Wednesday, August 28, 2013

What People with Disabilities can learn fifty years after Dr. King’s "I Have a Dream" speech and the March on Washington

The march on Washington 50 years ago today, which included Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, was not just about racial justice, but also about economic equality. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was not simply the battle for civil rights, its agenda was a broader and more radical one of economic equality. The brilliance of this march is that, in a time when African-Americans were regularly being beaten or killed or excluded from places just because of how they look, the organizers and Dr. King were looking forward -  looking towards economic justice as well as racial equality.

Without economic equality – jobs, equal wages, the same employment opportunities – no group of people can truly enjoy the American dream. So they organized the march, calling for “mass descent” upon Washington, with participants protesting “the economic subordination of the American Negro.” They envisioned a groundswell of protest calling for freedom and jobs with the dual goals of ending racial segregation and discrimination in the Jim Crow South and achieving economic equality for all Americans.

People with disabilities can learn a lot from the march and Dr. King’s speech. Namely, that until people with disabilities have economic justice and equality, we will not be treated as equals in this society.

Although people with disabilities are still being refused basic access and services – and we're still fighting for ramps and interpreters – our unemployment rate is also almost twice that of non-disabled. The true unemployment – those not working and not looking for work – is even higher. Many with disabilities that are working, are often working lower wage jobs and some are even paid less than minimum wage, thanks to outdated 1930s laws based on false assumptions that people with disabilities cannot be as productive non-disabled.

To make matters worse, many of the social support systems which are supposed to help uplift individuals who need a temporary “hand-up’ to achieve the American Dream end up holding people with disabilities in poverty. The fear of losing life-saving medical care has stopped many people with disabilities from working or becoming economically self-sufficient. As Sen. Edward Kennedy wrote, "the high unemployment rate among people receiving federal disability benefits is not because their federal benefits programs have 'front doors that are too big - i.e., have eligibility criteria that are too loose - but because they have 'back doors that are too small' - i.e., once persons are on the rolls, it is too risky to come off."

Fortunately, now more than ever, people with disabilities will be able to become economically independent. New rules for federal contractors to hire people with disabilities and an ever increasing desire of many companies to hire people with disabilities in general are breaking down stereotypes and inequalities in the workplace. Provisions in the newAffordable Care Act (ACA), including the end to discrimination over pre-existing conditions, new affordable health benefits exchange and expanded Medicaid will allow people with disabilities to find medical coverage outside of the limited current options. There’s never been a better time for people with disabilities to pursue employment and not fear for their health coverage.

Yes, ramps and interpreters and access and an end to discrimination are extremely important to the disability rights movement. But we shouldn’t forget what the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom has to teach us. As long as people with disabilities are largely living in poverty, the public vision of us as ‘objects of charity’ will prevail and our demands for civil rights as a political minority will be ignored.

- By Keith Hosey -