Dehumanization, Discrimination, and Segregation

Tom Nelson shares knowledge he’s picked up learning about equal justice for adults with disabilities.

Several disturbing themes dominate the history of people with developmental disabilities. Documented as far back as 400 B.C., these recurring themes continue to impact the lives of people with disabilities today and are reflected in the way that the justice system serves the disability community. These themes include:


People with developmental disabilities are regularly dehumanized and devalued.

Whenever a group of people is deemed less valuable or less important, they become vulnerable to abuse, neglect, discrimination and exploitation. Stereotypes, misinformation and a general lack of interest all contribute to a culture of ignorance where people with developmental disabilities are viewed as a single, homogenous group, rather than as individuals with unique abilities, skills, interests and needs.

Despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary, stereotypes persist that people with disabilities, particularly individuals with developmental disabilities:

  • Do not have human feelings and emotions. In essence, that they are less than human.
  • Are unable to feel basic physical sensations, such as pain, cold and hunger.
  • Do not make any worthwhile contributions to society and, therefore, are viewed as less valuable.
  • Are incapable of making decisions for themselves. Therefore, they should not be allowed to control their finances, own a home, develop serious emotional relationships, experience normal sexual feelings, or control their own reproductive decisions.

Stereotypes are harmful. Many people have taught Judge Frank about breaking them down.

Ensuring that all people are participating in society may help break down stereotypes.

Do these beliefs exist today?

Unfortunately, they do.

People with developmental disabilities encounter discrimination in many areas.

People with developmental disabilities may be discriminated against in virtually every area of life. These discriminatory practices often make it difficult for them to:

  • Find jobs in the community that pay at least minimum wage, including benefits.
  • Have opportunities for promotions and career advancement.
  • Find appropriate, safe, accessible housing.
  • Access the health care system, receive adequate care or be allowed to make decisions regarding their own care.
  • Get access to appropriate communications support.
  • Access a free and appropriate public education (FAPE).
  • Pursue post secondary education.

Does discrimination continue today?
Unfortunately, it does. Whether overt or subtle, discriminatory practices are commonplace.

From The Arc, November 21, 2019

Let’s talk About Sexual Violence Against Men With Disabilities

The Arc’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability and their Board Resource Center with support from the WITH Foundation has released a new series of training videos and resources for health care professionals about the issue of sexual violence and men with developmental disabilities. The lack of experience among the former and lack of education among the latter have contributed to an increasing incidence without the ability to address the issue, file reports, and have dedicated services available to provide support and care.–free-resources-addressing-sexual-violence.html?soid=1125064766967&aid=V2KBzQBszBc

From NBC News, October 11, 2019

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission prevailed and a federal jury awarded $5,200,000 in damages to a 16 year employee of a Beloit, Wisconsin Walmart after the store failed to accommodate the employee’s disabilities.  In 2015, a new manager started at the store and placed the employee on paid suspension although no pay was received after the first two weeks of his suspension.  Management claimed concern about safety, required a new official accommodations review process, and then determined the employee could not perform the essential functions of his job with or without reasonable accommodations.

Walmart will be required to pay $300,000, the damage award cap.  The EEOC will pursue policy changes, back pay, and rehire or front pay.

Myers v Schneiderman 2017 NY Slip Op 06412, Court of Appeals Per Curiam, September 7, 2017

Rejecting Plaintiff’s argument that an individual has a fundamental constitutional right to aid-in-dying, the New York Court of Appeals, in Myers v. Scheiderman, stated that “the legislature of this state has permissibly concluded that an absolute ban on assisted suicide is the most reliable, effective and administrable means of protecting against its dangers.”

A 1994 New York State Task Force on Life and the Law addressed assisted suicide and euthanasia, and stated:

“[n]o matter how carefully any guidelines are framed, assisted suicide and euthanasia will be practiced through the prism of social inequality and bias that characterizes the delivery of services in all segments of our society, including health care… the greatest risk to those who are poor, elderly, members of a minority group, or without access to good medical care….” Over time, such practices could be “…regarded as cheaper alternatives to medical treatment….”

Another part of society that could be of significant long term risk are people with disabilities. A societal value judgment that equates disability with indignities and a life with no intrinsic value is inconsistent with the Americans with Disabilities Act  that recognizes that:

“Disability is a natural part of the human existence and in no way diminishes the right of persons with developmental disabilities to live independently, enjoy self-determination, make choices, contribute to society, and experience full integration and inclusion in the economic, political, social, cultural, and educational mainstream of American society.”

As the Task Force further stated, “…It would be a profound mistake to equate limits imposed on a person’s life with the conclusion that such a life has no value”

Court of Appeals decision:

From the Department of Housing and Urban Development, April 15, 2013
HUD Settles Discrimination Claim with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage and Home Seller

 The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced today a $90,000 Conciliation Agreement with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage and the seller of a home in Worcester, Massachusetts, settling allegations they violated the Fair Housing Act by preventing the sale of a house to be used as a group home for persons with disabilities. The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in rental or sales transactions based on disability, including preventing a home sale because the home is going to be used by persons with disabilities.

“HUD is committed to promoting housing opportunities for people with disabilities in mainstream settings,” said John Trasviña, HUD Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. “We’re pleased the parties in this case were willing to resolve this matter in a way that advances that goal.”

 HUD General Counsel Helen Kanovsky added, “This case emphasizes that no one is above the law. Sellers of property, as well as their real estate agents and law firms who assist them, are all required to adhere to the Fair Housing Act.”

Read the entire article.

Throughout history, people with disabilities have been segregated and isolated.

Historically, people with developmental and other disabilities have been segregated in large residential facilities, or institutions, in “special” schools, in the workplace in sheltered workshops and enclaves, even within their residences. Such segregation was ruled illegal after years of court battles, thanks to the efforts of parents, self advocates and dozens of court challenges.

For centuries, people with developmental disabilities were segregated and isolated in large state-run public institutions. In 1962, an estimated 200,000 children and adults with developmental disabilities were living in such facilities, often in deplorable and inhumane conditions. These conditions were brought to the public’s attention in the 1960s and 1970s through court cases and media exposés, such as Burton Blatt’s 1966 photographic essay Christmas in Purgatory, Bill Baldini’s 1968 exposé on the conditions at Pennhurst, and Geraldo Rivera’s 1972 exposé of the horrific conditions at Willowbrook State School, a state institution on New York’s Staten Island. Despite this new awareness, the effort to close these massive institutions didn’t gain real momentum until the 1980s when nearly 50 institutions were closed. New Hampshire became the first state to close all of its state-run institutions, replacing them with community-based housing and support services. Minnesota closed its last institution in 2000.

pdf_icon Click on the icon to check out Burton Blatt’s groundbreaking photo essay, Christmas in Purgatory.

Watch Bill Baldini’s expose of conditions at Pennhurst State School.

Learn more about Geraldo Rivera’s expose of conditions at Willowbrook State School.

Does segregation continue today?
Unfortunately, it does.

From Pal-Item, April 3, 2017

Disability Rights Group Files Complaint vs. RCS

A due process complaint has been filed by students with disabilities against Richmond Community Schools, Richmond, Virginia, regarding access to and use of the school playground and equipment at Crestdale Elementary School. School officials claim this is to prevent students from running away even though fencing would resolve the problem. The school has repeatedly refused requests to complete fencing that is already partially enclosing the playground area.

From the Associated Press/Tulsa World, March 24, 2017

Judge: Case Alleging Ohio ‘Segregates’ Disabled Can Proceed

About 6,400 individuals with developmental disabilities live in intermediate care facilities I the state of Ohio where providers are responsible for all aspects of their daily lives. A lawsuit seeking class action status, alleges that people are “highly regimented and controlled, with little privacy, independence, or personal autonomy.”

Requests by state officials to dismiss the lawsuit failed. Federal Judge Edmund Sargus has said that the lawsuit can proceed. Sovereign immunity, claimed by the state, is not relevant since the state accepts federal funds and, therefore, waives that immunity.

From The Hartford Courant, January 14, 2012:

Experts Call ‘Scream Rooms’ Untherapeutic, Harmful To Children And Others At School

State Broadening Its Investigation in Middletown; Civil Rights Complaint Filed

Every morning Michael Sexton hears the same thing from his 8-year-old son:

“Daddy, I don’t want to go to school. Daddy, I don’t want to go.”

Sexton says it’s because his son, Robert, spent too much time alone in a small room – sometimes called a scream room, a timeout room or a safe room – as a way to control his behavior at a public school run by Area Cooperative Regional Educational Services in North Haven.

Sexton heard about the outcry in Middletown last week when parents learned that children with troublesome behaviors at Farm Hill School were put into a 10-by-6-foot room with a window on the door — as a place to calm down.
Sexton said he was glad to hear that people were speaking out against the use of these rooms.

“It’s like torture for kids,” said Sexton, who lives in New Britain. “That’s like sitting in jail, sitting behind bars. It’s not good for them.”

Many national and state advocates for children agree, and say that “scream rooms” or seclusion rooms should be banned, calling them untherapeutic and harmful to children and to the school community.

Middletown: ‘Scream Rooms’ Will No Longer Be Used For Some Students to read the entire article.

Negative stereotypes make it easier to deny or abuse the civil rights of people with disabilities.

Are the civil rights of people with developmental disabilities denied or abused today?

Unfortunately, yes.

From an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission notice, April 10, 2013:

EEOC Sues Wal-Mart for Sexual Harassment, Retaliation and Disability Discrimination

Developmentally Disabled Walmart Employee in Akron Store Fired for Complaining About Sexual Touching, Federal Agency Charges

Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P. violated federal law by allowing a male employee at an Akron Walmart store to subject a developmentally disabled female co-worker to sexually inappropriate conduct and then retaliating against her for her opposition to the sexual misconduct, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charged in a lawsuit it announced today.

The EEOC said Jamie Wells, who is developmentally disabled, worked at the company as an associate in the Akron store’s lawn & garden department for more than 11 years. The EEOC said that from about April 2005 through Jan. 7, 2011, the store allowed a male coworker to sexually harass Wells, including sexual touching Wells while on the store’s premises. Further, although store management officials were aware of the harassment, they failed to take prompt or effective action to remedy the sexually hostile work environment. Instead, the EEOC said, the store fired Wells three weeks after she complained about the abusive conduct.

Such alleged conduct violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The EEOC also charged that the company violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by failing to provide reasonable accommodations to Wells through adequate training, supervision, and communication regarding its anti-harassment policies. The EEOC filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio (Case: 5:13-cv-00795) after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process. The agency seeks injunctive relief, compensatory and punitive damages and lost wages and benefits.

“Ms. Wells’ impairment made her particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment,” said Regional Attorney Debra Lawrence of the EEOC’s Philadelphia District Office, which oversees Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia, Maryland, and portions of New Jersey and Ohio. “Once this Walmart was put on notice of the harassment, it had a legal responsibility to take immediate and appropriate action to stop the misconduct. When an employer fails to do so, the EEOC must and will hold that employer accountable.”

Read the entire release.

Judge Donovan Frank on The Human Connection