CDC: 1 in 5 American Adults Live with a Disability

Jennifer Calfas, USA TODAY9:54 a.m. EDT July 31, 2015

One in five American adults have at least one kind of disability, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Thursday.

The study, drawn from 2013 data, says 53 million Americans have a disability.

“We know disability types and related challenges can vary,” said Elizabeth Courtney-Long, a health scientist with CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. “In order to understand and address their needs, we need to understand their diverse circumstances. This report provides a snapshot into that.”

The findings come days after the 25th anniversary of the implementation of theAmericans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits the discrimination of someone because of his or her disability in the workplace, transportation and community.

The researchers defined a disability as a self-reported difficulty in one or more of five areas: vision, cognition, mobility, self-care or independent living. For people to have one or several of these disabilities, the study says they have to identify with the specific qualifications the researchers defined in questions.

The study defines a disability with vision as blindness or difficulty in seeing with glasses on. A disability for the cognition category means having a hard time with memory or making decisions due to a physical, mental or condition. For mobility, a disability entails having difficulty while climbing stairs. A self-care category means needing help dressing or bathing, and an independent living disability was defined as needing help to run errands.

The study is also the first state-by-state analysis of Americans with disabilities from CDC. The report found Southern states often had higher percentages of people with disabilities. For example, in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee, 31.5%, 31.4% and 31.4%, respectively, of the state adult population has a disability.

Southern states are also more likely to have chronic diseases, including heart disease and diabetes.

The percentage of Americans in Midwestern and Northern states were nearly half those from Southern states. In Minnesota and Alaska, 16.4% and 17.7% of state residents, respectively, reported a disability.

The report also found adults who have lower education levels, lower income or are unemployed were more likely to have a disability. Broken down by race, the study revealed African American and Hispanic Americans were more likely to have a disability than white Americans.

Carol Glazer, president of the National Organization on Disability, a non-profit dedicated to the disabled community in the U.S., told USA TODAY the findings should be viewed to see how disability affects income and unemployment levels.

The non-profit’s research has found that 20% of people with disabilities have a job, while 69% of people without disabilities are employed. However, younger Americans with disabilities have nearly the same access to education as children without disabilities, Glazer said. Glazer is optimistic that more educated and disabled individuals will lead to more employment among the disabled community.

 “Where education goes, employment will follow,” she said.

The CDC partners with several national and state disabilities programs, including the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes program and the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability, among others.

Courtney-Long, a co-author on the CDC report, said she believes the report will allow public health officials to understand the prevalence of Americans with disabilities.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, which President George H.W. Bush signed into law on July 26, 1990, opened doors to people with disabilities to enter the workforce without discrimination and creation of more accessible locations and working conditions.

“By prohibiting discrimination and ensuring opportunity, the ADA has opened doors and brought dreams within reach,” said Attorney General Loretta Lynch at an anniversary event on July 23. 

“It has made our workforce stronger and our society more inclusive. And it has enhanced our nation’s understanding and recognition of all that Americans with disabilities can achieve when they are given more and nothing less than an opportunity to contribute on equal terms.”

The findings also come during the Special Olympics World Games held in Los Angeles. About 6,500 athletes from 165 countries gathered this year for the event, which has occurred since 1968. Individuals with intellectual disabilities participate in the Games each year.

“My husband and I have seen Americans unite in so many ways across the country,” said first lady Michelle Obama at the Opening Ceremony on July 25. “These Games are a perfect reflection of that unity. They show us that we’re all in this together – that we can lift up our friends and neighbors, and that we can bring out the best in each other to reach even higher heights.”

6 Ways to Be a Better Ally to People Living with Disabilities

When it comes to talking about disability, we don’t.

Nearly one in five Americans reports living with a disability, yet our silence prevents us from aiding in destigmatization, fair access and equal opportunity.

Sunday marks 25 years since the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law, but we still have a long way to go when it comes to properly supporting people living with disabilities. Though anti-discrimination laws like the ADA are more than needed to ensure opportunity and access for marginalized populations, even these laws can’t change our social views of disability.

Along with major forms of social discrimination, such as denying employment to people with disabilities or using the R-word, there are seemingly little things able-bodied people do every day that aren’t so inclusive. And those little things need to change.

Here are six things you should think about in order to be a stronger ally to disability communities.


1. Don’t use people with disabilities as your own inspiration to rise above challenges.


We’ve all seen those widely shared Facebook posts that marvel at people who “overcame” their disabilities — the girl drawing with her mouth because doesn’t have arms, or the little boy running with a prosthetic leg. These images are meant to inspire able-bodied people to see their challenges aren’t so bad after all.

Disability rights activist Stella Young coined the term “inspiration porn” to refer to this kind of post. These images and messages often come at the expense of disability populations, making them pornographic because, as Young said, they objectify one group of people for the benefit of another.

“The whole concept refers to the fact that most able-bodied people think of disability as such an unspeakable condition that you can only think about it in euphemism,” Carol Glazer, president of the National Organization on Disability, tells Mashable. “People use terms like ‘special’ and ‘exceptional,’ when really people want to say, ‘You have an unspeakable condition. If I had that condition. I don’t know what I’d do.’”

But disability conditions aren’t unspeakable. As Young said, we all learn how to use our bodies to the best of their capacity. Recognize that people with disabilities aren’t intrinsically exceptional for getting out of bed in the morning. They might just get out of bed in a different way.


2. View aids that enhance the lives of people with disabilities as more than just devices.


Some people living with disabilities require the assistance of wheelchairs, service animals, interpreters and other devices that help enhance their lives. These objects act as an extension of a person — and you should respect them as a part of that person.

“Oftentimes, people will lean on someone’s wheelchair,” Glazer says. “What most people may not know is that a wheelchair is part of somebody’s personal space. Leaning on a wheelchair is like standing on somebody’s shoes. It’s their belonging.”

The same thing goes with service animals. For example, you may want to pet a cute service dog, but he’s working. “You wouldn’t go up to someone who is working and just joke around,” Glazer says.

This rule also applies to interpreters. When it comes to a person acting as a device for another person, it may seem awkward to consider a human as a piece of equipment. But, in that moment, he or she is an extension of that person, Glazer says. Focus on facing and talking to the people whom the interpreters are assisting — not the interpreters themselves.


3. Understand a person’s disability doesn’t define her, but may be an important part of her identity.


Able-bodied people have a habit of defining people with disabilities by their disabilities. Instead of using language like, “She’s confined to a wheelchair” or “He’s mentally challenged,” refer to the person first.

“Even my mother would say, ‘Oh, he’s a hydrocephalic,’” Glazer says, referring to her son. “No, he’s not. He’s a child with hydrocephalus.”

Changing your language to refer to people first is an important step toward inclusivity. Instead of using a person’s identity as her defining characteristic, refer to her disability only when necessary to the conversation. “Is the meeting space is accessible? My coworker, Chloe, is coming to the meeting and she uses a wheelchair.”

Most importantly, talk to people about what their disabilities mean to them. They could be their connections to community and activism, or they could be relatively unimportant. But talking to them is the only way you’ll know. Let them define themselves on their own terms.


4. Never have low expectations for someone with disabilities.


Assuming someone’s levels of ability — whether intellectual or physical — before you actually get to know that person is a problem Glazer calls “the tyranny of low expectations.” Expecting minimal achievement from people living with disabilities is a disservice their ability to succeed, Glazer says.

“We just don’t have very high expectations for people with disabilities. We usually infantilize them,” she says.

Don’t adjust your expectations based on your own biases. Instead, work with people living with disabilities to properly accommodate their needs — if any adjustment is even necessary. Don’t assume someone’s disability defines their overall ability.

“You can’t assume difficulty speaking means difficulty thinking,” Glazer says.


5. Don’t assume people living with disabilities are miserable, unhappy or less fulfilled than you.


Just because someone has a disability doesn’t mean he or she is living a life that’s any less than an able-bodied person’s.

“[Some able-bodied people] say things like, ‘You have to rise above your disability. You have to overcome your disability,’” Glazer says. “But most people with disabilities just think of themselves as normal people.”

Like any able-bodied person, people with disabilities adapt to accommodate their own experiences. But that’s not something that makes a person living with disabilities less fortunate or clearly miserable.

“Even if we have no arms and legs, we’d figure out how to paint a painting with our mouths. And it’s not a big deal and we’re not rising above. We’re just us,” Glazer says.


6. Stop being afraid of disability.


Able-bodied people don’t often talk about disability, and the fear of getting something wrong or offensive keeps us from addressing it. We might even accidentally point out that we aren’t as comfortable with disability as we want the world to believe.

But these fears shouldn’t stop us from confronting our own biases.

“When you are afraid, you stop thinking. When you stop thinking, you start making silly mistakes. If you calm yourself down, you just get comfortable. And if you ever wonder about anything, just ask,” Glazer says.

Become a stronger ally by using your fear as an indicator of the things you need to work on. Confront your discomfort, and ask questions.

At ADA’s 25th Anniversary, a Time to Celebrate and Expand Access to the American Dream

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post where NOD President Carol Glazer regularly contributes to the ongoing discussion about disability in America and how to close the employment gap for people with disabilities.

This week many are celebrating the unprecedented improvements that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has brought to the quality of life for millions of people with disabilities in the 25 years since it was signed into law on July 26, 1990. But the work of guaranteeing access to the American dream is far from over. When it was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush amid an overwhelming show of bipartisan support, the ADA promised to enable people with disabilities access to go to school, to church, to the theater and to work. Like the Civil Rights Act on which it was modeled, the ADA viewed the exclusion of people with disabilities from civic life and the workforce as discrimination. Keeping people with disabilities from the mainstream was no longer justifiable. When President Bush signed the ADA, he noted its significance as a civil rights act, meant to “ensure that all should have the opportunity to blend fully and equally into the rich mosaic of the American mainstream.” (Click here to watch how President Bush feels about his legacy, 25 years later.)

In most aspects of civic and community life – education, housing, access to public venues, healthcare, even voting – the ADA has brought about unprecedented improvements in the quality of life for people with disabilities. Even labor force participation on the part of people with disabilities, which has stood stubbornly at roughly 20% since before the ADA until the present, is showing promising signs, as more employers begin to discover that the resilience, tenacity and problem-solving skills possessed by people with disabilities are strong workplace assets. Employment is seen by many as the last remaining obstacle to a good quality of life for people with disabilities, and is indeed a critical barrier. But as we know, in today’s economy, with its divisions between the haves and the have-nots, getting a job is not in and of itself a path out of poverty. Equally important to the path toward equality is ensuring the economic security and financial mobility for Americans with disabilities. The first job isn’t enough – it must be paired with meaningful steps toward upward economic mobility.

One of the few pieces of legislation to make it out of last year’s Congress was the Achieving a Better Life Experience, or ABLE Act, which lifts the savings limit for those living on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid – the backbone of our country’s public support system for people with disabilities. Before the ABLE Act, people with disabilities were allowed to accumulate no more than $2,000 in savings without triggering a loss in benefits. That effectively trapped beneficiaries in long-term poverty and created disincentives to working longer hours and producing more income. Of course, the implicit assumption is that beneficiaries will never work and can expect no better life than a dependency on public benefits living in poverty. But access to the American dream should not be denied to people with disabilities any more than access to public accommodations. We need to make sure that people with disabilities are financially literate. That they understand the power of saving money and know how to do it. That they’re bankable; they have access to credit; they can save money to buy a home, finance their children’s education or just see a path to financial security. These commonplace privileges to which most Americans aspire, have long been denied to people with disabilities, by public policy and by law. This not only denies their dignity and financial mobility, but the income maintenance programs they’re forced to depend on as a replacement, like SSI and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), do not have sufficient funds to keep up with demand. We know that preventing discrimination is laudable but insufficient to guarantee these fundamental privileges to America’s 56 million people with disabilities. Public policies governing the longstanding programs that keep people with disabilities trapped in poverty need to be changed, to incentivize not only earnings, but savings. Banks need incentives to lend. Budgeting and financial literacy must be taught in special education classes. Twenty-five years after the passage of the ADA, Congress took a positive step forward with the ABLE Act that encourages savings without jeopardizing needed public benefits and promotes longer term planning for a better economic future.

Over 120 leaders in government and the disability and asset building communities will convene next week in Washington, D.C. to build a post ADA@25 action-oriented agenda that proposes improved strategies in policy and program design to promote financial capability and economic mobility for youth and working age adults with disabilities. The next generation of individuals with disabilities expects no less than full participation in the economic mainstream.