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The rights and status of people with disabilities have been redefined in recent years through changing politics, technologies and social attitudes. Organized advocacy against disability discrimination began gaining new strength and attention in the United States in the 1970s, with passage of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act representing a landmark public guarantee of civil rights of the disabled. But ground-level advances in inclusiveness are happening at uneven rates for members of different communities, with laws, facilities and customs frequently out of step with the expectations of people with different physical and mental abilities.

Protecting Those With Disabilities Early On

Some awareness of a need to accommodate the handicapped was already established in the United States by the early 19th century, when schools serving deaf or blind students began to open in American cities. The introduction of braille in 1860 helped expand blind students’ access to learning, and federal legislation that Abraham Lincoln signed in 1864 allowed the Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb and Blind to confer college degrees. The school, later refocused tightly on deaf education and renamed Gallaudet College, was the first college established specifically to serve people with disabilities.

Disability Advocates

As new opportunities multiplied, advocacy by people with disabilities helped reinforce a sense of having separate communities of interest with their own ambitions and priorities. An urgent debate about deaf education in the late 19th century, for example, involved the roles of sign language and spoken language, with many hearing educators advocating the firing of deaf counterparts. The National Association of the Deaf declared its support for a continued role for sign language, which many deaf people regarded as a core element of a distinct culture. The NAD was an early expression of an organizing effort that eventually spawned scores of groups speaking to needs and interests of specific ability communities.

Medical advances that saved lives from diseases or injuries, but left survivors coping with disabilities, have helped drive society to rethink old attitudes and prejudices. An influential advocate for disability rights in the 1970s, Edward V. Roberts, was a wheelchair-bound teenage polio survivor paralyzed from the neck down when he entered high school in the 1950s. Roberts, who later described how that experience helped him escape a self-image as a “helpless cripple,” eventually spent eight years as director of California’s Department of Rehabilitation and popularized pragmatic solutions to the challenges of physical limitations through his work as a founder of the Center for Independent Living and the World Institute on Disability.

Progress For Those With Disabilities In Culture, Sports

By 2008, technological changes set the stage for a once-unimaginable debate about the role of the handicapped in sports, as an international court weighed and rejected arguments that a South African runner, double-amputee Oscar Pistorius, enjoyed unfair advantages over able-bodied runners because he competed on prosthetic “blades” more powerful than human legs. The court ruled Pistorius was eligible to compete for a place on his country’s 2008 Olympic team, although he ultimately failed to meet the Olympic qualifying time.

The simple use of the disability label can become a contentious matter, because some members of specific populations, such as the deaf or hard of hearing, may regard themselves as physically different, but not at all impaired.

Disability And The Law

For legal purposes, the ADA describes disability generally as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.” The law prohibits disability discrimination on a number of fronts, such as biased hiring and promotion decisions or failing to take reasonable steps to accommodate special needs of disabled workers. The act also mandates that public buildings and places such as restaurants, hotels, shops and service businesses must be built to be accessible to people with physical impairments. Many existing buildings had to be retrofitted, although the law limited those changes to measures that were “readily achievable,” a standard that varied depending on the resources of the business affected. For many businesses, the changes amounted to fairly modest steps, such as marking handicapped parking spaces and installing curb cuts and ramps to make buildings wheelchair-accessible. Amendments to the ADA were signed into law by George W. Bush in 2008, expanding federal protections against discrimination.

Disability discussed at YouDareToAsk.com and Dare To Ask

While the law on at least some disability issues is clear, personal rules for coping with disability in daily life can remain confusing and jumbled. Phillip Milano’s Dare To Ask column and YouDareToAsk.com open avenues for inclusive, candid discussions about disability that aren’t available through many media outlets.

Dare To Ask: Why do you call someone a ‘retard’?

When a Yforum visitor posted a message about people using the term “retard” to demean people with impairments, Milano contacted the executive director of the group formerly called the American Association on Mental Retardation to discuss the stigma behind the term. At its heart, the practice shows a mindset where “anyone different is [to be] the victim of ridicule and abuse,” said Doreen Croser, whose group had rebranded as the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

“In certain segments it’s OK to be mean and hateful,” added Croser. “The media doesn’t help. There are lots of morning talk show folks who need to be corrected routinely, calling people retards. … Hate is in, unfortunately.”

Dare To Ask: What’s the reading process like for a deaf person?

Yforum also creates a way for ordinary people to explain life experiences to others who may never have them. When a site visitor who hears asked what reading is like for deaf people – he hears the words in his mind – a deaf reader answered that she feels words in her mind. Another said she visualizes the story, and that during prayer she sometimes signed in her mind or thought the words. As a child, she dreamed in sign language, she added.

Dare To Ask: Is it OK to date someone mentally disabled?

For a reader’s question of whether it’s ever OK to date the mentally disabled, Milano got feedback from Jonathan Mooney, a learning disabled honors graduate of Brown University who authored The Short Bus: A Journey Beyond Normal –who said yes.

“Individuals with these differences should be treated as any other human being,” Mooney said. Even if relationships don’t work out, he said, people have “the right to the continuum of human experiences that aren’t always positive.”

Dare To Ask: How do blind people know when to cross a street?

To answer a Yforum visitor who wondered how blind people cross the street, blind National Public Radio commentator Beth Finke explained to Milano her techniques for navigating Chicago and her experiences with people approaching her guide dog.

For the ones who say they’d like to take their dog everywhere like her, Finke said she holds an inner thought: “If I were brave enough [I’d say], ‘Well, you could gouge your eyes out.’ ”