Medical Apartheid: Disabled People Deserve Equality Too
One activist shares his thoughts on the accessibility and bias issues that disabled people like himself face on a daily basis.
In the 30 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, being disabled in America is not accessible. This stems from what I like to refer to as “medical apartheid.”
Accessibility starts with basic human rights. Housing is a human right. Health care is a human right. Safety is a human right. They are very basic needs, and the ADA guarantees none of them. Factually, the ADA ensnares disabled folks into forced poverty, further marginalization in society, state sanctioned violence, lack of health care and lack of representation. And in true American fashion, it condones racism, sexism, homophobia and ableism.
One might ask, “Doesn’t the ADA specifically protect disabled folks? If not, why does the ADA even exist?” That would be a great question, one that I myself am forced to reckon with daily. Though, when I say I’m forced to reckon with that reality, it pales in comparison to the rest of the disabled community.
I’m an Advocate for the Disabled Community
Let me start off by stating that I’m a white, cis male. I am 6-foot-3, and I’m not visibly disabled. I have been permanently disabled (yes, that's a legal designation) for eight years, diagnosed with bipolar I and post-traumatic stress disorder. Even with a permanent disability, the amount of privilege that it affords me stands in direct contrast to most disabled folks who are not white, cis men. Despite this, I have a much harder time taking care of myself and leaving the four walls of my home than I would like to admit.
I’m lucky to have a home. I shouldn’t be able to afford one, especially with the $1,035 given to me monthly by SSI/SSDI. While it's amazing to be able to have a place to live, the ADA legally guarantees me public housing thanks to Section 8 and/or HUD. But my building is inaccessible for wheelchair access; this is problematic, to say the least, for the disabled community. While I’m eligible for assistance, I am on never-ending waitlists to receive assistance with rent payments and access to transportation, all while forcibly living below the poverty line. Millions die on the streets waiting for a decision from the SSA to receive funds, and the lack of wheelchair accessibility is at a rate of less than one percent of homes in the United States.
To help combat this, I do advocacy work for 99 percent of my waking life, most specifically centered around racial justice, the erasure of patriarchy, LGBTQ+ justice, animal rights, the erasure of prisons and disability justice. So yes, I’m an intersectional abolitionist. I only mention this to give context to who I am and how serious these issues are. I would be remiss if I said that any one person can advocate for the entire disabled community effectively. Nobody can do that alone. There are far too many needs for accessibility—with differing disabilities, locations and lack of awareness on a national level—for any one person to be able to advocate for the entire community. This is due to a general failure of local, state and federal governments to implement almost every aspect of the ADA. Schools, workplaces and doctor’s offices are happy to ignore its existence as well.
In Los Angeles County, there were zero ADA-accessible vaccination sites. The assumption that folks with disabilities have access to a car or support from somebody who can drive them to a vaccination site in the most populated county in the United States should be extremely telling in regards to how often the ADA is violated with impunity on a governmental and health care level. It ended up taking me days of phone calls to rectify this issue with city officials. The city, the county and their health departments relied on nobody saying anything. Sadly, institutions consistently violate the rights of disabled people with the assumption that nobody knows their rights. I can say with certainty that the city wouldn’t have felt obligated to address this issue without the privilege I hold, even though I’m disabled.
Disabled People Face Discrimination in a Variety of Ways
I’m now going to address medical apartheid, best described as the accumulation of school-to-prison pipelines, overt racism in health care, forced poverty/housing and state-sanctioned violence. More than 50 percent of people killed by police in the United States are disabled. Adding insult to injury (quite literally), over 40 percent of the houseless population is disabled. We live in poverty at well over the rate of people without disabilities. Poverty makes access to health care, education and resources much more difficult, while also making disabled people and their children much more likely to be maimed by police, chained by police and killed by police.
Student with disabilities are twice as likely to face punitive measures in schools as those without disabilities, and non-white disabled students can be punished harsher and longer than white peers for similar offenses. Law enforcement’s presence in schools, many of which have police and no counselors, very clearly turn these punitive measures from schools into criminal cases. We’re talking about kids!
The majority of these children have household members already suffering from this oppression, further destabilizing families, which in turn, destroys entire communities. If these children need care and diagnosis of that trauma, they likely won't receive it anywhere outside of a cage. To this point, it’s worth noting that the U.S. prison system is the nation’s largest mental health care provider. This is morally incomprehensible, yet nobody cares. If they did, legislation would be written and passed.
Our ADA Rights Are Rarely Being Enforced and Practiced
It's appalling that society puts the labor of disability advocacy onto the disabled community itself. If you just scoffed at that comment, when was the last time you looked into disability issues?
The ADA was always discriminatory in nature, and that is an entirely different conversation regarding gender binaries, sexual orientation and other “choices.” This has gotten better with each revision, but the rhetoric spoken during these committee meetings by our elected officials on public record is inflammatory, hateful and ableist in nature. This issue is largely due to the lack of representation in government, companies and institutions in the disabled community. We don’t have representation.
More than 25 percent of the United States population is disabled, and we aren’t as small in number as most people would presume. Almost none of the ADA rights guaranteed to us are enacted, and there isn’t any realistic oversight on this, let alone accountability or solutions. SSA also implements nefarious policies around work—if I earn more than $2,000 a month, I lose my health care. If I have more than $2,000 in my bank account at a time, I lose my health care. Tragically, the ADA allows employers to pay disabled folks less than minimum wage. I can personally attest that they love this rule. I’m never paid what my non-disabled peers are for the same labor, oftentimes skilled labor. Last time I checked, we were still human beings.
It is very important to point out who is responsible for this. We need to do more. Everyone perpetrates this, not just the U.S. government. In all of the work I do with nonprofits, which specifically state things like, “Disability justice is intersectional to liberation,” I’m met with heavy resistance when I address disability. Nobody wants to talk about it. Let’s talk about it please. These ripple effects destroy families and communities, while oppressing the most vulnerable population of an already vulnerable population. Stop hoping we all die when you aren’t busy actively killing us. This isn’t 1930s Germany, but it feels like it when you’re disabled. The ableist speech is killing us. The forced poverty is killing us. Give us liberty—you’re already giving us death.