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The interaction of legislation, public attitudes, and access to opportunities for persons with disabilities.


The population of Americans with disabilities has risen dramatically in the last quarter century, increasing by 37% between 1966 and 1976 alone (DeJong & Lifchez, 1983). Recent estimates of the size of the population of this country's citizens with disabilities range from 35 million (DeJong & Lifchez, 1983; Gartner & Joe, 1987) to a recent Congressional estimate of 43 million persons (U.S. Congress, 1990).

Members of this expanding population are more than twice as likely as their nondisabled peers to be poor (DeJong & Lifchez, 1983; Louis Harris & Associates, 1986). Much of this poverty among persons with disabilities can be attributed to insufficient employment opportunities. For example, in 1986 only 33% of citizens with disabilities between the ages of 16 and 64 were working, while two-thirds of those unemployed indicated an interest in working (Louis Hams & Associates, 1986). These statistics become even more negative when compounded with the reality that individuals with disabilities who are employed tend to earn substantially less than their nondisabled counterparts (Jackman, 1983).

Insufficient or underemployment opportunities and consequent inadequate income can create a "shut-in" status for many persons with disabilities. Therefore, not surprisingly, citizens with disabilities are found to have significantly fewer opportunities than their nondisabled counterparts to participate in social activities, such as attendance at movies and sporting events, or even eating out in restaurants (Louis Hams & Associates, 1986).

These problems of poverty, unemployment and underemployment, and associated social isolation are, in part, attributable to a denial of basic civil rights to citizens with disabilities. This paper addresses the notion of rights of persons with disabilities and examines the barriers in our society that thwart their realization. The integral part that negative, stereotypical attitudes toward this emerging minority play in this process will be delineated. An examination of the Americans with Disabilities Act (P.L. 101-336) and its promise of meaningful equal opportunity and full social participation for citizens with disabilities will be discussed. Finally, the authors will examine how the passage of the ADA will significantly improve the attitudes of the nondisabled majority toward this emerging minority.

Disability Rights

The opportunities that citizens enjoy in this country are guaranteed by certain legal rights. Prior to the enactment of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, equal opportunity rights for citizens with disabilities were legislatively unprotected. With the passage of Section 504 of Title V of this historic act, often called the "Bill of Rights" for citizens with disabilities, persons with disabilities were recognized as being the target of discrimination and their civil rights were at least partially protected by law (Jackman, 1983; Rubin & Roessler, 1987).

While the 1973 act considerably narrowed the discrepancy between the opportunities afforded citizens with and without disabilities in our society, many barriers to equal opportunity still exist for the former group. The foremost barrier to equal opportunity is an insidious obstacle: negative attitudes and unfounded beliefs, invisible and often disguised. This barrier has greatly limited the opportunities of individuals with disabilities throughout history (Rubenfeld, 1988). Bogdan and Biklen (1977) describe this prejudice as "handicapism", and define it as "a set of assumptions and practices that promote the differential and unequal treatment of people because of apparent or assumed physical, mental, or behavioral differences". A second significant barrier is created by the ineffectual, often paternalistic public policy concerning disability issues. These two barriers are intimately related, and their impact upon the opportunities afforded individuals with disabilities is substantial.

Attitudinal Barriers to Equal Opportunity for Citizens with Disabilities

Attitudinal barriers are the most debilitating of the two obstacles listed above. One facet of this attitudinal prejudice that maintains the gap between the opportunities afforded citizens with and without disabilities is the stigma attributed to individuals with a "different" appearance in this society. In 1963, Goffman recognized the stigma attributed to a person having a visible, physical disability. He noted that a person with a visible disability was considered to be a "faulty interactant" in the eyes of the nondisabled majority (Goffman, 1963). For example, frequently a person accompanying an individual using a wheelchair to a restaurant will be expected to order for them both, on the assumption that the individual with the disability is incompetent, invisible, or both.

Another indicator of attitudinal barriers is the contention made by Shraver and Curtis (1981) that citizens with disabilities are often perceived "solely in terms of their disability". An illustration of this phenomenon is the labeling of persons as "paras" or "quads", as if experiencing paraplegia or quadriplegia were the only characteristics of an individual. Larson (1986) asserts that social stigmas associated with many disabilities tend to isolate the individual "far more effectively than the limitations imposed by the disability itself". In the area of employment interviewing, Strom and Ferns (1982) have suggested that the realities of physical disabilities often require applicants to defend their physical shortcomings rather than accentuate their job competencies, a task not presented to nondisabled applicants.

Another significant attitudinal barrier to the realization of the rights of citizens with disabilities concerns the rehabilitation professionals charged with the facilitation of their recovery and reintegration into society. While one might expect rehabilitation professionals to hold more positive attitudes toward the individuals with whom they work, this does not always seem to be the case. Bell (1962) provided early evidence that the attitudes of rehabilitation staff providing care for patients with physical disabilities did not differ significantly from the attitudes of other hospital staff. More recently, Noble and McCarthy (1988), based on the results of a telephone follow-up of members of the American Rehabilitation Counseling Association (ARCA), concluded: must be said that the disability rights movement's greatest adversary is not ignorance, inexperience, or the environment. Its adversary is the prejudicial attitude of many rehabilitation professionals, who should know and behave better. Such attitudes are part of the substance of that passively imposed form of discrimination . . . that ultimately stigmatizes and oppresses persons with disabilities in our society.

Safilios-Rothschild (1976) provided a similar viewpoint when she indicated that the prescriptions provided by rehabilitation experts "often serve to keep the disabled within the constraints of the inferior and dependent role reserved for the disabled as a category and to discourage any significant deviations from it". While such negative attitudes are certainly not overtly professed by rehabilitation professionals, they are nonetheless debilitating to those with whom they interact.

Barriers Created by an Ineffectual, Paternalistic Public Policy

Hahn (1985) contends that the public's attitudes that persons with disabilities are incapable of full participation in society controls the behavioral responses of nondisabled persons, and that these attitudes have also greatly shaped a paternalistic public policy on disability which creates a work disincentive for persons with disabilities. Although there have been some recent progressive changes in this public policy, in effect the government continues to reward citizens with disabilities for remaining unemployed via disability entitlements such as Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), Worker's Compensation (WC), and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), while penalizing those who return to work through the discontinuation of such benefits. According to Rogers (1987), these programs serve as disincentives to work because while unemployed individuals are rewarded with these benefits, employed individuals do not receive them. The challenge for legislators who create public policy centers on not endangering these much-needed benefits for those individuals with disabilities who are incapable of working, while not creating a financial disincentive for those who can be competitively employed (Rogers, 1987).

The lack of an effective educational public policy concerning students with disabilities is another significant barrier to their development and productivity. In discussing the barriers to equal opportunity for students with disabilities, Edgar (1987) notes that few students with disabilities move from school to independent living arrangements; special education seems to have little to offer students in terms of adjustment to life outside of school; that as many as 30% of secondary special education students drop out of school without graduating; and that few special education students (whether they graduate or not) are able to find adequate employment. Certainly a rethinking of policy as it concerns students with disabilities is called for as well.

The ADA and Its Potential Impact on These Barriers

In spite of the barriers generated by prejudicial attitudes and ineffectual public policies, citizens with disabilities have acquired many new legal rights during the 1970's and 1980's (e.g., Title V of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, The Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, the Air Carriers Access Act, and the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988). Prior to this legislation, civil rights for citizens with disabilities could only be inferred from the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments (Jackman, 1983). While only applying to the public sector, these laws nonetheless reflected a "raised consciousness" on the part of our lawmakers, if not on the part of society as a whole (Jackman, 1983). This raised consciousness has recently been demonstrated by the overwhelming passage of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

While the ADA prohibits discrimination in such important areas as access to public accommodations, communication, transportation, voting, public services, education, housing, and recreation, the most important area of public policy addressed by the ADA concerns employment opportunities for citizens with disabilities. Lombana (1989) has noted that much of the labor market "embodies a residue of discrimination that can prohibit people with disabilities from advancing". In the past only the federal government and contractors doing business with the federal government were required to take affirmative action in hiring citizens with disabilities (mandated by Sections 501 and 503 of Title V, respectively). Beginning in 1992, the ADA mandates that private companies with more than 25 employees will be required to hire their applicants from amongst this minority group (U.S. Congress, 1990). This rule will apply to companies of 15 or more employees beginning in 1994. While this is extremely enabling legislation, its enforcement is critical. Penalties for not complying with this mandate must be severe. Given adequate enforcement, this provision of the ADA should serve to eliminate many of the financial inequities discussed in the introduction of this paper. The effects of this legislation will result in expanded integration and socialization into the community for citizens with disabilities.

Another public policy area receiving attention by the ADA concerns architectural barriers. Section 502 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act created the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (ATBCB) to enforce the accessibility standards of the 1968 Architectural Barriers Act (Rubin & Roessler, 1987). Missing from this legislation, however, was provisions for an accessible public transportation system. Section 203 of the ADA addressed this issue when it stated:

It shall be considered discrimination for the purposes of this Act and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 for a public entity to purchase or lease a new fixed route bus of any size, a new intercity rail vehicle, a new commuter rail vehicle, a new rapid rail vehicle, a new light rail vehicle to be used for public transportation, or any other new fixed route vehicle to be used for public transportation and for which solicitation is made later than 30 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, if such bus, rail, or other vehicle is not readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, including individuals who use wheelchairs.

Assuming the public transportation regulations written by the Department of Transportation are consistent with the intent of the ADA and are rigidly enforced, in the future citizens with disabilities will be less isolated than they are currently by a "disabling environment".

How Passage of the ADA Will Impact Upon Negative Attitudes

Hahn (1987) suggests that by changing public policy through the enforcement of antidiscrimination legislation, we could alter the negative attitudes that many nondisabled people have toward citizens with disabilities. Once their civil rights have been clearly protected, attitudes and behaviors toward this emerging minority group should change concurrently for the better (Hahn, 1987). For example, in the 1960's legislating civil rights for the black minority promoted change, albeit slowly, in the attitudes and behaviors of the predominantly white majority.

Since contact between individuals with and without disabilities has been consistently demonstrated to ameliorate negative attitudes in situations where such contact has been between those equal in status (Langer, Fiske, Taylor, & Chanowitz, 1976; Rapier, Adelson, Carey, & Croke, 1972), the integration into the workplace of citizens with disabilities as a result of the passage of the ADA should allow the predominantly nondisabled workforce a chance to modify their attitudes toward this minority group. Disability rights will be further guaranteed as the regulations pursuant to the ADA are written, the visibility of persons with disabilities will increase within the community and greater opportunities for social contact with nondisabled people will occur. The literature overwhelmingly supports the contention that the more contact individuals with disabilities have with the rest of society, the more attitudes toward them will improve (Donaldson, 1980). As the attitudes of society improve, more effective public policy will eventually ensue, leading to a more accessible environment for all persons. Greater physical accessibility will, in turn, lead to more social contact between persons with and without disabilities. Visibility, awareness education, and advocacy by those in the disability rights movement are integral to the continuation of this beneficial sequence.


In a world where all individuals have equal access to opportunities, there would be no structural or attitudinal barriers that unfairly limit an individual's capacity for activity or development. However, significant barriers to full participation still prevail for Americans with disabilities.

While many legal rights have been acquired by citizens with disabilities in the last twenty years, much needs to be done in advocating for the enforcement of existing legislation pertaining to this group. Additionally, new legislation must be generated to allow them to participate more fully in this predominantly nondisabled world. The ADA is no panacea: individuals in the disability rights movement must continue to educate the public in order to facilitate changes in attitude.

The passage of the ADA is certainly a monumental achievement for those who have worked so diligently for disability rights. Much work remains for the expeditions implementation of regulations consistent with its spirit. One has only to remember how long it took to get the first regulations consistent with Section 504 written to avoid complacency in this endeavor (Rubin & Roessler, 1987; Scotch, 1984). Advocacy is critical in the educating of the public in order to alter their prejudicial attitudes and behaviors exhibited toward citizens with disabilities. This will continue to be the most important challenge facing the Disability Rights Movement. When similar opportunities are available to citizens with and without disabilities, the former group will no longer have "second-class citizenship".


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Strom, L.J., & Ferris, G.R. (1982). Issues in hiring the handicapped: A positive approach. Personnel Administrator, 27(8), 75-81.

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Title Annotation:Legislation
Author:Rubin, Stanford E.
Publication:The Journal of Rehabilitation
Date:Oct 1, 1992
Previous Article:You're Not Alone.
Next Article:Ethical dilemmas encountered by Independent Living Service Providers.

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