People with Disabilities
The phrase “people with disabilities” refers to diverse groups of people with physical, developmental, psychological, vision, hearing, and other disabilities. Not all disabilities are visible. According to the American Disabilities Act, a person with a disability is someone who has a physical or mental impairment that limits one or more major life activities, has a history or record of this type of impairment, and/or is perceived by others to have this type of impairment. Activism by the disabled people—including the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community, and the Autistic community—has expanded our understanding and definitions of disability beyond impairment. Disability is more accurately being redefined in terms of differences, required accommodations, personal lived experience, and identity. An important part of this shift, many disabled people have shifted toward using disability-first language (i.e. a disabled person, an Autistic person, a Deaf person), though person-first language is still preferred in some communities and in reference to some conditions (i.e. a person living with a mental health condition, a person with a TBI). In general, it is best practice to refer to a disabled person in the way they refer to themselves.
People with disabilities belong everywhere, and deserve equitable access to employment, education, housing, healthcare, and recreation. They have made immense contributions to all aspects of life and culture in the United States, despite being historically excluded from many of the fields they impacted. Today, 26% of adults in the U.S. (61 million people) live with a disability. The disabled community has made great strides in advancing accessibility and equity, but disabled people still face disproportionately negative health and mental health outcomes. Long histories of misunderstanding, abuse, lack of care, stigmatization, discrimination, and unequal rights have created deep inequities for people with disabilities. Disabled people are significantly more likely to live in poverty, experience trauma, face barriers to care, and struggle with suicidal ideation than their able-bodied peers. Disabled people who are living in poverty, located in rural communities, LGBTQ+, Black, Indigenous, and/or of color often struggle the most to thrive due to compounding marginalizations.
Disabled people—especially disabled people of color and LGBTQ+ disabled people—are working to push disability equity to the forefront of justice movements, where intersectionality with disability is often overlooked and accessibility is often an afterthought. Misunderstanding, stigma, and exclusion still inhibit progress in all aspects of disability equity, from education and employment, to housing, healthcare, mental healthcare, transportation, and recreation. People with disabilities that are considered rare, complex, and/or “difficult” to accommodate are often most misunderstood and excluded. People with invisible disabilities frequently struggle with both exclusion from able-bodied people and other disabled people, due to their disability and needs not being immediately obvious. Progress with accessibility and disability accommodations are often slowest in rural communities and communities with high rates of poverty.
Partnering with disabled people to achieve health equity requires uprooting the ableist systems that perpetuate their exploitation, exclusion, and abuse. Institutionalizing and operationalizing accessibility and disability justice throughout all leadership levels of all sectors will require organizations, allies, and systems to deeply center and follow the leadership of disabled people. Justice and equity work must prioritize intersectionality, especially disabled people of color and LGBTQ+ disabled people. Allies should start by recognizing that disability is a complex, nuanced, deeply personal experience, and that change will require many diverse disabled voices. Community-led processes, self-representation, and centering the voices of people with disabilities—including invisible disabilities—are a few effective tactics communities can leverage to advance equity and well-being for disabled people.