Life with Disabilities in America

Elaine Harris, Writer

Life is hard. Everyone is struggling to achieve their goals and what they imagine is the perfect life. Now, imagine if that goal and perfect life became unattainable because of something you can’t control. This is what life is like for many people with disabilities living in America. They face challenges with their healthcare, their education, their workplace, and even in their own homes.

Disability rights activists march down Madison Avenue in New York in 1993

Some of their struggles have been alleviated due to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prevents discrimination against people with disabilities in areas like employment, public accommodations, communications, access to state and local government programs and services, etc. This act became a law in 1990, but there is still more work to do.

There is often some confusion regarding what qualifies as a disability. The law defines it as the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity due to any medically determined physical or mental impairment(s) that can be expected to result in death or to last for a continuous period of time that is not less than 12 months. If you wanted to be protected under the ADA, you would have to have a record or be regarded of as having a substantial impairment. Disabilities are more common than you would expect 1 in: 5 Americans live with some kind of disability.

Healthcare is expensive enough in America as it is, but when you are continuously having to visit the hospital, it becomes even more expensive. People with disabilities have much higher rates of co-occurring health conditions and have more healthcare needs than people without a disability. With that being said, people with developmental disabilities are less likely to report having a physician. As important as healthcare is for these people, only 83% of people with disabilities admit that they are satisfied with their doctors’ explanations.

There was a review done by Michelle Clare Wilson and Katrina Scior on the implicit attitudes towards people with disabilities. They found moderate to strong negative attitudes towards people with physical and intellectual disabilities. Psychologists are working to improve the training that health-care workers receive to keep the discrimination to a minimum.

Psychologists are also working to increase preventative care for people with disabilities. People often only go to doctors to treat their disability because they can’t afford treatments for illnesses unrelated to them; it’s also not uncommon for doctors to overlook other illnesses and focus solely on a person’s disability.

As expensive as healthcare is, finding a job that would accommodate to disabilities is a real struggle. People with disabilities are less likely to become employed than people who don’t have disabilities. In 2019, people without disabilities had an unemployment rate of 3.5% and people with disabilities had a rate of 7.3%,  according to the Office of Disability Employment Policy.

The poverty rate for working-age adults with disabilities is almost three times higher than people without disabilities. This is because people with disabilities can’t have above a certain amount of money in their bank account or they risk losing their benefits. They are being forced to live in poverty to keep their minimal quality of life.

When they do find a decent job, they might earn less than their counterpart-people without disabilities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 19.3% of people with disabilities were employed and 66.3% of people without disabilities were in 2019.

Another field people with disabilities struggle in is education. Students with disabilities make up 11.7% of the school population. A 2020 Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that 40% of allotted special education service time was undelivered or unrecorded.

The GAO also found that students with disabilities are disproportionately disciplined compared to students who don’t have a disability. As the chart shows, 25% of students are suspended out of school, 23% of students are expelled from school, and 27% of students are arrested at school.

A bright side to this is that a growing number of universities are offering programs for young adults with developmental disabilities.

Accessibility is big topic of discussion when talking about people with disabilities. It is extremely difficult to find housing with basic accessibility features. Many people with disabilities are at risk of homelessness because they either can’t afford rent or don’t have access to the proper housing. The nation has 6.6 million accessible homes but only 1.3 million are occupied by a household with a disability.

People who use wheelchairs often struggle to find public transportation that is wheelchair friendly. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires that any program that receives federal funding must accommodate to people with disabilities, which includes public transportation. Unfortunately, the Act didn’t provide any funding and not much was done about it. People who used wheelchairs and wanted to ride the bus or train would often have to abandon their wheelchairs because they weren’t accessible. The ADA attempted to remedy this by making it a law that if something was accessible then they couldn’t refuse people with disabilities. They didn’t, however, provide public transportations with the funding they need to make them more accessible.

United Airlines damages Tony Wilkins wheelchair. Tony is a paraplegic and needs his wheelchair. His friend took a video of his chair on the baggage belt while they were sitting on the airplane. The workers were mishandling his equipment, and this resulted in damages. When he got his chair back, United paid $4,000 for repairs.

Public transportation is critical for people with disabilities who are trying to hold a job. 98% of public buses are wheelchair accessible. Only about 25% of subway stations are wheelchair accessible. Light rail systems are required to comply with the ADA, but if any of the vehicles were purchased before August 25, 1990, they don’t have to be in compliance. Amtrak trains are wheelchair accessible, but their stations are often not. Airlines are required to be wheelchair friendly, but their staff is often not well trained. Equipment that had been checked in is often returned broken and unusable. So, although public transportation is required to be accessible, this law has not been strictly enforced.

Some places, such as schools and apartments, don’t have elevators. Some people with physical disabilities often need help using restrooms and showers, but in most cases, they can’t afford professional help.

People with disabilities have the right to get married, but when some do, they lose a lot of their benefits. If you rely on benefits for income support or health coverage, you could pay a heavy price for simply getting married. This is where the term “marriage penalties” comes from. Basically, this refers to a bundle of Social Security rules that trigger reductions or a total loss of benefits when a person with disabilities gets married. If you lose Social Security benefits, you’ll almost always lose health insurance, too.

Health care is a lifeline for people with disabilities- they can’t live without it. It’s common thinking that their income and healthcare benefits could be reduced when they get married, but their spouse could be relied on to support them financially and logistically. Marriage penalties are inconsistent because they can affect some people but not others. Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland-College Park, noted that the marriage rate for people without disabilities is 48.9% per 1000 people. For people with disabilities, it was just 24.4%.

These are just a few of the struggles people with disabilities face every day. The ADA has worked to make life easier for them, but without proper funding, not much can be modified for their use. The fight for equal rights for people with disabilities is an ongoing battle but it’s a battle that needs to be fought. It’s hard living in America, and with a disability, it gets a whole lot harder.