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Expanding the circle of inclusion for African Americans with disabilities.

National Opportunity for Black Colleges

As an African American who was born with cerebral palsy, who is blind in one eye, and who grew up in segregated surroundings, in my mind, there is no difference between being segregated into so-called separate but equal schools or confined to inferior housing because you are African-American and being segregated because you have mental retardation and society believes you will be better off with your own kind. There is no difference between being denied the right to vote because you are African-American and being denied because of an inaccessible polling place. There is no difference between being denied jobs and promotions because you are African-American and being denied because you are sight or hearing impaired. All are discrimination. And discrimination against people with disabilities is perhaps the most egregious form of discrimination in America. There is no such thing as separate but equal. There is only separate and inferior. Therefore we must struggle always to establish and to sustain the basic human rights and civil rights of all Americans, and specifically Americans with disabilities.

The insidious assumption that people with disabilities are less than full human beings is more severe for African Americans with disabilities because they suffer from the "double-whammy" based upon race and disability. Throughout history, we have been treated as sub-humans, outcasts cared for by subsistent welfare and kept out of sight and mind in institutions and backrooms.

Only 20 years ago, many advocates in the disabilities' community concluded that if you had a disability you would never be treated as a full citizen economically, politically, or socially unless liberation was advanced under the rule of law. Thanks to countless dedicated men and women of all races, persons with disabilities and "Temporarily Abled Bodied" (TAB) persons have been able to succeed and achieve. Our nation has come a long way in the struggle to improve the quality of life for all Americans with disabilities since the World War I era when ultra-extreme geneticists suggested mercy killings for people with epilepsy and mental retardation.

Let's review briefly our progress.

Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, as amended, a companion law to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in federally assisted or conducted programs or activities. This legislation was hailed as an important milestone because it set a precedent and gave movement to disability rights and equality.

The 1975 Education for All Children with Disabilities Act (PL 94-142) was another important step toward improving the quality of life for people with disabilities. This "mainstreaming" law put children in public schools alongside their non-disabled counterparts. Now that the first "mainstreamed" generation is pursuing careers and starting families, we will soon have first-hand evidence of the wisdom of that legislation mandated in 1975.

What is particularly significant is that 127 years after the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, 70 years after ratification of the 19th Amendment making voting for women a matter of right, our nation has passed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). This landmark legislation is intended to empower and to provide access, transportation, jobs, and justice for 43 million Americans, too many of whom for far too long have been locked out and shut out.

Yet, despite tremendous progress, America must continue to fight the good fight, finish the course, and keep the faith. We must resist being caught up in the "illusion of inclusion," which is a condition contracted when you rest on past laurels. To meet the global economic challenges ahead, we need the talents and energy of the 72 percent of all women, the 63 percent of all men, and the more than 80 percent of all African-Americans with disabilities who are jobless.

The yardstick speaks for itself. Our nation's efforts to improve the quality of life for Americans with disabilities are still woefully inadequate. Therefore, in the words of Robert Frost, we still have "... promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep," in the revolution to expand the circle of inclusion for all Americans with disabilities.

We've all heard the demographic projections that 85 percent of the new entrants into the workforce by the year 2000 will be Americans of color, women, and immigrants. Additionally, more people with disabilities than ever will be available for work and the technology will be there to support them. Only 15 percent of new entrants into the workforce will be native white males, compared to 47 percent in that category today.

The 1990s promises to be the best decade for people with disabilities. All these laws and demographic projections provide a sound legal and social framework to allow for a healthy respect for individual differences and for each individual to contribute some unique piece to the mosaic. The time can be right for persons with disabilities to ride this tide toward full participation in the mainstream of American society. If the nation would but implement the spirit of the laws on the books, we would be helping people with disabilities to battle architectural barriers, combat prejudice, and achieve independent living through self help rather than by societal pity. This struggle must be about collective work and responsibility. Why? It must be because no human being is immune to developing a disability. Almost no one, regardless of race, gender, religion, age or economic status, goes through life without experiencing some form of physical or mental impairment, be it temporary or permanent. It is, without question, the true "Equal Opportunity Situation." The bottom-line is: we who are disabled are a constant visible reminder of the frailty of each member of the human race. People with disabilities are human beings because God did not make any junk. We are a "minority" that people without disabilities could join in a moment's notice. Therefore, accepting this possibility and adjusting to disabilities are matters which must concern all of us.

With the preceding overview as a backdrop, I want to now focus briefly on the status of African Americans with disabilities and the profound responsibility of HBCUs', specifically, to make a bold declaration and play an integral role to emancipate and empower them to be equal and productive citizens in the mainstream.

In his 1990 paper, "Black Adults with Disabilities: A Portrait," prepared for the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, Dr. Frank G. Bowe reported that for people of color, "the relationship between disability and education is dramatic." In this "Portrait," based on data collected in March, 1988, Dr. Bowe makes some additional key observations in the areas of education and employment. He states that 13 percent of African American aged 16-64 report a work-related disability. That's about one in every seven working-age African Americans. Whites, in contrast, are disabled only at a 7.9 percent rate in the same age group.

Consequently, African-American adults are twice as likely to be disabled as whites, and of all 16- to 64-year-old adults with a disability, one in every five is African-American. Partly because only about 16 percent of all Africans Americans with disabilities are employed, the average income is low. For working-age African Americans with disabilities who worked, mean earnings in 1988 were $8,897, or 70 percent of the $12,689 mean for white adults with disabilities and 62 percent of the $14,244 mean for non-disabled African Americans.

Dr. Bowe's findings suggest that the likelihood of work disability decreases with education. A large number of African-American persons receive a high school education, but do not go on to college. While there is little difference in the percentage of African-American labor force participants ages 25-64 with disabilities who finish high school (44.1 percent) and non-disabled African-American high school graduates (43.0 percent), only 5.8 percent of African Americans with disabilities are college graduates (16+ years of education) while 15.6 percent of non-disabled African Americans get college diplomas.

Thus, African Americans with no disabilities were almost three times more likely to be college graduates than were those with work disabilities. These findings illuminate the double whammy of race and disability and the need for vigorous enforcement of Section 504 and the ADA, both of which cover HBCUs.

The principal point is that this potential pool of students is largely untapped by majority institutions and by HBCUs. There is a direct benefit to HBCUs and the nation to target and become the institutions of choice for African Americans with disabilities.

For generations, our great African-American colleges have been concerned with systematic discrimination and oppression. These institutions first developed the specific ideas and theories leading to the programs of desegregation, integration, and diversity management. They can lead a clarion call to be at the forefront of the vital mission to make life better for African Americans with disabilities. HBCUs can open exciting academic opportunities for hundreds of African-American students with disabilities in an environment where they would be free from the double whammy of disability and race. They can help to remove the shackles of subtle and pervasive discrimination and the heel of paternalism. They can open the doors of opportunities for numerous isolated, dependent Americans to become college graduates, employees, taxpayers, and welcomed participants in the life of their communities. Nobody said it's going to be easy, but those who dare not, do not. We must take care of our own.

Here is a 10-point strategy recommended for use by HBCUs to become institutions of choice for Americans with disabilities, and specifically African Americans:

1) Develop and implement affirmative action plans for students and faculty with disabilities signed by the president.

2) Double their current enrollments or increase enrollment of African-American students with disabilities to at least five percent by the year 2000.

3) Increase the number of faculty and staff with disabilities and urge local businesses and affiliated organizations to do the same.

4) Make all buildings, facilities, and programs accessible to people with disabilities to allow them to participate in educational, recreational, social, and cultural activities on the university's campus.

5) Ensure that university housing and transportation are accessible.

6) Assist in ensuring students with disabilities are included and welcomed in the congregations of affiliated and local places of worship and that these institutions are accessible.

7) Implement training and public relations programs to increase student and faculty awareness of disability issues and which address the attitudinal barriers associated with teaching, hiring, and working with people with disabilities.

8) Hire or appoint a manager to carry out the university programs for people with disabilities.

9) Create formal coalitions of HBCUs, other institutions of higher learning, federal, state, and local governments as well as community organizations devoted to addressing educational and employment needs of African Americans with disabilities (e.g. schools, places of worship, health and human services organizations, etc.).

10) Plan and carry out conferences at national and local levels devoted to developing strategies for expanding the circle of inclusions for African Americans with disabilities.

To date, there is no national body or focus devoted exclusively to dealing with the myriad of problems affecting African Americans with disabilities. The direct involvement of HBCUs is essential if America is to achieve greater success in empowering African Americans with disabilities to achieve their full potential to live full, active lives.

I close with this counsel from the philosopher Hillel, wisdom that is as good today as it was centuries ago when he wrote: "If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?" Thousands of African Americans with disabilities are looking forward to hearing and seeing the answers of the nation's illustrious HBCUs. Their collective action will be a visible demonstration that as great institutions they understand fully that Africans Americans with disabilities are not "the children of a lesser god."

Claiborne D. Haughton, Jr., is a Federal Senior Executive Service Sabbatical Fellow at Dillard University in New Orleans, LA.
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Author:Haughton, Claiborne D., Jr.
Publication:The Black Collegian
Date:Mar 1, 1993
Words:1992
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