If you spend any time at all browsing disability-related writing and other content, you may eventually find yourself asking a basic question. What’s more important for disabled people to hear about — bad news or good?
Do people with disabilities need to continue learning more about ableism, discrimination, persistent inaccessibility, and social and economic injustice? Or, is it better for their overall outlook and mental health to focus on good news — about successful disabled people’s achievements, opportunities offered by new technologies and innovations, and empowering ways to think about disability itself?
On the one hand, bad news needs to be known and understood. Complacency about ableism and injustice is common, even in the disability community itself, or at least some segments of it. Certain kinds of “positivity” and overly optimistic views of disabled people’s situations also help keep the disability community distracted and divided, both socially and politically. Unfortunately, a “look on the bright side” approach to disability often includes ignoring painful topics and disparaging the efforts of more outspoken disability activists.
At the same time, at least as many disabled people need simple encouragement and a more positive outlook as need a sobering reality check. Some disabled people need their sheltered, privileged, mostly secure worlds disrupted. But others desperately need to hear solid reasons to keep going and not lose hope.
What disabled people need now, maybe more than ever, is empowering, affirming messages that are based in reality, not wishful thinking or refusal to acknowledge hard truths. Here are a few topics where people with disabilities most often struggle to find that kind of balance.
About disability itself …
By and large, disabilities are difficult to live with. While the exact nature and extent of disabilities varies a lot, they almost always make life harder for the people who have them. Disability is also a social identity that continues to provoke unique forms of discrimination — and amplifies others. Disabled people still face structural barriers and personal prejudice. Broadly speaking, disabled people are still neither treated or thought of as fully equal members of society. All of this is true, and important to acknowledge. But for many disabled people, it is also too depressing and hard to live with in a positive way.
On the other hand, most kinds of disabilities are far better understood now than at any time in the past — including just the last few decades. It is now readily possible for many if not most disabled people to not only live independently and control their own lives, but to incorporate their disabilities into their lives in healthy, positive ways. Disabled people themselves have reclaimed the very idea of disability, and reshaped it for themselves.
About ableism …
Ableism is pervasive and deep. It is both extremely common in everyday life and interactions, and deeply embedded in nearly every social institution in our society. It is inescapable and obvious for some, though more subtle and hard to pin down and process for others. Either way, ableism exists and cannot be simply wished away.
Yet, ableism is also far more recognized and understood now than it was in the past, when the word didn’t even exist and there was no clear way to even discuss the problem. Today there is at least a rough consensus that ableism exists and is bad, both in everyday interactions between people, and in laws, policies, and practices. The current more honest and sophisticated understanding of ableism frees disabled people both from guilt and self-hatred for their failures, and excessive anger at any particular individuals when they are mistreated.
About employment and financial security …
Despite laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act and Social Security Disability benefits like SSDI and SSI, unemployment and poverty rates for people with disabilities are unacceptably high. The poverty rate for Americans with disabilities in 2020 was about 25%, compared to 11% for non-disabled Americans. And the nemployment rate for Americans with disabilities in 2021 was 10.1%, about twice the rate of unemployment for non-disabled Americans. And that’s only taking into account people who are actively seeking work. Only a little over 19% of Americans with disabilities are employed overall, compared with just under 68% for non-disabled people.
Despite encouraging political promises to address these problems, little has been done to substantially alleviate them, or is likely to be in the near future. The disability community and its allies still have trouble coming up with really effective solutions, beyond moral persuasion — such as efforts to get employers to hire more people with disabilities.
Nevertheless, several of the problems that make disabled employment and poverty so severe have readily understood and available solutions. We know pretty well what can help. Broadly speaking, loosening up both employment models beyond 9 to 5, onsite work, and making benefits eligibility rules less restrictive and more stable, are good directions we can work together on, even across political and ideological divides. There is room for hope — if we can all somehow work together to make them a reality.
About politics …
Sadly, American politics today seem to be too polarized to permit the kind of bipartisan partnerships that passed the ADA and other disability-related legislation just a few decades ago. Most of the ambitious policy initiatives proudly offered by the Biden Administration in late 2020 have failed to pass by 2022. Disabled people instinctively want access to political participation, and continue to crave political power, but it’s often hard to imagine anything beyond symbolic payoff.
Still, top-level candidates in recent years have devoted much more time to listening to disabled voters and developing detailed disability policy proposals that go far beyond bland pledges to “support” people with disabilities. Despite recent disappointments, the increased engagement of disabled people in politics, and candidates’ engagement in disability policy, offers strong chances to bring about needed changes in the long run.
About Covid-19 …
Leaders and authorities who previously insisted on taking the risks of Covid-19 seriously now largely endorse a “move on” attitude towards the pandemic. Disabled and chronically ill people can no longer rely at all on organized efforts to curb Covid-19, or protect them from it. Whether or not there was ever a chance to truly defeat Covid or protect the most medically vulnerable, it looks like disabled and chronically ill people may have to simply accept a major new barrier to living full, independent lives.
Honestly, it’s hard for anyone at higher risk to find a positive message about Covid. The only positive approach left is that each of us is more or less free to cobble together whatever protections they can. Disabled people can still leverage their sense of positive empowerment into a confident, assertive stance where they are unashamed to make whatever decisions they have to in order to survive and live the best lives they can.
Setting the right tone and emphasis for disability discourse at all levels is always tricky. Different disabled people lack different things, need different things, and have different things to offer. As with most of life and society’s challenges, it comes down to a balance. It’s a balance between realism and optimism, between facing harsh realities and fostering hopes, between sounding the alarm and praising disabled people’s accomplishments.
“Balance” can see like a pious and inadequate response to grinding injustice and existential threats. But for people with disabilities, finding a balance between good news and bad may be the only way to survive. And that at least leaves some narrow space for living collectively engaged but personally satisfying lives.