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:

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:

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

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:

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.

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.

Judge Donovan Frank on The Human Connection