I read a column recently in which the author argues that Americans celebrate the 23rd Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act this summer by "convening a series of national dialogues about ableism." Ableism is prejudice against people who have disabilities. It has many parallels such as racism, sexism, and classism, which are prejudices against people based on race, gender, and social class.
I affirm this author's desire to have a national dialogue about ableism. Ableism runs rampant around us as evidenced, for example, by the higher unemployment rate of people who have disabilities compared to the general unemployment rate, and by the fact that fewer people with disabilities attend worship on a regular basis by percentage compared to the general population.
However, this author offers only one suggestion for rooting out ableism, "We can create positive change and eliminate stereotypes by phasing out segregated classrooms and sheltered work and congregate activities that reinforce popular stereotypes."
I have a big problem with his suggestion. Here are three reasons for my concern.
First, it's patronizing. This suggestion partonizes people who have disabilities by deciding for them what is best. Some people who live with disabilities WANT to participate in sheltered work and congregate activities. To argue that they should not be allowed to do this is like arguing that immigrants of Scottish descent should never be allowed to gather with others of Scottish descent because that would reinforce stereotypes of Scots. Shouldn't Scots be allowed to decide if they want to "congregate" or not? Likewise, shouldn't people with various disabilities be allowed to decide if they want to work or live together with other people with disabilities? Choice is the key! Eliminating options for people does not reduce ableism, it reinforces it.
Second, this suggestion promises a bleak future for some people who live with disabilities. Some people that I know who work at our local sheltered workshop do not have the skills ever to work for a traditional employer. For example, some do not understand safety considerations, and others cannot work at a speed required by traditional employers. So if this opportunity were eliminated, they would be stuck at home all day watching TV instead being out with friends, contributing to society through their work, and earning money.
Third, phasing out segregated classrooms would doom some students to spending their days in schools that are totally irrelevant to their educational needs. Our oldest daughter Nicole lives with severe multiple impairments. If she spent her days in a typical high school classroom, she would be confined to her wheelchair all day. As it is, in her "segregated" classroom, she is continuing to learn skills that are relevant to her. What is true for her is true for many others in segregated special education classrooms as well. If Nicole were in a traditional high school, she would go backwards in terms of the skills and abilities she has currently.
Let's not eliminate all segregated classrooms and sheltered work and congregate activities. Let's work against ableism, including the implicit ableism that in a patronistic way seeks to eliminate valid choices for activities made by some people with disabilities.
I'd love to hear from you. What do you think?