Disability Rights 25 Years and Counting

Disability Rights 25 Years and Counting
Individual with service dog enters a Fresno Area Express (FAX) bus

By Shannon M. Mulhall

Picture a person with a disability.

Did you picture a person using a wheelchair? Were they playing basketball, a kid in an afterschool program or advising at high levels of government? Did you picture a friend, an aging parent, a college professor or perhaps a wounded warrior?

Upon hearing the term disability, often the default image is one of a person who uses a wheelchair, rightly so considering that the wheelchair is the central feature of the international symbol for disability. Disability is more than mobility disabilities and includes auditory, visual, tactile and intellectual, as well as countless other unseen disabilities.

People with all types of disabilities go to school, work, are parents and are children. At nearly one-fifth of the population, people with disabilities are our peers, the people who raised us, and the people we are raising. The disability community is one that a person can unexpectedly join at any given moment. The chances are high that if you are not or do not know a person with a disability now, you will someday.

Disability rights activist Lex Frieden summed it up best by saying, “Disability and aging extends across race, ethnicity, level of education and socioeconomic status. All of us have experienced the effects of disability or the aging process.”

Americans with Disabilities Act

Twenty-five years ago, President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the single most comprehensive civil rights law for people with disabilities. The ADA was written to ensure that all members of the community, regardless of ability, have the same opportunities. The ADA provides civil rights protection for individuals in employment, local/state government, at places of public accommodations, within telecommunications and beyond.

In the years since the passage of this act, the nation has made many efforts to integrate public spaces. The availability of accessible environments, while still not complete, is becoming the norm. We are seeing greater effort toward inclusivity in communication, the physical environment and especially in technology.

While initially created with a disability focus, the unexpected result has been more universal accessibility for all people. Ramps, designed for people who use wheelchairs, make it easier for the delivery person or the parent with a stroller to enter the physical environment. Video captions, designed for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, allow advertisers to hook people scrolling through their Web feeds who otherwise might not open a video. These are just a couple of examples of how people are rethinking the power of accessibility.

Disability Discrimination

This country has made great strides toward equality for people with disabilities, but the task is far from done. For this reason, each October across the nation we celebrate Disability Awareness Month, bringing recognition to the inherent rights that are afforded all members of our community and addressing disability discrimination.

People with disabilities struggle to get into businesses, restaurants and doctors’ office, encounter both physical and attitudinal barriers as they engage in civic activities, and face stark unemployment rates (only 17% of people with disabilities are employed as compared to 64% of people without disabilities). We can change these facts and create an inclusive community that relies on the talents and skills of all citizens.

The ADA is a good first step for reducing inequity, however, discrimination against people with disabilities still exists in critical areas of life, taking on a variety of forms. Beyond the obvious, people with disabilities frequently encounter isolation or segregation; architectural, transportation and communication barriers; exclusionary qualification standards or criteria; and overprotective rules and policies.

Congress has recognized in the text of the ADA that “physical and mental disabilities in no way diminish a person’s right to fully participate in all aspects of society, but that people with physical or mental disabilities are frequently precluded from doing so because of prejudice, antiquated attitudes, or the failure to remove societal and institutional barriers.”

Breaking Down Attitudinal Barriers

“Beyond disability there are abilities; beyond accessibility there is inclusion.”Keith Christensen, Center for People with Disabilities

The best way to start eliminating disability discrimination is by addressing attitudinal barriers. Perceptions about what a person with a disability can or cannot do are more limiting than just physical barriers. Work to acknowledge biases based on assumptions and recognize that disability is only one aspect of a person. Just as you are not defined solely by gender, the color of your skin or sexual orientation, a person should not be defined solely by one’s disability.

It is critical to view an individual based on one’s capacities rather than deficits. Viewing a person through a capacities lens means that you look at what they can do, rather than their limitations. These aspects will include their strengths, abilities, unique skills, interests and perspectives, presuming competence rather than expecting challenges. Look beyond the disability to see the abilities. By focusing on what a person lacks, we are blinded to their gifts and potential for contributing as citizens in this community.

In the past, there have been strong prejudices and misconceptions about disability, but we are changing the way that we view disability for the better in this community. As we celebrate people of all abilities this month, I leave you with a charge to action: consider one thing you can do differently in your life to be more inclusive of others.


Shannon M. Mulhall, NIC, ACTCP, is the Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator for the City of Fresno and a certified sign language interpreter. She approaches all aspects of accessibility with an education focus, understanding that people might not fully comprehend that they play an important role in providing equal opportunities to all members of the public.

Respectful Terminology

Words to Avoid

  • Handicapped
  • Confined to a wheelchair, wheelchair bound
  • Deaf-dumb, deaf-mute, hearing impaired*
  • Retarded
  • Midget, dwarf*

Neutral Alternatives

  • Person with a disability
  • Person who uses a wheelchair
  • Deaf, hard of hearing
  • Intellectual/cognitive/developmental disability
  • Person of small stature, little person

*These are diagnostic terms that are used in the medical community but might not be representative of all individuals with the disability or might be deemed as offensive.

Tips for Engaging Respectfully with People with Disabilities

  • Consider the person first, the disability second. Use person-first language and don’t assume that disability is all that the person can talk about or is interested in.
  • Relax and be yourself. Treat people with disabilities with the same respect and consideration that you have for anyone else.
  • Respect the individual’s independence of choice and actions.
  • Ask if a person needs assistance before acting. Wait until your offer is accepted, then listen for instructions on how best to help.
  • Be age appropriate, treating people in a manner that is suitable to their age.
  • Talk directly with the person, not their companion, service aide or interpreter. If you don’t understand a person, ask for clarification.
  • Don’t touch someone’s cane, wheelchair or other assistive device. It’s part of that person’s personal space.
  • Guide dogs and other service animals are working animals; don’t pet or touch them without specific permission.
  • Be aware that not all disabilities are apparent. A person might be living with a hidden disability such as a hearing loss, learning disability or mental health disability.

These tips are modified from the Judicial Council of California Access and Fairness Advisory Committee Disability Etiquette brochure.


  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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