Author Writes New Chapter With “A Disability History of the United States”

January 31st, 2013 |    Chris Lenois


Beacon Press’ teaser copy for Kim E. Nielsen’s A Disability History of the United States makes clear the author’s ambition for the new book to be a “radical repositioning of U.S. History.” If the excerpt found in the latest edition of the Utne Reader is any indication, Nielsen’s endeavor is a rousing success.

The excerpt is actually Nielsen’s entire Introduction for A Disability History of the United States. She describes changes in her own mindset about how to approach telling the story of people with disabilities with the revelation that what individuals “cannot do” has always been a defining characteristic of discrimination in our country.

From pre-colonial times to the present, an individual’s race, gender, sexuality, class, and education level have been used as an offset to the mythical “self-made” American — a citizen whose accomplishments were made independently of any outside aid or support. Nielsen points to two phrases commonly considered indicative of the traits valued in America — “stand on our own two feet” and “speak up for ourselves” — and, rightfully, labels them as “ableist.” She explains:

When disability is equated with dependency, disability is stigmatized. Citizens with disabilities are labeled inferior citizens… In real life, however, just as in a real democracy, all of us are dependent on others. All of us contribute to and benefit from the care of others — as taxpayers, as recipients of public education, as the children of parents, as those who use public roads or transportation, as beneficiaries of publicly funded medical research, as those who do not participate in wage work during varying life stages, and on and on… Dependency is not bad — indeed, it is at the heart of both the human and the American experience. It is what makes a community and a democracy.

Nielsen is a professor of history and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. She seems to have come to the subject of people with disabilities through her research into the life of Hellen Keller. Her 2009 book, The Radical Lives of Helen Keller (NYU Press), moves Keller’s legend away from the cloying accounts of a blind and deaf little girl learning to connect with the world to what Keller has accomplished as an adult dedicated to advocating for the rights of women and individuals with disabilities.

Nielsen’s goal with A Disability History of the United States serves a similar goal of moving the topic from “soft” accounts of people overcoming their disability to how disability has been defined and redefined over time periods and how that has impacted employment, law, community, and national identity. By doing so, she makes the history of these individuals one and the same with the history of America.

How do you think the perception of disabilities has changed over the course of history? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Image by Larry & Teddy Page.

Voting Barriers for People With Disabilities Subject of New Documentary

January 30th, 2013 |    Chris Lenois


While making a short film about a disabled student’s journey to vote in the 2012 election, two Pennsylvania filmmakers discovered widespread problems with the accessibility of voting facilities in their community. That revelation had led to a deeper exploration of the subject in a new, short-form documentary simply entitled, “VOTE.”

The debut screening of “VOTE” takes place this evening at Misericordia University, according to Shawn Kellmer’s story in the Web edition of the college’s newspaper, The Highlander. Both of the filmmakers, Dr. Melissa Sgroi and Dan Kimbrough, are members of this small Catholic university’s communications faculty. Kellmer writes that Sgroi’s doctoral research involved issues surrounding people with disabilities and the media, so it was a natural project for her to focus on. Sgroi enlisted Kimbrough to help with the making of the film when she realized “it was a story best told visually.”

Indeed, in just one minute and change, the trailer for “VOTE” illustrates several problems with accessibility at the five polling stations Sgroi and Kimbrough visited on November 6, 2012. But the barriers are not only physical. When Sgroi queries officials at the precincts about the lack of accommodation for people with disabilities, it is clear the notion they are making it difficult for citizens to exercise their constitutional right — and perhaps even preventing them, in some instances — had never even crossed their mind.

“VOTE” Trailer from Communications @ MU on Vimeo.

To their credit, the two gentlemen included in the trailer seem genuinely concerned about the violation. “In years past, no one’s ever made a complaint,” one of them says, proving the old adage about squeaky wheels getting the grease. Whether it’s Sgroi, Arkansas blogger Elaine Canady, or the USA TODAY, people with disabilities and their advocates need to make sure their communities are aware that individuals with these needs are part the population. They also need to make sure to let voting officials konw, as Sgroi does, that the remedies need not be painful. She tells Kellmer:

Most of these voting places, if not the majority of them, are in inaccessible places simply because of the age of the buildings. There isn’t a lot you can do when we have to use a very old structure… It comes down to education. Do we just provide a helper outside, for instance? Do we put a piece of plywood down, for instance? [...] It doesn’t have to be major construction to solve these problems.

Communities that do put resources into accessible voting for people with disabilities are rewarded with high turnout from these individuals, as was proven in Elizabeth, New Jersey, during the last election cycle. Use the comments to share your thoughts on how voter turnout makes life matter more for people with disabilities and how it might be improved in your locale.

Image by joebeone (Joe Hall).

School Sports Must Be More Inclusive of People With Disabilities, Says Education Department

January 29th, 2013 |    Chris Lenois

school sports

The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued new guidelines last Friday for inclusion of students with disabilities into extracurricular athletic programs. Some are saying this move is as significant an opportunity for these individuals as Title IX was for females.

Michelle Diament’s article for Disability Scoop provides a clear summary of the 13-page letter from OCR assistant secretary Seth Galanter, clarifying Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Galanter said Government Accountability Office has recommended the communication after its investigation determined that “students with disabilities were not being afforded an equal opportunity to participate in extracurricular athletics in public elementary and secondary schools.” Diament’s article also included a quote from Education Secretary Arne Duncan that succinctly states how this opportunities helps make life matter more for young people with disabilities:

Sports can provide invaluable lessons in discipline, selflessness, passion and courage, and this guidance will help schools ensure that students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to benefit from the life lessons they can learn on the playing field or on the court.

Similar reasons were used 40 years ago when defending the adoption of the Title IX amendment, which mandated gender equity for every education program receiving federal funding. Athletic programs have been one of the primary beneficiaries of the decision, resulting in a higher profile for female athletes along the American landscape, and changing perceptions about what women in general can accomplish when given fair opportunity.

But these new guidelines are not on quite the same landmark level as Title IX, says Penn State instructor and blogger Patty Kleban. Nor should the decision raise red flags for those who argue against government-sanctioned affirmative action measures, since the guidelines say eligibility for participation in any given activity by an individual with a disability must not change “the inherent characteristics of the activity.”

The benefits, writes Kleban, will be a more meaningful level inclusion for young people with disabilities. As inspiring as stories about someone with a disability getting the chance to play on a school team are in this day and age of viral media, the contrivance with which these moments sometimes take place often don’t accomplish anything more than a publicity opportunity.

The model at Penn State brings “reasonable accommodation” to the colleges intramural and special recreation programs levels very effectively. Kleban writes:

Former PSU women’s track coach, Teri Jordan, under the umbrella of the PSU athletics, offers a variety of learning and training opportunities for both Penn State students with disabilities and for others in our community through Ability Athletics. Track. Swimming. Weight-lifting. Although some of her athletes compete on the international field, others are just weekly warriors. Each Wednesday throughout the semester, you can jump in on a pretty competitive wheelchair basketball game with sometimes as many students rolling around in chairs who don’t have disabilities as those who do. Everyone there wants to play, to have fun and to get some exercise. It’s a win all around.

Share your thoughts on the inclusion of students with disabilities in athletic programs in the comments section below.

Image by mesaba (Mario Bollini).

Expanding Broadband Access Key to Improving Opportunities for People With Disabilities

January 28th, 2013 |    Chris Lenois


A group of academic researchers is proposing national programs to provide broadband Internet access to people with disabilities, arguing that such an investment would help these individuals reach their potential and ultimately reduce the taxpayer’s burden for the funding of social support programs.

According to the press release found on the ScienceDaily website, four researchers presented findings from a study on broadband access for people with disabilities at the annual convention of the Pacific Telecommunications Council, held last week in Honolulu, Hawaii. The study looked at broadband for the Pacific region’s four most developed countries — Australia, China, Japan, and Korea — as well as the United States. The quantitative data alone demonstrated a wide chasm between households with and without individuals with disabilities:

In the United States, only 54 percent of the 16 million households where someone has a disability have a computer, compared to about 80 percent of nondisabled households. Only 43 percent of households that include a person with a disability have broadband access, while 72 percent of nondisabled households are subscribed to broadband services.

The researchers attributed the gap first and foremost to a lack of awareness about the benefits of broadband among these households, with cost and adequate technology also playing a role. They suggested that public-private partnerships would be the most effective way to eliminate these barriers, taking advantage of the production and distribution networks of private businesses and the ability of government to conduct multiple grassroots efforts across a nation simultaneously.

Krishna Jakayar, an associate professor of economics at Penn State University and the team’s spokesperson, cited South Korea’s successful push to increase technology literacy among its elderly population as an example of the kind of partnership they envision. People with disabilities would be better served if they had the means and education to use online technologies to gather information about their conditions, both medically and in locating and communicating with support services in their communities.

Such an initiative would be win-win for businesses as well, says Jayakar, expanding customer base for broadband services and all the Web-based entities who use it for commerce. With more than 50 million people with disabilities in the United States alone, the potential to increase market share is vast. Jayakar also notes that this would all happen with no disruption to services for existing customers:

There is a marketing advantage in adding accessibility features to products in the mainstream market, which can make them more attractive to the general consumer, even as they help people with disabilities, which can help them more fully participate as both citizens and consumers

Other researchers on the team include Gary Madden, professor of economics, Curtin University; Chun Liu, associate professor of economics and management, Southwest Jiaotong University; and Eun-A Park, assistant professor of communication, film and media studies, University of New Haven.

Share your thoughts in the comments on how better access to broadband technology would make life matter more for people with disabilities.

Image by cogdogblog (Alan Levine).

New U.K. Publication Makes Getting News Easy for People With Disabilities

January 25th, 2013 |    Chris Lenois


“Knowledge is power” was said by Sir Francis Bacon back in the 16th century, and the axiom still holds true today. A British charity called United Response is imbuing people with disabilities with that power by publishing the U.K.’s first accessible newspaper.

Easy News incorporates graphics with simple, declarative sentence structures in large print to communicate topical issues to people who have trouble reading. A PDF of the inaugural January issue is available on the United Response website. One can see how the clean backgrounds and the arrows used to cue readers would be helpful to people needing assistance processing information.

Of course, the lead story in the first ever Easy News concerns the creation of the publication. United Response conducted some market research and found that people with disabilities wanted to be more informed about news and politics, but the formats and jargon used in modern periodicals was a barrier. “For every 10 people with learning disabilities, 5 never read newspapers and 3 find them hard to understand,” says the article.

The article also includes an endorsement from Kaliya Franklin, a leading advocate for people with disabilities in the U.K., and mentions that the president of United Response, Martyn Lewis, is a newsreader for the BBC — a tidbit of information which lends a veneer of journalistic credibility to Easy News.

Other articles in the first edition examine the impact changes at the National Health Service and cuts in public spending will have on people with disabilities, an article on abuse at a care facility, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebration, and the Paralympic Games that were held in London this past summer. Everything you would expect to see in any other newspaper.

This past Wednesday, The Guardian published an article entitled, “Why Easy News is useful for people with learning disabilities,” on its Social Care Network, which contains a conversation with Nick Smith and John Nettles, who consulted on the publication of Easy News. The article is mainly a transcription of an interview with the two housemates, conducted by Jaime Gill, and their keen interest in the news as well as their wit:

Nick: I just want people to read it and think it’s good. And that it’s good for everybody, including disabled people.

John: I’d like to sit down with them all and explain what we did and what the stories are about. I like the fact you can look through it with somebody. And I’m looking forward to the next one, because there’ll be new stories then.

Nick: Yes. And we’ll get paid again! [Both laugh]

United Response plans to have a new issue of Easy News ready in March, and will continue publishing every two months for the rest of the year. The organization says that if Easy News is successful it may go to a more frequent scheduled following the trial period.

Share your thoughts on Easy News, and the importance of people with disabilities staying on top of the contemporary issues, in the comments.

Image by Ed Yourdon.

Obama Pledges Support for Programs Aiding People With Disabilities in Inauguration Speech

January 24th, 2013 |    Chris Lenois


Advocates for people with disabilities are hopeful following President Obama’s second inaugural speech, which included language that specifically addressed parents of children with disabilities and affirmed the president’s commitment to preserving Social Security and Medicaid programs.

On the national holiday honoring the birth of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., the highlight of the speech for many was the president’s acknowledgement of the struggle for civil rights shared by ethnic groups, women and gays (which also happens to be the same coalition credited for Obama’s margin of victory last November). Even though people with disabilities don’t have a geographical landmark that falls nicely into his alliterative “Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall” reference (found on page 3 of The Washington Post transcript), the president left no doubt these individuals were included under the umbrella of “those principles that our common creed describes; tolerance and opportunity, human dignity and justice.”

Human dignity was the specific rubric where Obama found cause to reference people with disabilities. As the nation still struggles with high unemployment and sluggish economic growth, the meaty portion of the president’s speech began with a familiar call for an America where “every person can find independence and pride in their work” without sacrificing social safety nets that help the underserved:

We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity… For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn…We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss or a sudden illness or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative. They strengthen us.

Many groups that advance employment opportunities for people with disabilities, among other services, are in agreement with the president’s positions on these programs. Cuts to Medicare and Medicaid in a budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis) helped galvanize opposition to Mitt Romney’s candidacy when Ryan was added to the GOP presidential ticket. The congressman remains chairman of the House Budget Committee, so he is sure to be a major player in upcoming negotiations on the federal budget.

Have you seen programs like Medicaid and SSDI help make life matter for people with disabilities and their families? Share in the comments section.

Image by Glyn Lowe Photoworks.

Maine Wants to Give People With Disabilities a “Ticket to Work”

January 23rd, 2013 |    Chris Lenois


Lawmakers in Maine have made employment for people with disabilities a priority in 2013, with the introduction of legislation that will increase workforce training and job opportunities for these individuals.

The “Ticket to Work” bill was the first piece of business introduced by Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves when Maine began its legislative session last Thursday, wrote Bangor Daily News political reporter Matthew Stone. Stone called the push a “sign the leaders of the Democrats new legislative majorities are searching for some areas of common ground with Republicans.”

On the same day as Stone’s article, the Bangor Daily News published a corresponding editorial entitled “Employing Maine people with disabilities pays,” endorsing Eves’ bill. “The step should have been taken long ago,” it said, pointing out the measure became a necessity when Republican Governor Paul LePage’s 2011 budget set a five-year eligibility limit on the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TNAF) program that many people with disabilities and their care providers rely upon.

To that end, businesses were the intended audience of the editorial. Congress can redistribute TANF funding toward career training for people with disabilities all it wants, it said, but ultimately there needs to be a Walgreens-type commitment from the private sector. The bulk of the editorial described the retail drugstore chain’s approach toward accommodation of people with disabilities in its distribution centers, concluding:

Walgreens reported that absenteeism improved, along with safety statistics. And workers were more efficient than at other distribution center locations. Not only did the company change its practices to benefit a population severely in need of work, it helped its bottom line.

Some sobering statistics were included in the editorial. Maine’s percentage of people identifying with a disability is 3% more than the national average. Employment for these individuals hovers around 35% compared to 79% of people without disabilities in the state. This all adds up to adults with disabilities being three times more likely to be living below the poverty line.

The value people with disabilities bring to the workforce should not be completely foreign to Maine’s private sector. Last spring, the state’s Chamber of Commerce joined with government agencies to hold a “business diversity” conference in Freeport. A Portland television station covering the conference noted that contract service organizations were providing companies with a labor force that could perform light assembly, packaging, sorting, and other manual tasks, while giving people with disabilities on-the-job training in a number of areas. If passed, “Ticket to Work” can be effective in making even more of these types employment opportunities available, as well as inclusion into full-time jobs for people with disabilities.


Image by woody1778a (Jerry “Woody”).

People With Disabilities Find Job Success in Idaho

January 22nd, 2013 |    Chris Lenois


The state of Idaho has kicked off 2013 with the launch of a new website that connects employers and people with disabilities, and contains resources that help facilitate the recruitment and hiring of these individuals. is a federally funded resource, according to the article found in the January 18 edition of Idaho Press-Tribune, and is maintained by the State Independent Living Council in collaboration with the Idaho Employment for People with Disabilities Stakeholder Group. The site is divided into three straightforward categories that enable jobseekers, businesses, and service providers to access and update information. But what brings the site to life are the five success stories of individuals with disabilities who have successfully integrated into the workforce.

Each story demonstrates an aspect of the value people with disabilities bring to their jobs when given the opportunity. Analine Travis is lauded for her punctuality working for a family game center; Jennifer Moore is a model of loyalty, having worked at the same Jackson’s Food Store for the past nine years; Garrett Stuart, who has a hearing disability, demonstrates resourcefulness by ordering janitorial supplies and communicating with his contract services organization via texting and email. All of these are qualities frequently noted by employers of individuals with disabilities as what makes them good workers.

For Aerius Franklin, the sheer determination to not be completely discouraged by the number of times he was told “no” is what helps him be an independent living advocate for others at the Disability Action Center Northwest. Before that he had been bouncing between Idaho and California, homeless and jobless. Interestingly, Franklin says it was when he accepted his own status as a person with a disability that he had the breakthrough he needed. He says:

… [S]ociety standards told me that if I embraced my disability I would be shunned and I would have to admit that a person who isn’t disabled was better than me… [T]he IL [Independent Living] philosophy has shown me that I am equal and don’t have to show and prove it all the time…

Finally, there is Laurie Lowe, who works part-time for the Idaho State Tax Commission while also operating her own tax-filing service for local businesses. You don’t see too many Americans get excited about the prospect of paying taxes. But for Laurie, it means she has earned enough income on her own to be treated the same as every other U.S. citizen:

Laurie keeps busy all the time. She stated that she also took on some other jobs such as dog-sitting, house-sitting, and house maintenance… ‘This year I made enough from my business to be required to pay taxes. YES!!! I am headed in the right direction!’

The photos of each them in their workplace, smiling and holding up an “Able” sign, shows that just how much having a job can make life matter for an individual with a disability.


Image by TheChanel.

People With Disabilities at High Risk for Flu, Says CDC

January 21st, 2013 |    Chris Lenois

flu shot

Flu season has come early this year, and Massachusetts has been hit particularly hard by the current strain. Wakefield Observer reporter Nicolas Iovino noted on Friday that 18 deaths in the state have been attributed to influenza thus far in 2013. One hospital official he spoke with said patients with flu-like symptoms have increased by 40% in the past week.

Fortunately, people seem to be grasping the severity of the situation and going for vaccinations. The same hospital official also told Iovino they administered around 100 flu shots over a two-day span. With the peak of flu season typically coming in late January and early February, this is not a case of too little action, too late in the game.

People with disabilities need to be especially cautious, says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Michele Diament of Disability Scoop spoke with a developmental behavioral pediatrician at the CDC, who said that this population should be on “high alert.” Diament writes:

While no more likely to get the flu than typically developing individuals, those with neurologic conditions like intellectual disability and cerebral palsy are more prone to hospitalization and even death as a result of the illness. is a website maintained by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It includes a section with information about why people with disabilities might be at greater risk for influenza and offers advice to individuals with disabilities and their caregivers for prevention and treatment of the flu, including the following:

  • Washing hands frequently with soap and water.
  • Avoid touching eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Cover nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing.
  • Immediately dispose of used tissue.
  • Clean surfaces with disinfectant, including kitchen countertops, bathroom fixtures, and bedside tables, as well as telephones, doorknobs, and other household items that are touched or handled.
  • Wash bedding, towels, and utensils used by the afflicted person thoroughly before reusing.

The site also lists a link for employers of people with disabilities that, unfortunately, just routes back to the home page. However, these same practical steps to prevention in conjunction with getting a flu shot are effective in minimizing the spread of influenza. Employers should also encourages workers, whether they are individuals with disabilities or without, to stay home if they have flu-like symptoms. It’s better to be without one employee for a day or two than to have him or her spread the virus through the whole workplace.


Image by rocknroll_guitar (Patricia H.).

PG&E Recognized for Employing People With Disabilities

January 18th, 2013 |    Chris Lenois


Congratulations to the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) for not only making Careers and the disABLED magazine’s “Top 50 Employers for Persons with Disabilities” for the first time, but also for taking enough pride in the accomplishment to issue a press release over PR Newswire about it.

The San Francisco-based natural gas and electric utility company employs some 20,000 people, making the recruitment of a diverse workforce essential to its continued operation. As the January 16 press release notes, that means taking the needs of people with disabilities into consideration in both employee recruitment and retention strategies:

PG&E strives to ensure that its online application process is accessible to qualified individuals with disabilities and disabled veterans… In addition, PG&E helps increase cognizance and understanding of disability issues through its Access Network Employee Resource Group (ERG). This ERG provides knowledge, support and company resources to employees and their families by collaborating with community based organizations, promoting volunteerism, and providing education.

As we’ve noted in some of our previous posts about companies based here in Massachusetts and the Labor Department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) guidelines for successfully employing people with disabilities, accessible applications and ERGs are fundamental building blocks toward inclusion of these individuals. But some businesses do not do enough to publicize these aspects of their infrastructure. They may do the necessary legwork to earn the recognition from publications like Careers and the disABLED, but then not take the time or expense to announce it on their own.

Such modesty is self-defeating when U.S. Census information tells us that people with disabilities in the United States represent about $1 trillion in discretionary income. Plus the general population is growing increasingly supportive of companies that provide employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Hiring these individuals is not a charitable act, it is a good business decision.

Thus far, PG&E is the only employer in the Careers and the disABLED Top 50 to have taken this step. But it is still only mid-month. The January issue is barely off the press. Hopefully, we’ll be able to report on other companies making the same decision to pick up a bullhorn and say they are proud to be acknowledged for their efforts to employ people with disabilities.


Image by Bobby Dawn White.