Disability is within the natural course of the human endeavor." So goes a key line from the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990.
What this statement, and the entire ADA signaled, is that disability is not something that makes people different; but rather, disability is (or will be) within the experience base of everyone reading those words. Indeed, people with disabilities have more in common with others than different.
Yet, in my 40 years as a disability advocate for United Cerebral Palsy/Community Living and Support Services of Pittsburgh, a nonprofit organization founded in Allegheny County in 1951 and now providing a variety of community services to some 2,000 folks with disabilities, it seems that disability creates astounding gaps between people and typical community activities and needs.
We know in our work at UCP/CLASS that if a disability presents itself, regardless of form or feature, it can wreak havoc on a family. Relationships can become strained, even break down; people can lose or have incredible difficulty finding a job; housing can pose tremendous challenges; and difficulty emerges in even the simplest needs for transportation or community activity. The net result is that people with disabilities are often segregated or disconnected from the greater community.
More profound, the way society deals with disability is often to focus on what is perceived as the problem and place the person with a disability into a segregated reality. Yet, in some odd way, this emphasis on the differences and segregated practices might be the worst thing we could do, as it often promotes separation from family and community.
Certainly we understand the powerful drive to either fix or mitigate the disabling effects of a condition, especially when this happens unexpectedly. We want to see the person returned to where they were before the accident or illness that created the disability, or we want the person to fit some "normal" perspective of how we think life and functionality should be.
When we segregate or send people to separate programs however, greater distance can come between the person with a disability and the world in general. This has two strong negative consequences. One is it suggests the person with a disability is vastly different and pushes others away. Second, it can create unrealistic messages to the person/family with a disability that their condition can be fixed and all will be well. Sometimes this happens -- most of the time it will not.
After years of advocacy, our perspective now is to change this paradigm. Rather than focus on the differences that disability might bring, we need to promote the similarities we all have, in spite of our differences. Sociologists know that similarities attract people; indeed, it is how all of us build relationships in our lives. Further, similarity and regularity of exchange actually allow us to go beyond our difference and build strong and lasting relationships.
The stronger the relationships, the better we become as people and society. Sociologists refer to this as the power of social capital. The more relationships we build, the better the personal and societal outcomes. We know that people in solid relationships are healthier, happier, more tolerant, compassionate and kinder. Even life expectancy is promoted by strong social capital.
So to all of us at UCP/CLASS, the disability scenario actually is better if we downplay the differences of disability, and play up the similarities we all have as people. If we can keep people who are experiencing disabilities more rooted in their communities and connected to all types of people, we all do better as individuals and as a society.
We say this not to suggest that people who are experiencing disabilities do not need certain supports and services, but more from a perspective of keeping people as included in all types of community relationships as possible. UCP/CLASS has a simple mission statement designed to do just that -- promote similarities so we can build a community where every person belongs.
Al Condeluci is CEO of United Cerebral Palsy/Community Living and Support Services of Pittsburgh