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Disability Rights to Inclusion, Beyond Legislature

Shadows of people walking

Disabled people are losing their lives due to gaps in the disability system (Bulman, 2019). Comparing past views and beliefs as well as their impacts on people with disabilities allows us to identify modern stigmas and present issues surrounding disability in the first step of change. The historical narrative has created a self-fulfilling prophecy for disabled individuals in a society where they are repeatedly told that they are useless and incapable of managing the same rights that everyone else has.

Internalized sense of despair is a palpable affair for disabled individuals who are trying to combat that narrative. Although most readers of politics have argued the International Disability Rights Movement in the 1960s has had a largely positive effect on the lives of disabled individuals in today's society, closer examination shows legality is not enough to facilitate social change and increase the inclusion of marginalized groups.

The International Disability Rights Movement

It’s easy to get lost in the view of toxic positivity that has colored the disability movement as one of empowerment and inclusion with massive strides in progression. The International Disability Rights Movement did have some positive impacts around the world and shouldn’t be discredited.

The movement created attention toward the subject that hadn’t previously been present. When the need for rights was acknowledged, it provided the necessary awareness required for creating equality rights that included disabled people. The international momentum built through the 1960s - 1970s helped alter ideologies.

In the 1980s, the British social model of disability became the predominantly accepted belief system (Heylighen, 2014), though there is evidence that the medical and biological models of study were prominent well into the 21st century (Arnardóttir & Quinn, 2009).

In Do the Disabled Need a Legal Remedy Against Discrimination, the author discusses discrepancies between the freedom of able-bodied individuals and disabled people and how those discrepancies impact the quality of life for disabled individuals. There are common minimization statements that perpetuate a state of inaction amongst the general population. These minimizations contributed to ill-driven attempts to help disabled individuals. This corroborates the magnitude of espousal that was needed in order to push disability inclusion efforts along. By not considering what disabled people are actually requesting, the legislation was significantly delayed (Morris, 1978).

When the idea of creating equality revolves around public assistance rather than true equality, disabled individuals are not provided the same opportunities that are afforded to their able-bodied counterparts. Disabled individuals are not attempting to be treated differently, but are instead, driven to be treated the same despite the overall sense that marginalized groups should just be grateful for what they have instead of requesting more equality.

The American Disability Act (ADA) had an impact on the International Disability Rights Movement. Steps were finally taken by Congress in 1990 to draft this legislation after two long decades of advocacy for law reform amongst the disabled community. In drafting the legislation, significant efforts were made in an attempt to ensure clarity in the execution and defense of this statute.

Disability is Diverse. Pictured with rainbow disability figures and a black woman with glasses pointing at you

How intersectionality plays a role

Despite the specificity of the legislation, the court system has not necessarily upheld the principles written in the Americans with Disabilities Act. Even with legal efforts to create greater opportunities for inclusion, there are still a significant number of shortcomings with legislation. Some aspects of the Act prevented discrimination against the disability community, while simultaneously allowing discrimination against other minorities, intersectionalities, and people with specific diagnoses.

Most of the relief provided by certain statutes of the ADA is through voluntary compliance with the legislation. In some ways, the ADA incentivizes the court system to dismiss cases regarding ADA compliance. The law may be misinterpreted and therefore misapplied by judiciary officials (Colker, 2005).

With systemic flaws in the enforcement of ADA compliance for the private sector and the room for adjudicators to misinterpret and misapply laws, there are glaring gaps in the encompassed Act. This indicates there may be unresolved grievances regarding ADA compliance because there is a lack of legal efforts to enforce compliance with the law which therefore results in disabled people feeling uncertain of the level of support they will receive in seeking legal remedy for non-compliance. The ADA preceded the UK’s Disability Rights Act by 5 years when the UK later emulated their example.

Awareness Leads to Change

As a result of the ADA awareness surrounding disability increased worldwide. In 1993 the International Vienna Declaration affirmed the right of self-determination as a significant turn in the worldwide conceptualization of human rights. The UN General Assembly accepted the Declaration.

The social change caused a movement towards inclusion and two years later, the Disability Discrimination Act was passed, which was then amended in 2005 where additional limited rights were instilled for disabled individuals such as rental accommodations and transportation accessibility.

How the International Disability Rights Movement failed & what you can do about it. Stack of papers pictured.

How the disability rights movement failed

Limitations are laid in the definition of disabilities. The threshold of disability was strict and didn’t account for variances. The United Nations founded the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2008 following decades of efforts to change the cultural stigma and methods surrounding disability; an applicable and inclusive definition of disability still eludes most legislatures.

The disability movement is one of empowerment and inclusion with massive strides in progression. However, legality is not enough to actually facilitate social change and increase inclusion for marginalized groups. Many disabled people still face many of the same issues that were present when the movements started gaining traction in the 1960s.

The movement is insufficient due to requiring the magnitude of advocacy necessary for the limited change received. The movement is also deficient by failing to eliminate barriers to inclusion and failing to provide realistic accessibility, including from a social aspect. Most disabled individuals continue to feel a separation between themselves and the public sphere due to discrimination, and prejudices about perceived capabilities, which excludes people with intellectual disabilities.

Most intersectionalities and comorbidities aren’t considered contextually when making accommodations. This results in underreporting of disabilities and impairments. Public and private accessibility remains an issue as there is no bridge between their impairments and universal design.

This perpetuates unhealthy and demeaning interactions between disabled individuals and society, exemplifying the exclusion they feel. These inadequacies evidence that the work toward inclusion isn’t finished, and there is much more to do before disabled individuals can feel comfortable in their environments.

How culture plays a role

Mainstream culture frequently minimizes and diminishes the grievances of marginalized groups by treating them like they should be grateful for the freedoms they have recently won instead of focusing on the freedoms that others are granted that they are still excluded from.

In order to retain equality for all, including disabled individuals, these ideologies need to be challenged. Beyond legislative change, society as a whole must make advances in social inclusion.

Able-bodied individuals in positions of privilege should follow the example of The Valuable 500 which has created the first global disability directory that connects inclusive employers with qualified disabled individuals. Much like the International Disability Rights Movement, the genesis of this list was a direct result of collaboration between disabled individuals and able-bodied individuals. This evidences the importance placed on the criteria developed as the criteria were generated by disabled individuals who experience the impacts of being in a work environment that is not inclusive toward disabilities.

There must be a breakdown of the old paradigm of inclusion as it minimizes the disabled population as a group that must be addressed in inclusivity efforts. If more companies, individuals, organizations, and associates work together to create inclusive environments, the entirety of the culture will benefit.

Work environments are excellent places to work toward greater inclusivity as individuals spend a significant amount of time there throughout the week. Having disabled people serve in a collaborative effort in the development of the criteria serves as a genuine effort to understand what is most important to the actual population that is being excluded.

Advancements in inclusion need to consult with the individuals most impacted by the lack of inclusion if they hope to truly be effective in rectifying the issues. Promoting these employers and the formation of this directory will provide further opportunities for advocacy groups to push for greater inclusion with their government as they could secure more funding from employers that are well-known for disability inclusion.

We need a new way of thinking

We may benefit from reexamining the British social model which is the primary viewpoint the Europeans are attempting to adopt. The social view of disability makes a clear distinction between impairment, or the biological side, and disability, which is the social exclusion aspect.

This way of thinking excludes how impairments can happen in all aspects of a disabled individual’s life. The social model defines impairment as a topic for privacy as it is ‘personal.’ This reflects a traditional patriarchal ideology that separates the personal from the public and the private from the social. When patriarchy is integrated further into public access systems, it is harder to fight and pull away from in the search for true equality.

Furthermore, there is a heavy focus on how disabled people are restricted in their activities when it comes to the material world within the British social model. There are people who believe that developing a social-relational approach would address the psycho-emotional aspects of disabled individual’s lives such as how they respond to exclusion, inaccessibility, and physical restraints.

The culture itself needs to continue to shift to allow true change.


Colker, Ruth. The Disability Pendulum: The First Decade of the Americans With Disabilities Act. New York: NYU Press, 2005.

Stapleton, David, and Richard Burkhauser, Decline in Employment of People with Disabilities: A Policy Puzzle, Kalamazoo: W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, 2003.


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