Several of our coalition’s partner groups had a discussion recently where we tried to define the three largest barriers that citizens with disabilities face in our country today. Our conclusion was that low expectations leads to segregation, which leads to permanent and intractable poverty. According to the US Department of Labor, Americans with disabilities have been the poorest minority group for the past ten years in a row. If low expectations lead to segregation, where do we begin to break down these barriers in our system of public services and supports? Just follow the money.
My son, who has Down syndrome, turned four last week. He is in a segregated public preschool class comprised of students with disabilities who have Individual Education Plans (IEPs). Because of federal funding mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), these classes must exist. Our county does not have a universal preschool program, so a segregated program is the only public option where he can receive the supports and services that he needs. We will push to have him integrated into a typical classroom through elementary school, but that will be increasingly challenging for the schools as he gets older. Ninety-five percent of students with intellectual disabilities in this country are educated in segregated classrooms apart from their typical peers. Segregated education prepares students for segregated working environments. It also sends the message to other students that students with disabilities are different and need to be educated separately—what is often referred to as the “tyranny of low expectations.”
When my son ages-out of the youth system, he will enter the adult system. Many funds intended to support individuals to live, work and engage in their communities continue to be misdirected to services that produce the exact opposite outcomes. As a result, thousands of individuals continue to receive services that result in further segregation, impede individual progress, and create additional barriers for individuals to successfully participate in society. Again, the belief that young adults with disabilities cannot work is used to validate their segregation—and pay salaries below minimum wage. The businesses that serve this population receive federal dollars to do so; integrating this population would mean changing their business models, which they are loath to do.
These vulnerable and capable citizens are trapped in lives of isolation and poverty. Both the legality of sub-minimum wage and the outdated income restrictions of Social Security make it impossible for them to earn and save, making the poverty intractable.
The laws and attitudes that both support and trap citizens with disabilities were created for generations and expectations that have proven to be outdated. The civil rights of other minority groups have been championed and extolled. Systemic and societal discrimination against Americans with disabilities is still accepted and acceptable in this country. It is time to modernize our systems and fold the nearly 4.6 million citizens in this country who live with intellectual and developmental disabilities into our communities, our workplaces, our classrooms and our economy.
Allison Wohl is the Executive Director of the Collaboration to Promote Self-Determination (CPSD), a coalition of 21 national disability groups advocating for modernization of outdated and fragmented systems. Like CPSD on Facebook to learn more or engage them on Twitter.