In a report issued in May 2020, the American Psychological Association speaks of mounting psychological distress caused by the pandemic, affecting the general population and especially certain high-risk groups. Singled out were people with disabilities. The “unique stressors and challenges” of this population “could worsen mental health” for people with disabilities, they concluded.
The report goes on to say that “research on past pandemics shows that disabled people find it harder to access critical medical supplies which can become even more challenging as resources become scarce.” They also point to “policies around rationing of medical care (intensifying) discriminatory attitudes towards disabled individuals during times of crisis.”
Recent findings by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention have proven these concerns valid when applied to the current pandemic. The CDC states that “adults with disabilities report experiencing frequent mental distress almost 5 times as often as adults without disabilities.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, “isolation, disconnect, disrupted routines, and diminished health services have greatly impacted the lives and mental well-being of people with disabilities,” says the CDC.
I bring this to your attention because Dec. 3 was International Day of Persons with Disabilities, a day promoted by the United Nations since 1992 that was designed to recognize what the World Health Organization calls “the world’s largest minority group.” More than 1 billion people around the world live with some form of disability. Through this day’s observance, it is hoped that people will become educated on the need to identify and address issues of “discrimination, marginalization, exclusion and inaccessibility that many people living with disabilities face.”
Though 1 in 4 adults in the United States deal with some form of disability (an estimated 61 million people), not counted in the CDC findings are young people age 3 to 21. Using all public school students who received special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as a gauge, in 2019-2020, we are looking at 7.3 million young people. This reflects the most current numbers from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. For all the above, it appears the International Day of Persons with Disabilities is a day, and an opportunity, that has come and gone with little attention.
While the term “people with disabilities” often is viewed as a single population, it is a very diverse group with a wide range of needs. According to the WHO, “almost everyone is likely to experience some form of disability — temporary or permanent — at some point in life.”
According to Statista, ambulatory disability is the most common type of disability in the U.S. It affects 6.6% of all Americans. Within this group, people with a physical impairment or reduced mobility often require manual and power wheelchairs to get around. Their struggles are visible and seen by most of us. Also highly visible is the debate that they now find themselves in the thick of.
Kaiser Health Network recently reported that the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was enacted to confirm that “people with disabilities have the same right to pedestrian infrastructure as anyone else.” It calls for “significant changes” to improve “access and accommodations for people with disabilities.” This edict was further reinforced in 1990 by the Americans with Disabilities Act. As noted by reporter Maureen O’Hagan, it “required governmental entities to provide people with disabilities access to programs and services enjoyed by their nondisabled peers. That includes sidewalks and curb ramps that make it possible to safely cross the street.”
In the more than three decades since its passage, there has been widespread noncompliance with the ADA within communities across the U.S. As a result, “hundreds of jurisdictions have faced lawsuits or entered settlement agreements after failing to meet requirements for pedestrians and mass transit users,” writes O’Hagan.
Communities now find themselves in both a legal and financial squeeze. Kelly Lynch is the deputy director and general counsel for the Montana League of Cities and Towns, a nonpartisan association that represents all 127 of Montana’s municipal governments. O’Hagan writes that she is working with officials in other jurisdictions across the country through the National League of Cities to “find a path toward full accessibility, even if the steps are incremental.” She notes that “the average curb ramp” costs between $9,000 and $19,000. Given the crumbing condition of many streets and sidewalks across the country, the costs for compliance often can reach astronomical amounts.
Within the city of Los Angeles, the problems with sidewalks and curb ramps “were so widespread that the city estimated it would cost $1.4 billion and take 30 years” to fix. In a bitterly fought case, the city spent five years in court before agreeing to settle the suit in 2015. In addition to an estimated billion-dollar settlement, the judge required them to pay “nearly $12 million to cover the other side’s legal fees and costs.” Thus, proving that the real winner in this dispute, as in so many others, were the attorneys.
In fairness, no one expected the ADA to fix all these problems immediately. “Under the law, new sidewalks must be built for accessibility. As for existing sidewalks, a federal appeals court in 1993 ruled that curb ramps must be installed or regraded when the road is altered — say, when it’s repaved,” says O’Hagan.
The debate on how to proceed seems far from over and, as it drones on, could obscure or even build mounting resentment for the real complainants in this case: disabled people who have for far too long been impossible not to see but somehow too easy to dismiss. Think for a moment what wheelchair-constrained disabled people have long had to endure. “Even a 1-inch (curb) lip can be too high for a wheelchair user to navigate,” says O’Hagan. “A slope that is a few degrees too steep can tip someone to the ground.” Streets that are pothole-filled or sidewalks obstructed with utility poles can ultimately force wheelchair users “into the street for a dangerous ride.”
“For those who can easily get around town, the issue can be invisible,” notes O’Hagan.