Human Rights - Part 1


People with disabilities have the same rights as everyone else, but these rights have not always been recognized or honored. This section discusses the importance of supporting human rights and dignity for people with disabilities and the disability rights laws that have been passed to ensure these rights. Population: Any age or ability.


People with disabilities have the same rights as all others. At various times in the past, however, people with disabilities were not afforded the same rights as others. This led to discrimination and exclusion. In the United States, laws have been passed to enforce the rights of people with disabilities and to overcome the barriers that place people with disabilities at risk of discrimination. People with disabilities have been denied basic services like education, employment, housing, and have been vulnerable to abuse and violence.

Nazi Propaganda

As recently as 1945 in Germany, Hitler?s Nazi regime labeled people who were blind, physically or mentally impaired or deaf as "useless eaters" and "lives not worthy of life" (Day of Remembrance 1999) and led a genocide campaign that resulted in the extermination and sterilization of millions of people with disabilities (Burleigh 1994). A sample of the propaganda used in this campaign is found in Figure 1.

Nazi Campaign (Nazi Germany version of eugenics propaganda) "You are bearing this too," informing the German worker that a person with disabilities costs 50,000 RMS to maintain until he or she has reached the age of 60. (from Death and Deliverance -Euthanasia in Germany 1900-1945 by Michael Burleigh).

Fetus Screening

In the United States, before fetus screening, many parents who had babies with mental retardation decided to have the hospital withhold food and medical treatment so the baby would die (Maxim 1999). Since the 1980s nearly nine out of ten parents who are told that their baby may be born with downs syndrome decide to abort the fetus (CDC MMMR Weekly 1994).

In the United States and throughout most of the world, there is a longstanding and socialized practice of prejudice, human rights violations and abuse against people with disabilities. A sample of the practice of prejudice in the U.S. is illustrated by the pamphlet showing the views held about people with developmental disabilities in 1915 in Cincinnati. (next page)

Figure 2.

"Cincinnati's Problem," 1915. Cover of The Feeble-Minded, a pamphlet distributed by the Juvenile Protective Association of Cincinnati. (Courtesy of the Ohio Historical Society - from Inventing the Feeble Mind - A History of Mental Retardation in the United States by James W. Trent, Jr.)

Overcoming Prejudice

Countering this longstanding prejudice, violation of basic human rights and abuse is a growing self-advocacy movement established by people with disabilities. Thankfully, the movement is beginning to overcome some of the deep seeded prejudice people with developmental disabilities have endured in the past. This movement calls for civil justice and meaningful social change. The American's with Disabilities Act gave the movement its legitimacy and ability to bring change to traditional social practices.

Social Acceptance

The growing social acceptance of people with developmental disabilities has impacted the lives of people with disabilities in new and positive ways. The old notion that people with disabilities are different from other people, that they have something wrong with them is being replaced with the idea that everyone is unique and has gifts and abilities to share. When we focus on the gifts that people have to share instead of their deficits we improve and enrich our homes, communities, churches and workplaces. This change in view about where people with developmental disabilities belong and what they have to contribute started to shift significantly in the early 1990s. The paradigm shift is illustrated by a number of popular shows and movies advocating the view that people with developmental disabilities are valuable members of family and society.

LIFE GOES ON televised from 1989-1993. The television show chronicled the life of Corky (played by Chris Burke) a young man with Downs' Syndrome, and the lives of those in his immediate family. Movies also illustrated the valued roles people with disabilities play in real life and saw some of our greatest and most respected actors playing people with disabilities.

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