Disability rights and justice work have a long, deep history that predates the 1990 passage of the landmark policy known as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). For decades, advocates – many of whom are disabled themselves – have worked to build this movement from localized, community-focused change into a national movement.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines the wide range of issues encompassed in the term “disability” as “any condition of the body or mind (impairment) that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities (activity limitation) and interact with the world around them (participation restrictions).”
Demographic data on people with disabilities continues to be somewhat limited, and data that looks at the intersections of disability and race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and other factors is even more so. This is due to a range of factors, including the historic and continued absence of disability in government data collections and academic research and clinical trials, over and undercounts of certain disabilities to the exclusion of others, and additional factors. However, this is slowly changing following the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
BIPOC and LGBTQ+ Disability Disparities
Disability affects people of all races, ethnicities, ages, genders, sexual orientations, and gender identities. However, there are significant differences in the rate of disability among various identity groups, as well as disparities in health, economic barriers, and difficulties in accessing care.
From Disability Rights to Disability Justice
The Disability Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s was one of the most impactful civil rights campaigns in American history, helping to establish civil rights for people with disabilities and opening opportunities for them to more fully participate in society. Today, acknowledging that the movement fell short in examining how intersecting racial, gender, class, sexual, and class identities could play a role in the lives of people with disabilities, many leaders in the disability community have moved beyond what was known as the disability rights movement to a new framework, known as the Disability Justice Movement.
Justice System Involvement
Physical and mental/behavioral health disabilities increase the risk of justice system involvement, including criminalization, overpolicing, incarceration, and police violence. These issues are common among individuals in both the adult and juvenile justice systems, where BIPOC individuals are vastly overrepresented.
Individuals with disabilities are more likely to experience domestic and sexual violence and the intersection of race and disability makes disabled women of color particularly vulnerable to this violence. Ableism, objectification, myths about disability and sexuality, and other factors often prevent disabled victims and survivors of domestic and sexual violence from accessing the treatment, care, and support they need to heal; these services and supports are even more inaccessible for disabled survivors of color.
Disability and Health Disparities
Data shows that people with disabilities experience more physical and mental health conditions than their counterparts without disabilities. These inequities are even greater for disabled individuals of color, those who are women, and those who are part of the LGBTQ+ community.
COVID-19 and Accessibility
People with disabilities continue to be disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and some groups of individuals with disabilities—including people of color and women—have been particularly hard hit. People with disabilities have long been underrepresented in the nation’s workforce and the pandemic initially worsened this long-standing disparity. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has also pushed employers towards greater flexibility, which has, in turn, helped increase inclusivity and employment rates for some people with disabilities.
Eugenics is an ableist and white supremacist pseudo-science developed in the 19th century that asserts there are people who are “fit” and deemed to be “genetically superior”, and people who are not, and therefore are deemed to be “genetically inferior”. Many of the earliest and most vocal proponents of eugenics were Americans in positions of power who targeted people of color, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ people in particular for forced sterilization, institutionalization, and other violence. Despite the lack of any scientific evidence to back up this theory, the impact of the eugenics movement continues to cause harm.