The Rights Stuff Forum: Backlash

Backlash and Disability

David Hancox, Director, Metropolitan Center for Independent Living

David Hancox is Director of the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting individuals with disabilities in their efforts to pursue independent, self-directed lives. Like other advocates for the disability community, Hancox perceives that resentment toward individuals with disabilities has grown, exacerbated by the desperation many feel in a tough economy. Hancox shared his observations on backlash and disability in an interview.

Comments from David Hancox

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David HancoxQuestion: We seem to be living in a time in which many people feel angry, and our public conversations have become less civil. Is there increasing hostility or lack of civility toward people with disabilities?

I think it is increasing. I don't know that I would say it is increasing in a dramatic fashion, but it is certainly bringing out spontaneous comments from folks. For example, one of my board members here at MCIL (Metropolitan Center for Independent Living) happens to be a person with cerebral palsy, and he uses a wheelchair for mobility. He is gainfully employed, he has a Masters degree, and he works in finance and accounting for The Travelers. He provides mentoring to other young people with disabilities, he referees basketball games — he is very active in the community. He was on a public transit bus one day and there was somebody sitting across the aisle from him, a young person, probably 25 to 30. This person kept looking at him — he would just kind of glance over at him — then look away. So finally my board member said to the young man, "Is there a problem?" And the young person looked at him and said, "you know, you are the reason that our economy is in the trouble that it's in today. It's because we take care of people like you, who just sit around all day and do nothing."

I think people make presumptions, resentments grow, and we see that kind of discourse. People get frustrated, especially if someone has been unemployed for a long period of time, or they are having trouble getting healthcare, and they see somebody who is being served by a personal care attendant. On an ongoing basis, we have people who don't recognize the use of a service dog. And I think it's well understood that people with a mental health diagnosis are treated with even greater disdain than people with developmental or physical disabilities.

Is disability parking still controversial or a source of resentment?

Every day at my office building I see people using accessible parking spaces — and if they are genuinely eligible to use those spaces, they aren't displaying the eligibility on their car, they don't have the plates, they don't have the placard that hangs or anything like that. I think on an individual level we still see people misusing the privilege.

How is the economy affecting the willingness or ability of employers to accommodate people with disabilities?

I don't have any data on that. But it would seem reasonable to me that with layoffs, and business and industry having to cut back, that one of the areas they might be looking at to cut costs is in area of accommodation — that would make sense to me, that that would be one of the first areas they would look at.

What do you believe is causing this resentment to express itself, to perhaps a greater extent than a few years ago?

I think part of it is the economy. People are out of work, and along with losing their job, are losing access to health care. Then they look at other individuals — and it's not just people with disabilities — you see the resentment toward older adults. I think when we have an economic downturn like this, the desperation level changes for people. They begin to target people, individuals that they view are being given advantages that they just simply can't access. And there is resentment about that — you've got something I don't, and I want it.

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