs are decades out of date. This is true both in the amount of monthly incomes they provide, and in eligibility, earning, and savings limits that discourage disabled people from working when and how they can. And in the U.S. and elsewhere, it seems more lawmakers are interested in "cracking down" on a few cases of supposed fraud than on reforming benefits to encourage real financial security. Few disabled people would truly want to be transported back in time to the 19th century or before, when there were virtually no formal supports available. But failures and flaws of otherwise helpful and necessary safety net programs create real hardship for millions of disabled people, even as they support millions more at the same time.

Social Acceptance

Even in the current environment of polarization and backlash against "woke" social progress, the taboos against blatant, insulting ableism are much stronger than they were 30 to 50 years ago. This is reflected in language changes that continue to evolve towards better accuracy and affirmation. It’s visible the increased number of disabled characters, stories, and actors in TV and movies. Disability culture is thriving like never before, amplified by the internet and social media. And overall, it’s much more common now to see disabled people participating and just being present in everyday life, rather than hidden away in homes and institutions.

And yet, individual disabled people still experience personal neglect, rudeness, and insult from non-disabled people. One ugly encounter can carry the same emotional weight and long-term effect as decades of progress on "disability awareness." Plus, "tolerance" and "acceptance" of disabled people isn't the same thing as true respect or inclusion. A lot of otherwise positive interactions between disabled and non-disabled feel forced and fake. It's better than abuse, but disabled people still too often feel socially sidelined and vulnerable.

Disability communities are diverse. And not all disabled people experience progress and ableism in the same way, or in the same amount. Which disabled people benefit most from progress so far in the fight against ableism? It’s hard to say for certain. And it’s risky to generalize for whole populations. But it helps to note some possible trends and correlations. Broadly speaking, there are some disabled people who though they also encounter physical barriers and ableism, tend to find it easier to see progress and maintain optimism:

  • People with physical disabilities.
  • Those who are able to present as more or less "normal," aside from their specific disabilities.
  • Disabled people who can speak and / or communicate effectively.
  • Those who live with supportive families and communities.
  • Disabled people who have comparatively stable finances.
  • People with disabilities who live and work in environments where ableism is more thoroughly discouraged.
  • Disabled people who are able to choose where they live and who they interact with.
  • And disabled people who are otherwise privileged in terms of race, gender, socioeconomic class.

Meanwhile, other disabled people often see comparatively less progress, and experience more ableism, isolation and discrimination, such as:

  • People with cognitive disabilities or mental illness.
  • People with disabilities that are harder to see and understand.
  • Those whose physical appearance is more dramatically different or "abnormal" in the eyes of others.
  • Disabled people with impaired speech, hearing, vision, or other barriers to communication.
  • People with disabilities who are trapped in dysfunctional, unsupportive families and communities.
  • Disabled people who are poor, and have unstable financial situations.
  • Those who live and work in more hostile, cutthroat, unregulated environments that are more openly and freely hostile to disability.
  • Disabled people who have little or no choice in where they live who they must interact with every day.
  • And disabled people whose experience of ableism is compounded and intensified by racism, gender inequality, homophobia and transphobia, and other forms of social and economic marginalization.

Disability experience, both positive and negative, isn’t evenly distributed throughout disability communities. Some disabled people have more to celebrate than others. And there are real-life, concrete, and at least somewhat predictable reasons for this. Optimism and pessimism among disabled people is about much more than just their attitudes.

Why it matters

Celebrating progress in the disability community is valid and important. But it's often also alienating to people with disabilities who don't see the fruits of progress in their own lives. Disabled people themselves need to be aware of the divisions and relative levels of privilege within and between disability communities. They need to hear and validate the experiences of disabled people who find it hard or even hypocritical to celebrate Disability Pride Month every July.

It's also important for non-disabled people to remember that ableism can't be conquered by a few disability rights laws and disability etiquette workshops. Both are necessary, but not sufficient. And evidence of progress on disability issues cannot by itself repair or refute actual disabled people's direct experience of ableism in their everyday lives. Progress and ableism both exist. Both must be acknowledged and validated.

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