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Human Dignity for People with Disabilities

Nahal Zamani,
Human Rights Program
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December 4, 2009

(Originally posted on FDL’s The Seminal.)

December 3 marked the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, a day where we mobilize support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities. To mark the occasion, we’re taking the opportunity to look at the past year and see how we’re faring in light of the anniversary.

You may remember that this past July, Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on behalf of the Obama administration. The disability rights treaty is a comprehensive promise made by nations across the world progressively promoting the human rights of people with disabilities.

The convention is revolutionary. Last year, on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ACLU Disability Rights Fellow James Felakos wrote that the convention describes disability not as “an individual’s condition but rather as the flawed interaction between that impaired condition and society’s lack of adaptation to it, departs radically from conventional thought and is a core concept of the Convention.”

Additionally, the Americans With Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 became effective this year on January 1. Congress enacted the ADA Amendments Act in order to clarify the definition of disability under the ADA to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities.

In Forest Grove School Dist. v. T.A., the Supreme Court reaffirmed that school districts are required to appropriately identify students with disabilities that may be in need of special education and other services. The Supreme Court held that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) permits tuition reimbursement even when the school has failed to identify the student’s needs. The court observed that when a child requires special-education services, a school district’s failure to propose an education plan of any kind is at least as serious a violation of its responsibilities under IDEA as a failure to provide an adequate plan for a student identified to have a disability.

However, we still have much more work ahead of us.

According to 2006 data, students with disabilities made up 18.8 percent of those who received corporal punishment, even though they constitute just 13.7 percent of the nationwide student population, according to data from the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education. In some states, these disparities were particularly harsh, including Texas and Georgia (approximately 75 percent more often) and Tennessee (over twice as often). Physical discipline, ranging from paddling to smacking to throwing children into walls or floors can severely undermine students’ education. Students with disabilities can be punished for conduct related to their disabilities; furthermore, students with disabilities can see their conditions worsen following episodes of corporal punishment. Students with disabilities are entitled to appropriate, inclusive educational programs that give them the opportunity to thrive.

Voters with disabilities still confront obstacles to voting—a basic human and civil right. Although some strides have been made in recent years towards restoring access for all voters, according to a September 2009 report by the Government Accountability Office, it was found that there were still barriers for voters with disabilities. The report found that only 27.3 percent of polling facilities surveyed had no potential impediments in the path from the parking to the voting area, and 46 percent of polling facilities had voting systems that were technically considered “accessible,” but that could still pose problems for people in wheelchairs.

Sadly, adults with disabilities are still routinely discriminated against, and must still fight for integrated services appropriate to their needs. After a five-week trial, a federal district court judge in Brooklyn ruled that the State of New York discriminated against thousands of people with mental illness in New York City by “leaving them in privately run adult homes, which effectively replaced state-run psychiatric hospitals more than a generation ago but turned out to be little more than institutions themselves.” The ruling in Disability Advocates, Inc. v. Paterson found that New York would have to find apartments or small homes for all the adult-home residents who desired to be able to live in the community as opposed to an institution. The ACLU of Illinois is currently challenging similar problems in Illinois institutions.

Today, when we take the opportunity to reflect upon the actions taken by our government, we see that there is still much work to be done to adequately protect and promote the well-being, rights and dignity of people with disabilities.