People with Disabilities as a Minority Group

When we start thinking of disability as primarily a result of social attitudes and built environments rather than of individual deficiencies, strong parallels emerge between people with disabilities and members of minority groups. The term minority group refers to any group that is considered inferior and subjected to dif- ferential and unequal treatment and therefore defines itself as a group with a shared experience of discrimination.

Few would argue with the assertion that we divide disabled and nondisabled people from each other based on physical characteristics. But can we also argue, as the definition of a minority group requires, that people with disabilities are con- sidered inferior and are subject to differential and unequal treatment?

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Unfortunately, yes. Even a cursory look reveals widespread prejudice and dis- crimination against people with disabilities. Prejudice refers to unwarranted sus- picion, dislike of, or disdain toward individuals because they belong to a particular group, whether defined by ethnicity, religion, or some other characteristic. Prejudice toward people with disabilities is obvious: Throughout history, most societies have defined those who are disabled as physically or even morally inferior and have considered disabilities a sign that either the individual or his or her parents behaved sinfully or foolishly.

Prejudice typically expresses itself through stereotypes, or overly simplistic ideas about members of a given group. Nondisabled people typically stereotype disabled people as bitter, menacing, and unattractive or as asexual, dependent, mentally incompetent, and pitiable. Ironically, because medical training especially values quick, technological cures, doctors may be especially likely to develop negative attitudes toward people who live with long-standing disabilities.

Stereotypes about people with disabilities are reflected and reinforced in the popular media. In book and film characters from Captain Hook in Peter Pan to Freddie Krueger in Nightmare on Elm Street, the media have equated physical deformity with moral deformity. The media also often portray disabilities as pitiful and thus something to be avoided at all costs (as when Jake in the film Avatar chooses to leave his entire life and uni- verse behind for the chance to walk again, even if in an alien body). Although contemporary media sometimes do present more positive images such as stories about people with disabilities who have “heroically” compensated for their phys- ical disabilities, who have chosen to live “saintly” lives, or whose innocence can help the rest of us learn to live better lives (as in Riding the Bus with My Sister, for instance), these stories also typically ignore the social nature of disabilities and instead offer simplistic stories about individual character. Exceptions to these rules—films such as The Fault in Our Stars and television shows such as Glee and Game of Thrones—remain rare, although they have become far more common in recent years.

All too often, prejudice against persons with disabilities results in discrimina- tion: unequal treatment grounded in prejudice. As recently as the first decades of the twentieth century, American laws forbade those with epilepsy, leprosy, Down syndrome, and other conditions from marrying and mandated their institutional- ization or sterilization. Discrimination continues into the present day. In a national survey conducted in 2010, almost half of people with disabilities reported encountering job discrimination, most often in the form of lower pay for the same work or being considered ineligible for a job because of their disability.

To fit the definition of a minority group, however, members of a group not only must experience prejudice and discrimination but also must believe that they belong to a group that shares a common experience. In fact, 79% of people with disabilities report feeling a sense of community with other such individuals.

In the United States, laws now offer at least some protection against discrim- ination for people with disabilities. Currently, the federal Education for All Hand- icapped Children Act requires school districts to educate all children regardless of disability in the least restrictive environment feasible. In addition, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) outlaws discrimination and requires accessibility in employment, public services, and public accommodations (including restau- rants, hotels, and stores). Still, disabled persons are much more likely than others to live in poverty, to lack employment, and to face barriers to receiving quality health care.

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