Thursday, April 11, 2013

How do you define disability?

A few things coming across my desk recently have really made me think more about the definition of disability. The first item was an extensive segment on NPR that described a significant increase in the numbers of people who are on government disability programs (SSDI and SSI).  The author's point is that disability programs have become the "new" welfare for the unemployed and it's too easy to get on disability. The piece has been widely criticized by disability advocates for being unfair and missing the point that the increase is due largely to demographic changes (an aging workforce) and that it's actually very difficult to get disability benefits. A quick google search will point you to many of these criticisms, though this long one gave me much to think about. Whether the claims made in the NPR story are true or not, you can't deny that more people are on disability programs and we need to figure out a sustainable way to pay for them - and figure out what we can do to increase the self-sufficiency of people with disabilities (more on that below).

Then I saw an announcement about a speaker from the Disability History Museum, an online effort to educate the public about the disability movement over the years. It has some great exhibits and helped me understand that "disability" has so much attachment to paid work, it's no surprise that articles like the NPR segment and this one on disabled firefighters keep popping up.

In particular, both these things made me think about the diverse groups of people within the "disability community" - if there is such a thing. For example, someone with an MS-related disability likely acquired it during their adult life. They are aware of what it is like to not have a disability and so to them, a disabled life is a different life. For someone who has been disabled since birth, disabled life is not different, it just is. So it gives me a better understanding of why disability groups have traditionally played in different circles in Olympia - a problem I'm trying to correct by the way. Most excitingly, I'm working to bring disability advocates of all stripes together to support a major initiative to increase employment for people with disabilities.

This debate of what it really means to have a disability is also front and center to the disabled parking discussion that is going through the Legislature and the City of Seattle. Many assert that there is systemic abuse of disabled parking placards by people who don't really need them or have obtained them illegally. With too many placards in circulation, the City of Seattle asserts that people without disabilities are being left without any place to park. I know many people with MS have been accused (either silently or otherwise) of not being disabled enough, and shouldn't use these placards. But what are the real problems in the system? Are too many people disabled? (I know too many people live with MS in Seattle, but I don't have an easy way to fix that.) Do we make it too easy to have the government say you are disabled? I don't think many people with MS who have applied for disability would say that.

How do you think we should write laws that help people with disabilities (including unpredictable and sometimes temporary symptoms like those associated with MS) while not giving everyone a free pass? 

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