Disability discrimination: why does it still happen today?

In many ways we have come a long way when it comes to eradicating disability discrimination – the Paralympic Games 2012 demonstrates that. But, still today there is not only discrimination through accessibility issues, but also direct, ignorant and destructive discrimination. Is the language we use and the labels we place on people to blame? Meghan Hussey explores…

Let me tell you a story, one that might shock you, or might be common place. Recently, it was reported that an anonymous neighbour in Canada slipped a letter under the door of the home of a young man with severe autism. The neighbour described herself as a “pissed off mother!!!!!” whose grievance was the noise that the young man makes when he ‘selfishly’ takes him outside. Apparently, it “scares the hell out of normal children.”

The response to the letter on social media has galvanized the autism advocacy community. Family members of people with severe autism, such as myself, sadly are all too accustomed to stares, rude comments, and ignorance.

The neighbour’s call for the family to either move or euthanise the child is an expression of hate that calls for a deeper understanding of the historical legacy of oppression that people with disabilities, such as autism, have faced.

The Eugenics Movement in the United States and Europe in the early 20th century was full of people calling for racial purity and advocated euthanasia. They saw people with disabilities as defective stains on humanity; an hindrance to their goal of human perfection.

Many people forget that people with disabilities were among the first victims of the Holocaust in Germany. Thousands of children and adults with disabilities in Germany were either killed after being deemed “life unworthy of life” or subjected to horrific experiments for the supposed betterment of mankind.

When they were not being killed for their differences, people with disabilities were being locked in institutions away from the mainstream population. These were often understaffed, unsanitary, and unmonitored. Children were written off as useless and never received education, therapy services, or in some cases even real human contact. Abuse scandals were widespread, such as the case of Willowbrook State School in New York for children with mental disabilities, where appalling conditions and questionable medical practices lead the institution to finally being shut down.

How did this happen and why does the hate continue? After hearing about what happened in Canada, many have taken this opportunity to share our stories with the goal of hopefully raising awareness and understanding. I advocate for disability rights because I believe in human rights. Unfortunately, people with developmental disabilities are still fighting to be seen as human.

At the root of many cases of discrimination, hate crimes, and even full-blown genocide is the dehumanizing of the people, turning someone into an ‘it’. The Jews in Europe were called rats, the Tutsis in Rwanda were called cockroaches. In this case, the neighbour views the boy with autism as a wild animal, which is not something you let loose in a residential neighbourhood. Society keeps animals in the wild or in cages away from people and if they get dangerous they put them down.

Today, there are still people like philosopher Peter Singer, saying that those with severe intellectual disabilities do not deserve rights any more than animals, since some other species have supposedly higher levels of intelligence than they do.

Dehumanizing language is still used against people with disabilities, such as autism. I grew up routinely cringing as even good friends of mine casually threw around the word ‘retard’ in incredibly derogatory ways, something celebrities continue to do. I have seen children with autism in some school districts of the US still totally segregated from their ‘normal’ peers, regardless of their intelligence or behaviour. In most countries, especially in the developing world, children with disabilities do not go to school at all, have no access to therapy or services, and face social stigma that can even cause them to be abandoned or killed.

There is a lot more here than just raising awareness about what autism and other disabilities are. But what we also need is a shift in the way we view people with disabilities, which is to view them as equal human beings. My sister has autism, used to be completely non-verbal, and has an IQ in the intellectually disabled range. If she had a public meltdown when we were growing up from anxiety, sensory over stimulation, or frustration at her inability to communicate, my mother’s attitude helped me deal with the negative reactions we often received. The mantra in our family was “different is not less”. I am not somehow more human than my sister.

The letter sent in Canada seems extreme in this day and age, but, it was not so long ago that calls for euthanasia were acted on. In order to move away from the shameful legacies of the past, society has to start looking at the humanity of people with disabilities. They are not a collection of defects to be ‘dealt with,’ they are human beings that are meant to be loved. Expand the services and research that help them to reach their own unique potential. Open up opportunities for them to be included as the members of our community they are. In expanding our empathy and learning from our family members and neighbours with autism and other disabilities, surely we can all become more human.

By Meghan Hussey

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We’d love to hear your thoughts on whether disability discrimination has changed. Get in touch by messaging us on Facebook, tweeting us @DHorizons, emailing us at or leaving your comments below.


  1. Thanks, Meghan, for a thoughtful and well-written piece. I think you’re absolutely right; language and labels have an awful lot to do with how people process information & concepts and in how people view others (and themselves).

    There are some pretty big cultural differences between North America and the UK but one of the biggest is the way different Models of Disability are viewed. In North America the Medical Model seems to be predominant (or the norm), even among quite well educated and otherwise well informed disabled people, and the way they view themselves seems (to me) to be pretty self oppressive. I reckon that, if a disabled person has a dim view of themselves, that is going to impact on how non-disabled people view them too.

    In my experience, when disabled people embrace the Social Model of Disability and the Language Code that comes with it, for example:

    they gain empowerment, self-respect and command respect from others. If non-disabled people embrace and support the Social Model of Disability, their attitude towards disabled people can be very empowering too.

    I find it heart warming to know that, in schools in my neighbourhood, children are being educated about equality and about challenging racism, homophobia and disablism. They are being taught about the Social Model of Disability, about the T4 Programme and disabled people. They are comfortable using appropriate language regarding impairments and accessibility.

    Give it another twenty years or so, I expect attitudes towards disabled people will change and equality will improve, just as it has for Black people, minority ethnicity group people and LGBQT people – in the UK.

    But I fear that, if the Social Model of Disability doesn’t gain a foothold in North America, particularly in the USA, I don’t see attitudes and behaviour changing there anytime soon.

    1. I couldn’t agree more with John Thornton, however I do find that in South Africa, within certain areas people are more tolerant when it comes to people with various disability types. Oscar Pistorius and the likes of Ernest van Dyk and Natalie du Toit but to name a few, definitely marketed disabilities, but what one finds is that 6 weeks after all the excitement of Paralympics, everything seems forgotten, unless you make some media coverage.

      Some international countries, I have discovered thru lots of research, are quite way ahead with disability exposure, it lacks here in South Africa, there is still that stigma, and when applying for a job, it is said its just to enhance the employment equity totals, but people with disabilities are not treated fairly at most times. You get the group that think a disability is only when you have lost a limb but mentally the person is ay okay. The other thinking is, well if the person has a disability are they ok…”up there”.

      Disabilities are also in the form of Learning Disabilities and here kids are in special schools and tagged as “Donkey School”. Honestly only a few of the many really make it into the big bad world, and that is only because of their backup support at home.

      Progressive disabilities like Parkinsons, MS, advanced Diabetes etc is seen as capable and cope-able, and all this due to a lack of knowledge.

      My son is a cp(cereberal palsy), he participates in athletics for the physically challenged, does Javelin, Shot put and Discus, attended one of the “donkey” schools, but I raised him to believe in himself, to keep his feet firmly on the ground and not stand back for any challenge in life. we tried to get sponsors for him after returning from World Champs in France in July, approaching Nordic for a Javelin, the kindly replied, its their policy not to support paralympians, yet he thru and broke the african record in Lyon France, with a Nordic Javelin.

      I am a life coach focussing purely on people with disabilities, particularly those leaving school and having to decide on a career. I also focus on adults with progressive disabilities, because I understand the emotional set back of being active and then fate hits you with Essential Tremors and you cant work or drive. Too little is done by enhancing the quality of life for people with disabilities, Too little exposure is out there to educate the masses and sadly very few are prepared to stand up, support and educate the masses….”unless they get paid”. Very few want to do anything voluntary any more.

      So to Megan and Disability Horizons, send out the message, we don’t disability magazines here in South Africa,(except for theRollingstones) but I subscribe to your newsletter and its great to read and be motivated by the articles.

      Blessings to you all, Vivienne

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