Ragged Edge online


clear graphic spacer The long & sorry history of discrimination against people with disabilities in the United States clear graphic spacer
-- and its likely causes

Sept./Oct. 2000         

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clear spacer -  hotlink to text of state laws



A little girl looks at photographs of children spread out in front of her and divides them into three piles: "They're girls, they're boys and they're handicaps." ¶: A disability rights activist dressed in a business suit sits in a wheelchair at the airport awaiting her flight, while another businesswoman walks up and drops a quarter in her coffee cup. ¶: A 17-year old mentally retarded girl has a baseball bat and a broom handle brutally rammed into her vagina by four high school football players in the affluent suburb of Glen Ridge, New Jersey, while nearly a dozen other students watch on and do nothing to stop it. ¶: A 66-year old double amputee, perched atop a baggage cart "like a sack of potatoes," is wheeled onto a plane and left there for 45 minutes by airline personnel while other passengers stare at him; an airline representative then tells his daughter, "If he's that sick, he shouldn't be on a plane; he should be in a hospital." ¶: Jerry Lewis, the long-time host of the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, writes in a national magazine in 1990 that he would only be "half a person" if he had the disease.
Those are not isolated or antiquated anecdotes,
but examples of mainstream culture.
From the Brief Of Amicus Curiae Paralyzed Veterans Of America, National Organization On Disability, National Mental Health Association and National Alliance For The Mentally Ill In Support Of Respondents to the Supreme Court, Aug. 11, 2000.
The following material is also taken from that brief.


Broad prejudices against persons with disabilities survive at the threshold of the new millennium. Those prejudices, infecting both the public and private sectors of American society, determine the way "non-disabled" people view and act toward people with disabilities. Many persons, however, still fail to recognize the pervasive and damaging nature of disability prejudice.

Deep-seated psychological and sociological mechanisms . . . give rise to prejudice against persons with disabilities. While some or all of these mechanisms also contribute to discrimination against other minority groups, their operation in the context of disability has unique characteristics that make disability prejudice extremely difficult to identify and eradicate.


is the belief that most or all members of a particular group share certain negative characteristics.

Although few employers today likely would articulate a view that members of certain racial or ethnic minorities are not intelligent enough to hold some jobs, many freely express the view that people with disabilities display inordinate absenteeism, even though this stereotype has been thoroughly refuted by the empirical data. In contrast to race and ethnicity, which are generally recognized to bear no relation to an individual's abilities, the mere fact of having a disability is still believed to convey important information about a person's potential and limitations beyond the particular disability itself. "People tend to think in terms of a handicapped person rather than a person who is handicapped. It is imagined or perceived that [the disability] is the central life experience of that person and influences all his other mental and social abilities." When a person's entire being is thus reduced to what is perceived to be a negative characteristic -- her physical or mental impairment -- attitudes about the individual's capabilities in other areas also tend to become negative. This effect has been described as the "spread" phenomenon:

Merely from knowledge of the existence of one impairment, many people form negative attitudes about other unrelated characteristics of persons with disabilities.

  • People mistakenly link epilepsy to physical unattractiveness.
  • They shout at . . . blind [people] as if they are deaf and try to lift them, as if they are orthopedically disabled.
  • They erroneously assume that persons with physical disabilities are mentally impaired, and that persons with psychiatric conditions are violent.
  • They speak to persons with physical disabilities as if they were children.

    Read this section in the Brief.


    As the sociologist Erving Goffman noted in his seminal work,Stigma, the process of stigmatization reduces those so classified to non-human status: . . .

    Deviance from physical or mental norms has long been linked with deviance from moral norms. The Bible begins with the tale of Cain's being physically "marked" as punishment for killing Abel, and continues with numerous other stories associating disability and disfigurement with sin. Similar associations permeate secular Western literature, in which "bodily intactness and glowing health [have been] almost exclusively characteristics of the good and noble, while physical infirmities are reserved for the evil and malevolent." We grow up hearing tales of disabled and wicked characters such as Rumpelstiltskin, Captain Hook, Long John Silver, or the dwarves, giants and gnomes in the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. In adult literature, the common literary device of "the twisted mind in the twisted body," appears in as exalted a writer as Shakespeare, who depicted Richard III as a hunchback in order to provide a physical embodiment of his supposedly warped soul. Captain Ahab's body-length scar and wooden leg serve as convenient metaphors for his traumatized and monomaniacal character in Moby Dick. . . . . In the 1960s, movie audiences watched the metal-handed Dr. No try to kill James Bond, the ideal physical specimen; those who stayed at home got to see a "hunchbacked dwarf," Migelito Loveless, try to kill dashing Jim West of The Wild, Wild West, because he had grown "weary of the sight of [his] strong, straight body." . . .

    Read this section in the Brief.


    Psychological Discomfort
    People asked to interview a person with an apparent disability were more restricted in their communication, expressed views less representative of their actual beliefs, and terminated the interviews sooner than when interviewing the same person when that person appeared to have no disability.

    Nondisabled persons maintained greater physical distance when teaching origami to persons with disabilities

    Subjects demonstrated inhibited physical gestures when interacting with physically disabled persons

    Subjects were given the choice of viewing one of two similarly-themed films . . . . Choosing one film required the subject to sit next to a person with a visible physical disability; choosing the other film would enable them to sit next to a person with no apparent disability. The subjects routinely selected the film that did not require sitting next to the person with a disability.

    Read this section in the Brief.


    Paternalization & Pity
    Many who view people with disabilities as neither incompetent, evil, subhuman, unnerving nor repugnant nonetheless harbor perceptions about them that result in diminished opportunity or segregation. These are people who believe that the world is simply too much of a struggle for persons with disabilities, and, therefore, that they should be protected from its vicissitudes. . . Paternalism enables the dominant elements of a society to express profound and sincere sympathy for the members of a minority group while at the same time keeping them in a position of social and economic subordination.

    . . . . The outrage that accompanies prejudice against racial, ethnic and religious minorities has rarely been exhibited with regard to prejudice against the disabled population. This lack of response has been explained as a by-product of the paternalistic/stereotyped notion that persons with disabilities, unlike other minorities, "deserve" to be treated unequally. A Canadian study found that, although two-thirds of employers expressed willingness in principle to hire persons with developmental disabilities, at the conclusion of the survey only 26% of them would agree to receive job inquiries from such persons.

    [M]any people who disclaim any disability prejudice may nonetheless react a prejudiced and exclusionary manner in real-life interactions with persons with disabilities.

    Read this section in the Brief.
    Read about the pernicious nature of prejudice -- and its effects

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    The light-colored type running down the edge is a listing of the hundreds of state statutes, session laws, and constitutional provisions that illustrate pervasive state-sponsored discrimination against persons with disabilities, dating from the late nineteenth century through the time of the ADA's enactment and (in some cases) to the present. To read this list, click here.

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