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The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Why You Should Care About Disability Rights

The disability rights movement has long challenged myths and stereotypes that inaccurately portray people with disabilities as unemployable, incapable of education, or unable to become contributing members of society. Limiting the potential of people with disabilities limits the potential of our entire nation.

Impact

  • A 1994 Louis Harris study showed that two- thirds of people with disabilities ages 16 through 64 reported that they were unemployed -- while 79 percent of them say they want to work.
  • Arizona State University health economics professor William Johnson, Ph.D., and East Carolina University assistant professor of economics Marjorie Baldwin, Ph.D., found that workers with disabilities make less than other workers and are less likely to be promoted.
  • Less than ten percent of Americans with disabilities own their own homes.

Background

In 1975, Congress enacted a landmark bill on behalf of persons with disabilities: IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). IDEA provides that all children with disabilities have a federally-protected right to a free appropriate public education that meets their schooling and related needs in the least restrictive environment, in regular classes, in the school the student would attend if not disabled. Under IDEA, students with disabilities are entitled to support services and devices (such as assistive listening systems, Braille textbooks, talking computers, and speech synthesizers) as needed to facilitate their learning in classrooms alongside nondisabled students.

IDEA has significantly improved the quality of the public education received by millions of American children with disabilities. Today, according to the National Council on Disability, "[p]ost-school employment rates for youth served under IDEA are twice that of older adults with disabilities who did not benefit from IDEA in school, and self-reports indicate that the percentage of college freshmen with a disability has almost tripled since 1978."

Despite IDEA's success, its work is far from over. Surveys by the National Council of Disability also found that "the dropout rate for students who receive special education continues to be far higher than that of students who receive general education services. Diploma rates for special education students are far lower than for their peers enrolled in general education services. Unemployment among those with disabilities who want to work, but can't find a job, is approximately 70 percent." Moreover, many children with disabilities - especially minority and/or low-income students - are not yet receiving the services to which they are entitled under IDEA.

Enacted in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was perhaps the most significant and dramatic improvement in civil rights laws in decades. Drawing heavily from previous civil rights legislation, including Titles II and VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, it prohibits discrimination against Americans with physical and mental disabilities in such areas as employment, public accommodations, and transportation.

The ADA has greatly expanded opportunities for persons with disabilities in its first decade. For example, 1996 Census Bureau data showed that an additional 800,000 people with severe disabilities joined the workforce in the first three years after the ADA's enactment. The ADA has enabled the removal of barriers such as narrow doors or steps that prevent persons with wheelchairs from attending a town meeting, eating at a restaurant, or registering to vote; and has helped ensure that people who are deaf, hard of hearing, or have speech impairments can access 9-1-1 emergency services.

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