New Analysis: More U.S. Adults Identify as Disabled; Ethnic and Socioeconomic Disparities Persist

A new analysis led by Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers finds that the number of U.S. adults who report they have a disability is 27%, representing 67 million adults, an increase of 1% since the data were last analyzed in 2016. In this new study, which used data collected in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, the researchers found a wide array of disparities between socioeconomic and demographic factors that persists among those who identify as disabled and those who do not.

“To reduce ableism and create more inclusive communities, our country must be equipped with data on the prevalence of disabilities and who is most impacted by them,” says Bonnielin Swenor, Ph.D., M.P.H., director of the Johns Hopkins Disability Health Research Center and associate professor of ophthalmology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Wilmer Eye Institute.

Swenor and her research team analyzed survey data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2019 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a collection of health and behavior information from annual telephone surveys of more than 400,000 U.S. adults.

Results of the analysis were published Oct. 21 in JAMA Network Open.

Approximately 27% of American adults reported a disability. When compared with the U.S. adult population, this represents 67 million adults. An additional 6 million people reported a disability since data on disability prevalence were analyzed and reported in 2016.

In the current study, approximately 12% of American adults reported more than one disability. Mobility was the most often reported disability type, followed by cognitive/mental, independent living (requiring help for daily tasks and outings), hearing, vision, and self-care (needing help with bathing, dressing and other personal care tasks).

In addition, the researchers analyzed socioeconomic and demographic data to better understand the prevalence of disability across intersecting groups.

“Developing effective measures and policies to include people with disabilities in all aspects of life needs to account for the variability in how people among different ethnic, socioeconomic, demographic and geographic groups experience disability,” says Swenor. “With robust data, we can strengthen the foundation of our knowledge about disability and develop tangible solutions.”

The survey data showed that, compared with adults without a disability, disabled adults were more likely to be older, female, Hispanic, have less than a high school education, have low income, be unemployed, and be bisexual, transgender or gender nonconforming. Digging deeper, the team found differences in disability prevalence based on sociodemographic groups. For example, Black females had a higher prevalence of disability than females of other races, and Black adults identifying as gay or bisexual had a lower prevalence of disability compared with gay or bisexual adults of other races.

Swenor and the research team note that an aging population and other factors may contribute to the increase in reported disability. The data include information from before the COVID-19 pandemic, and Swenor says there may be an increase in people reporting a disability resulting from long-term symptoms of COVID-19.

The research team aims to use these data to continue studying the experiences of disabled populations, including identifying and finding support and resources for people with disabilities and ascertaining the capabilities of schools and employers in supporting disabled communities.

In addition to Swenor, researchers who contributed to the report include Jessica Campanile, Jennifer Deal, Ph.D., Nicholas Reed, Au.D., and Varshini Varadaraj, M.D., M.P.H.

What “Bachelor in Paradise” Can Teach us About Empowering the Disability Community

Are you a fan of “Bachelor in Paradise?” Whether you realize it or not, this season of the “Bachelor” franchise spinoff took on the topic of disability empowerment. Which is not exactly an expected topic for mainstream television. For years, the “Bachelor” series has been criticized for featuring primarily White contestants, and has worked to diversify the races and ethnicities of the people they draw on the show. But what about people from the disability community or people who identify as Deaf or hard-of-hearing?

Being disabled or Deaf or hard of hearing are also social identities in American culture – identities that should not be overlooked in the show’s representation. These communities represent what some refer to as the largest minority community in the United States at 26 percent of the U.S. population according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the following, we’ll discuss more about why this year’s “Bachelor in Paradise” was so significant and what that may mean for social workers.

Introducing Abigail

A few years ago, we did have Sarah Herron on the show, a woman with a physical disability, although her presence was short-lived. But this season, the very first person down the stairs to the Mexican beachfront hacienda was Abigail Heringer, a 26 year-old woman who identifies as Deaf due to congenital hearing loss from birth. She received cochlear implants at the age of two but does consider herself disabled due to her hearing impairment and loss. Abigail was a central figure in this summer’s Bachelor in Paradise due to her romance with Noah Erb.

It was refreshing to see a disabled person in a romantic relationship given the history our culture has of thinking that disabled folks are asexual, incapable of having sex or in need of being protected from any kind of sexual contact. Abigail and Noah’s relationship has played out on television screens across Bachelor Nation – from their devastating breakup at the show’s conclusion to their rekindled romance announced subtly on social media later. This demonstrates that members of the disability community have relationships too, and that this is 100% normative behavior, with breakups, glitches, awkwardness, kissing and all!

The Dignity of Risk

So how does this relate to social work practice? One of the central tenets of good disability social work is how we need to honor the concept of the dignity of risk. This is the idea that everyone can learn from everyday risks. Central to honoring the dignity of risk is respecting an individual’s autonomy and self-determination to make choices. Also important, is the right for our clients to make choices even if social workers or other professionals in the person’s life feel that they could endanger the decision-maker in question. In order to respect a person’s dignity of risk, one should provide intermittent support even if others do not approve of the choice.

As there is inherent dignity in the experience of everyday risk, this concept suggests that limiting a disabled person’s ability to make even a risky choice, or limiting their access to the learning that comes along with a potentially emotionally painful risk, such as dating, does not foster overall wellness in the long run. Abigail, from this year’s “Bachelor in Paradise” is a wonderful example of the kind of empowerment needed, rather than sheltering one from risks in life.

Robert Perske famously wrote:

“Overprotection may appear on the surface to be kind, but it can be really evil. An oversupply can smother people emotionally, squeeze the life out of their hopes and expectations, and strip them of their dignity. Overprotection can keep people from becoming all they could become…”

Arguably, the dignity of risk may be among the most challenging tenets for social workers to embrace in their practice, but it is vital to accept given its intersection with self-determination. The dignity of risk also involves learning about the part of life that involves sexual and romantic relationships. Social workers need to remember to talk to their clients about sexuality in a developmentally appropriate manner. It is important not to cut off conversations about this topic, or to skirt the subject when it comes up. We must also support our clients in exploring how to engage in healthy relationships when they have the opportunities to be in them.

It’s wonderful that Abigail Heringer can be a model in reminding us of this important lesson for empowerment-oriented disability social work. One that embraces the dignity of risk for those who wish to date! With that being said, here’s to Noah and Abigail’s relationship!

Blue Cross Report: Social Services Critical to Improving Health


In a new report by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation, social, behavioral, and environmental factors are shown to determine a staggering 60% of one’s overall health. The report provides overwhelming support for increased investment in, and collaboration with, social services as a way of improving overall individual and community health.

The report’s key findings include:

-Providing housing support for low-income, high-need individuals can result in net savings due to reduced health care costs. The net savings range from $9,000 per person per year to nearly $30,000 per person per year for the Housing First model, a harm-reduction approach in which adults who are homeless and who have behavioral health conditions are provided supportive housing.

-Nutritional assistance for high-risk women, infants, and children as well as older adults and people with disabilities lowers infant mortality rates, improves birth weights, reduces nursing home admissions, and significantly lowers federal and state Medicaid costs.

-Vulnerable populations experience health gains when their care is coordinated across primary, specialty, behavioral, and social services and that hospitalizations and emergency department visits are demonstrably reduced.

-Partnerships between health care and social service providers, particularly housing service providers, have been effective in improving health outcomes in certain high-need populations.

-Income support programs, specifically the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), were associated with better health outcomes for those individuals who qualify for such programs.

By attributing 60% of one’s health to social, behavioral, and environmental factors, Blue Cross Blue Shield is making known that social workers and social service programs are the key to improving the health of individuals and communities. The report opens the door for unprecedented collaboration between social workers and private sector health insurers, who can work together to address patient care as a whole unit.

The report adds to the increasing evidence that integrated healthcare is the future of care delivery. Integrated care involves primary care providers and behavioral/mental health providers working in unison to treat the whole patient. Social workers, who are trained in interdisciplinary collaboration, are uniquely qualified to serve in this capacity.

Most importantly, the message of the report is clear: achieving optimal health is impossible without increased investment in social service programs, especially for vulnerable populations. This provides a major opportunity to advocate on behalf of increased investment in programs that improve health while reducing healthcare costs. When one of the nation’s largest health insurers says that social service programs are critical to the health of our nation, policy makers will have to listen.

Are Sheltered Workshops A Thing of the Past

Much like institutionalization of people with disabilities, sheltered workshops started with someone’s heart being in the right place. Starting around the middle of the 20th century, sheltered workshops began as an intervention for adults with disabilities in which they were given jobs to help keep them busy. These places offer limited-skill work such as sorting, assembling and packaging to people with disabilities.

01 sheltered workshop 82014 0202fOften, the jobs are repetitive-motion tasks, do not offer much in the way of self-fulfillment, and give the employees zero opportunity to advance their position in the company. More often than not, workers make somewhere between $2 – $3 per hour which is less than half of the federal minimum wage that so many non-disabled workers are fighting to increase.

There is a great debate taking place on whether or not sheltered workshops should still be an option for people with disabilities who age out of school usually at the age of 21. One of the main arguments people have against closing down workshops is the fear that these individuals will have no place to go since businesses tend to not hire people with disabilities.

According to the Department of Labor as of August 2014, the numbers appear to support this argument because unemployment rates for people with disabilities are twice as high than people without disabilities.  You can find more information on that here:

According to an article in the Disability Scoop, Vermont has found a way to improve outcomes for the disabled after closing its sheltered workshops which states,

The sheltered workshops that are still prevalent across much of the country were shut down in Vermont more than a decade ago. And now, the employment rate of people with developmental disabilities in the New England state is twice the national average. Read Full Article

How did Vermont do it?

The University of Vermont received a grant to build programs for integrated employment in the 1980’s. They worked with state disability agencies and its success over time was enough for Vermont to realize that sheltered workshops were not how the state wanted their citizens with disabilities to be treated. Workshops were phased out over a 4-year period: new entries into workshops were no longer allowed and their funding was incrementally cut.

Of course, there were fears from the families who would be directly affected by this and rightly so. As parents, we want our children to be safe and secure, accepted by peers and part of something bigger than themselves. Could these desires be realized if workers with disabilities don’t have contact with others who are also disabled? Is there a job out there they could actually do and feel good about doing? Would society in general accept them?

It turns out, the answer is yes! In Vermont, about 80% of the people who used to be in workshops found employment in an integrated setting. The rest found other community-based services. According to the Disability Scoop article, “In fiscal year 2013, the average wage for supported employees was $9.26, more than 50 cents above the state’s minimum wage and $2 above the federal minimum wage.” How incredible is that while Vermont shows no signs of slowing its success.

It has increased its numbers of employed disabled individuals yearly. To continue their success rate, ongoing support is available in each county and doesn’t fade over time, which is common in most other states. There are also education programs with businesses that ease fears and answers questions for potential employers.

Looking to the future

Some argue the reason Vermont was able to be so successful is because it’s a small state, but isn’t that a cop out? Amazingly, Vermont was able to develop their employment program without involving the legislative process, but not every state is willing to do the work to put this program in place even though Vermont offers a living model of how and why it should be done.

In order to make sheltered workshops a thing of the past or at least a last resort, there is new legislation under consideration in both Houses of Congress that would alter their pathway into the workforce. Under Section 511 of the Workforce Investment Act, people under 24 years of age could not be employed by workshops unless they have sought employment in other settings first. This legislation also requires that state vocational rehabilitation agencies provide “pre-employment services” to students at schools in their area.

As a parent to a teenager whose disability severely impacts her, I worry about her future all the time. What will she do when she ages out of school? Today, I can’t picture a job where she can be independent because of the extremity of her physical disability but who knows where we’ll be in terms of technology and employability six years from now? My greatest hope is that all states work towards achieving the successful model Vermont has realized so that our community has as many options as it can.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Kansas City Star

Bullying of Students with Disabilities in Our Schools

by Vilissa K. Thompson, LMSW


Though the 2013-2014 school year is ending for the summer, the bullying of students with disabilities epidemic has made headline news this academic term.  A recent headlining story took place late May in Richmond, California, where a father boarded a school bus, and attacked the student who allegedly bullied his 9-year-old son, who has autism. Burris Hurd was charged with child abuse and corporal injury to a child, and was held in jail on a $50,000 bond.

Reports stated that Hurd’s son identified an 11-year-old student to his father that he claimed had bullied him. Hurd, supposedly inebriated, reacted by grabbing the alleged bully by the hair, pulled and raised the student by his hair out of his seat, and shoved the child on the side of the bus.  Hurd also made threats to the suspected bully, and other students on the bus.  The bus driver failed to restrain Hurd from assaulting the student nor did he report the attack to school officials.

It was the attacked student who reported the incident to the principal, who then contacted the police department. Both students attend the special education program at Wilson Elementary School in Richmond. It is without saying that Hurd’s actions towards his son being bullied by a student was highly inappropriate, life-threatening, and extremely counterproductive to finding a solution to the program.No adult should ever put his or her hands on a child, whether disabled or not, in any fashion that will yield bodily harm and/or intimidation. Though parents and guardians of children with disabilities tend to be overprotective and on high-alert as to how their child(ren) are treated by others, assaulting someone is never the answer to resolving the issue that may exist.

The Astounding Reality of the Bullying of Students with Disabilities:

According to PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center, research found that students with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied than their non-disabled classmates.  One research study discovered that 60% of students with disabilities have reported experiencing some form of bullying, which is an incredibly higher percentage than non-disabled students who reported being bullied (which was 25%).

How Bullying Affects A Student’s Ability to Learn & Thrive in the Classroom:

The effects of bullying can negatively impact the educational experiences of students with disabilities.  Contrary to what we adults would like to believe, bullying is NOT a harmless rite of passage that children endure; its only purpose is to embarrass, ostracize, and belittle the student targeted.

Bullying has the ability to adversely influence the targeted student’s access to education, to the point where the student’s academic success can be jeopardized.  Here are some of the devastating effects of bullying on a student’s educational experience:

  • School avoidance and higher rates of absenteeism
  • Decrease in grades
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Loss of interest in academic achievement
  • Increase in dropout rates

Bullying Based on a Student’s Disability Status is Considered Harassment:

Bullying and harassing behavior can be deemed as:

  • Unwelcomed conduct, such as verbal abuse, name-calling, epithets, and/or slurs
  • Graphic or offensive language, or written statements
  • Threats (verbal or implied through non-verbal communication (i.e., pounding fist into palm))
  • Physical assaults
  • Other behavioral conducts that may be physically threatening, harmful, or humiliating

The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have both stated that bullying may be considered as harassment when it is based on a student’s identity status(es), such as race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or religion.

The issue of bullying and/or harassment due to a student’s disability status are outlined under two federal policies:  Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990.  (The OCR is responsible for reinforcing Section 504, and Title II of the ADA.)  Students with disabilities who have a 504 plan or Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which are used in addressing, outlining, and implementing any accommodations and resources they may need in the school environment, qualify for the legal protections under these mandates.

The Responsibilities of School Officials in Addressing Bullying:

Bullying 3In the Dear Colleague letter issued by the OCR in 2000:

States and school districts also have a responsibility under Section 504, Title II, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which is enforced by OSERS [the Office for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services], to ensure that a free appropriate public education (FAPE) is made available to eligible students with disabilities. Disability harassment may result in a denial of FAPE under these statutes.

In the letter, the OCR also addressed how bullying and harassment has the potential to stymie a student with an IEP from receiving an educational opportunity that is appropriate for their needs:

The IDEA was enacted to ensure that recipients of IDEA funds make available to students with disabilities the appropriate special education and related services that enable them to access and benefit from public education.  The specific services to be provided a student with a disability are set forth in the student’s individualized education program (IEP), which is developed by a team that includes the student’s parents, teachers and, where appropriate, the student.  Harassment of a student based on disability may decrease the student’s ability to benefit from his or her education and amount to a denial of FAPE.

The OCR released another Dear Colleague letter in 2010 as a reminder to school officials of their responsibilities to protecting the civil rights of students with disabilities from bullying and harassment.

Under these federal policies, parents and students have legal rights when bullying and harassment occurs.  It is the school administrators and school districts responsibilities to ensure that a non-threatening environment is available to all students, and are to take proactive measures to eliminate situations that may affect a student’s physical and emotional safety, and academic achievement.

What Can Be Done To Combat Bullying:

Responding Appropriately to Bullying Allegations Made by Students with Disabilities

From the headline story covered at the beginning of this article, the parental response was undeniably ineffective in grasping an understanding of what was taking place between the alleged bullying victim and accuser.

Parents/guardians, educators, school district officials, and other adults involved in students’ academic experience, have to realize that they are the frontline advocates for bullied students with disabilities. Advocating for the safety of students and ensuring that students are able to function fully in the school environment should be the top priority for everyone; losing that focus will be ineffectual handling of the situation.  Students with disabilities who are bullied need to feel that those who are supposed to protect them will do so.  Receiving that protection and support from these adults will allow students to be comfortable in discussing what has transpired between them and their classmate(s) in order to resolve the problem.

One key thing for adults to realize:  it is NEVER the bullied students’ responsibility to “fix” the problem; if they could do that, then they would not need adult intervention.

Educate Yourself About What Your State is Doing to Fight Bullying in Our Schools

Bullying and harassment are not only mentioned in federal laws – many states have enacted laws addressing the detrimental effects and responsibilities of schools., a federal resource that provides information about bullying and cyberbullying, targeted populations, and what can be done to ameliorate and extinguish this issue, has a webpage called Policies & Laws that gives you the opportunity to learn about the anti-bullying mandates in your state.

Create a School & Community Environment Where Peer & Self Advocacy are Supported

Allowing students to be stand up for themselves and their classmates when bullying and harassment occurs is a powerful peer supporting mechanism to establish in school and community settings.

Students know who are the “instigators”/”bullies” in their schools, but they may not want to be the one to “snitch” on their friend or classmate.  Teaching students that they have a responsibility to stand up for what is right by speaking up when it is necessary has the potential to reduce the occurrence of bullying and harassment by more than 50%.  The reason peer advocacy is so effective is because a student who confronts a peer about their bullying behavior resonates more than it would coming from an adult

Teaching self-advocacy to students with disabilities will allow them to find their voice.  Learning to be direct about what they need, and when they feel unsafe will eliminate feelings of intimidation or shame due to bullying.  Self-advocacy is an empowering tool that students will be able to use not only in the school environment, but also in the workforce, addressing public policies, etc., when they become adults.  It is truly never too early to promote self-advocacy to disabled students; it is an imperative life skill to have.

Resources About Bullying in Our Schools

Awareness and action regarding bullying are dire so that all students will can learn in our schools without fear or isolation.’s Prevent Bullying page and PACER’s Resources webpage has a plethora of online tools for parents, educators, and students to fight against bullying.

Final Thoughts about Bullying:

We cannot afford to bury our heads in the sand anymore; our students are hurting, and in some cases, are taking their own lives, because of bullying.  It is our responsibility as parents/guardians, educators, helping professionals, and community residents to work together to protect and empower our students of all abilities.

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of JLSL.)

Funding Free Tracking Devices for Children with Autism

Mom with Son Wearing Backpack 1Last week, the Justice Department announced that it would promptly make funding available to provide free tracking devices for children with autism.  The devices will be provided to families with children who are at risk or have a history of, wandering and elopement.  U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder stated that the Department already has the funding needed to make this technology available.  Police departments have been given the green light to apply for funding; departments can use the funding awarded to pay for tracking devices to be allocated to families that want them.  This new plan is modeled after the federal program in place that supplies similar devices to families of those with Alzheimer’s disease.

The wandering and elopement of children with autism have gained much attention due to the tragic passing of Avonté Oquendo, a 14 years old teen who went missing in New York in mid-October.  So many across the nation had hoped and prayed for Avonté’s safe return to his family, including yours truly.  Avonté’s story shone a spotlight on the thousands of children with special needs who are reported missing each year in this country.

The numbers regarding those with disabilities who are reported missing are astounding.  In 2012, there were 30,269 individuals with disabilities who were reported missing, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (the FBI) National Crime Information Center (NCIC).  Of that figure, 3,570 were those under the age of 21, and 26,699 were those age 21 and older.  The number of children missing in 2012 was noticeably less than what was reported in 2011.  In 2011, 6,340 of those reported missing with a disability were under the age of 21.  If we were to combine those figures, almost 10,000 children with disabilities were missing within the past three years.

The focus on those with autism is dire because children with autism spectrum disorders have a higher risk of wandering and eloping than children with other special needs.  It has been noted that about half of children with autism will wander and elope; close to one-third of these children are nonverbal, and are unable to communicate their identities to someone if they are spotted.  Children with autism who wander from safe environments such as their homes or school grounds have a tendency to seek bodies of water or may have interests in active highways, trains, and the like.  Any of these predicaments or fascinations could cause the child to place her or himself in harm’s way while they attempt to “explore” these new surroundings.

The action taken by the Justice Department and U.S. Attorney General Holder is encouraging; the needs of people with disabilities, especially our children, are in the consciousness of those on the federal level.  This new technology has the potential to save the lives of our children, as well as others who may wander from their safe environments.

What are your thoughts about this new initiative?  Is your family one of many in this country who could benefit from using these tracking devices?  If you are currently utilizing a tracking device to keep your loved one(s) safe, what benefits or drawbacks of this technology have you experienced?  Share your thoughts and stories regarding this subject with me.

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of Digital Trends.) Resource Guides for People with Disabilities

Let’s start the new year by educating and informing ourselves of the invaluable resources that are available to people with disabilities in the United States., the federal government’s one-stop access website for disability-related resources, services, and information, has a plethora of guides that breaks down topics that matter those with disabilities, caregivers and families, and helping professionals who interact with this particular population. Logo 1With a new year comes new goals and dreams on how to improve one’s quality of life and livelihood.’s guides answer many of the most frequently asked questions surrounding how does one become eligible for disability benefits, where job training services are located in one’s community, as well as being informed about the housing assistance programs that those with disabilities can utilize.

The’s guide to disability benefits answers many burning questions about what is considered a “disability” by the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) criteria; the differences between SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) and SSI (Social Supplemental Income); what to do if your disability claim is denied; the programs that exist to assist people with disabilities who desire to return to work; and a host of other imperative subjects that matter to those who are seeking benefits.  From personal experience, it can feel as if you are on a wild goose chase when seeking such answers when it comes to learning about your benefits; has done the work for you by providing detailed information on obtaining and maintaining the benefits that you may qualify for.

The guide to employment broaches such matters regarding the online job searching tools that can be helpful in finding employment opportunities; the new job trend of telecommuting, or working from home; how one’s disability benefits may be affected once employed; the legal rights of a prospective employee with a disability; etc.  As the unemployment rate of people with disabilities rose to 12.3% in November 2013, and the labor force participation fell to 19.6%, the issues of seeking employment, sustaining employment, and figuring out how to keep one’s benefits (if possible) are undeniably on the consciousness of those with disabilities who want to earn a living.

The guide to housing provides details as to how to find an affordable place to live; what resources are available to make your living quarters accessible for your needs; advice on buying or renting a property; programs that can assist in paying rent; your housing rights as a person with a disability; and so forth.  Obtaining an apartment, home, or form of housing is an empowering moment for a person with a disability.  It means that you have a place and space to call your own, and this thrusts the door of independence wide open.’s getting help in your community guide has information about programs and organizations in your area that provide key services and support when it comes to health care, resources for families in need of temporary financial assistance, and receiving aid to pay home heating bills (which is greatly needed during this time of year).  This guide is especially useful for those who live in rural areas who may be unfamiliar with what is available to them outside of their town or county.  This particular guide can also come in handy for social workers and other helping professionals when trying to locate appropriate resources for the clients they serve.

These guides are just a few options offered by that are available with just a click of the mouse.  Review the “Guide Me” link to search for the information that pertains to your, or someone you know, specific needs.  2014 can be the year people with disabilities arm themselves with vital knowledge that will empower and enhance the well-being of their lives.  Are you familiar with similar resources or guides that people with disabilities can employ in 2014?  Share them with me, and I may feature your suggestion(s) in a future article on Social Work Helper.

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of Disability Blog.)

U.S. Airways Fined $1.2 Million in Failing to Provide Appropriate Assistance to Passengers with Disabilities

by Vilissa K. Thompson, LMSW

The U.S. Department of Transportation has fined U.S. Airways $1.2 million in its failure to provide appropriate assistance to passengers with disabilities.  This fine is the largest penalty ever issued by the Department regarding a disability case.

Disabled Airline PassengerThe Department of Transportation investigated over 300 complaints filed by passengers at the Philadelphia International Airport and the Charlotte Douglas International Airport (N.C.) that were reported in 2011 and 2012.

The issues of the complaints included the following:  long delays and frequent transfers when passengers utilized the airport’s electric carts and wheelchairs; passengers being left unattended on planes for more than 15 minutes after other passengers have been escorted off the plane; passengers being taken to the wrong gates; passengers missing their connections to other flights due to delays in receiving assistance to board planes; passengers being left unattended in terminals for more than 30 minutes; and a host of other gross violations endured by passengers with disabilities.

All air travelers deserve to be treated equally and with respect, and this includes persons in wheelchairs and other passengers with disabilities, said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.   We will continue to make sure that airlines comply with our rules and treat their passengers fairly.

(Quote from the Department of Transportation’s briefing)

Under the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 (ACAA), airlines are required to provide free and timely wheelchair assistance once requested by passengers with disabilities.  This assistance includes aiding passengers when moving between gates and making connections to other flights.  The Philadelphia and Charlotte airports were in clear violations of these provisions.

Here is break down of the $1.2 million fine:  $700,000 is to be paid to the government by U.S. Airways, $280,000 is to be used to improve service coordination to passengers with disabilities by hiring managers to oversee this process, $80,000 to be designated to create a telephone line for communication assistance for passengers, $75,000 is to be spent on purchasing tablets that will be used to monitor assistance requests made by passengers, $35,000 for the compensation of passengers, and $30,000 for computer programming updates so that boarding passes will distinguish passengers who will need assistance upon boarding planes.

Some of you may recall this this is not the first story involving airlines and accessibility violations I have reported for Social Work Helper.  In August 2013, I reported that Delta Airlines was being sued for alleged mistreatment of a disabled passenger.  It seems that the “friendly skies” are anything but for travelers with disabilities.  Airlines seem to be having a difficult time adhering to the federal policies regarding accommodations and accessibility that are clearly outlined by the government.  The action taken by the Department of Transportation in its fining U.S. Airways may be the wake-up call airlines need to be more willing to provide the appropriate services and assistance passengers with disabilities are expected to receive under the law.

If any of you have endured unacceptable conditions and/or witness such gross misconduct while flying, please share your stories with me by sending an email to, or by leaving a comment on my website.  I have recently written an article about travelling with a disability, and it amazes me when companies are not compliant in providing reasonable services to those with disabilities.  People with disabilities are on the move like never before; we should not be forced to slow down because there are companies that refuse to make accessibility a priority for ALL passengers.

(Featured headline image:  Courtesy of Clutch Magazine.)

Social Work White House Briefing Presentations Now Available

As previously reported, Council for Social Work Education joined with the White House Office of Public Engagement on September 25 in hosting the White House briefing “Addressing the Social Determinants of Health in a New Era: The Role of Social Work Education.”

Presentations from the event are now available. Follow the links below to access the presentations of a number of Obama administration officials:

White House Briefing
Aaron Bishop and Roslyn Holliday

Roslyn Holliday Moore, MS, Office of Behavioral Health Equity, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)

  • PowerPoint Slides (PDF) 

Aaron Bishop, MSSW, Deputy Commissioner, Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, Administration for Community Living, HHS

Data used for prepared remarks:

•         Visualizing Health Policy (Kaiser Family Foundation)

•         Americans With Disabilities 2010 (Census Bureau)

•         Census and Disability (Census Bureau)

The New Expectations of Health Care

Stephane Philogene, PhD, Associate Director, Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research, National Institutes of Health, HHS

  • PowerPoint Slides (PDF)

A National Dialogue on Mental Health

Brian Altman, JD, Legislative Director, and Paolo del Vecchio, MSW, Director, Center for Mental Health Services, SAMHSA, HHS

  • PowerPoint Slides (PDF)

Building Workforce Capacity to Meet the Need

Marcia K. Brand, PhD, Deputy Administrator, Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), HHS

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Source: Council for Social Work Education

Press Release: Social Work Helper Magazine was not involved in the creation of this content.

Reverse Discrimination When Housing Those with Disabilities

by Vilissa K. Thompson, LMSW

Is it possible for reverse discrimination to occur when housing those with disabilities?  The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) believes so as it proclaimed that the Apache ASL apartments in Tempe, Arizona needs to rent 75 percent of its apartment units to those without disabilities.  The apartment complex have been accused of discriminating against individuals who are not deaf, or have other forms of disabilities.  This charge has spearheaded outrage, especially since HUD funded $2.6 million to establish the project that would allow those with hearing impairments to acquire appropriate housing for their needs.

Example of a Videophone GadgetApache ASL apartments are a handful of housing facilities available in the United States that are specifically designed for those with hearing impairments.  Each apartment unit has the following accommodations:  wheelchair accessibility, blinking light sensors that activate when the doorbell rings and the garbage disposal is in use, and a videophone system that allows residents to connect and communicate with their friends and others.  From the wide range of accommodations made available to residents with hearing impairments and other forms of disabilities, Apache ASL apartments seem to be in heavy compliance with HUD’s Disability Rights in Private and Public Housing.  The following are the rights people with disabilities have under the Federal laws that focus on housing:

Prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities.  It is unlawful for a housing provider to refuse to rent or sell to a person simply because of a disability.

Requires housing providers to make reasonable accommodations for persons with disabilities.  A reasonable accommodation is a change in rules, policies, practices, or services so that a person with a disability will have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling unit or common space.

Requires housing providers to allow persons with disabilities to make reasonable modifications.  A reasonable modification is a structural modification that is made to allow persons with disabilities the full enjoyment of the housing and related facilities.

Requires that new covered multifamily housing be designed and constructed to be accessible.

(Excerpt from HUD’s Disability Rights on Housing webpage.)

It is needless to say that occupants of this apartment complex have taken ardent offense to the notion that too many people with disabilities live in the residential facility.  Some residents have voiced that apartment complexes such as Apache ASL apartments have made it possible for them to acquire housing that was created for those with disabilities.  Such accommodating housing units has furthered their abilities to be independent, and to live where they desire.

Is it possible for this apartment complex to be involved in reverse discrimination against those without disabilities?  Are such housing facilities designed for those with disabilities acts of reverse ableism?  Is HUD regressing in its efforts to ensure that people with disabilities are able to access appropriate housing without housing providers worrying about meeting a certain “quota” of resident with disabilities and those without?  What will this mean for future housing projects like Apache ASL apartments?  HUD’s decision to demand that this apartment complex meet certain requirements seems to open a new Pandora Box when it comes to the availability of housing options for those with disabilities.

I am interested in learning your reactions to HUD’s complaint, and the implications it could have on those who seek to have the same standard of living as their able-bodied counterparts that meet their specific needs.  Email me at with your thoughts and concerns regarding this story and HUD’s response.  

(Featured headline image:  Courtesy of The Guardian.)

Police Officers and Handling Individuals with Mental Illness

by Vilissa K. Thompson, LMSW

Are police officers adequately trained to handle disturbances that involve individuals with mental illnesses?  News networks and social media have recently covered stories where those with cognitive and psychological challenges have been victimized, and sadly, murdered, by the hands of those who are supposed to protect and serve our communities.

The most recent story I read involved the death of a 26 year old man with Down’s Syndrome that took place in Maryland earlier this year.  Several news outlets reported that Robert Saylor, the young victim, was apprehended by police officers when he tried to reenter the movie theater without a ticket to view the Osama bin Laden raid movie, “Zero Dark Thirty.”  Three Frederick County deputies who were moonlighting as mall-security officers dragged the 294-pounds Saylor out of the cinema in handcuffs and restraints.

Witnesses at the incident heard Saylor’s distress calls when he was being removed from the theater.  In the midst of restraining Saylor, the officers allegedly managed to fracture his larynx, which significantly disrupted his ability to breath properly.  When the officers realized that Saylor was having difficulty breathing, they released him from the handcuffs and called for emergency personnel to arrive on the scene.  Unfortunately, the medical assistance came too late for Saylor; he apparently suffocated from the manhandling of the police officers.

The surprising part of the story is that Robert Saylor was not alone when he was at the movie theater.  He was accompanied by a full-time aide who informed the police officers that Saylor would panic if they were to touch him.  Saylor’s parents has taken legal action by filing a lawsuit against the three police officers, the theater’s parent company, the cinema’s property manager, and Frederick County.  The lawsuit is filed under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

This story has created several conversations about the kind of training police officers and other law enforcement personnel receive to appropriately handle disturbances involving those with mental illness.  The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) created a comprehensive training curriculum in its partnership with the University of Memphis.  The Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) Program is a 40-hours curriculum established to train police officers about mental health.  So far, 45 states, including the District of Columbia, have implemented this kind of training program.

Though there is a high number of states that recognize the program, there is a disparity in the availability of the program within counties in these states.  Only one or two counties actually provide training to their officers for the entire state, in some cases.  What has led to this lack of distribution is the fact that the program is not mandatory. Financial barriers in offering adequate training to those who would benefit has also played a major role in the lack of availability of programs like CIT.

Police-in-trainingCases like Saylor’s cannot become the norm in how law enforcement officers handle incidences where those with mental illness or cognitive disabilities may pose a danger of harming themselves or others.  Without properly equipping police officers with the knowledge and understanding regarding how to appropriately assess and respond to situations where special considerations are needed to protect the well-being of all parties, more unnecessary use of strong force and unintentional deaths will continue.  How many more victims must there be before we realize that training our police officers should be a high priority so that they can effectively do their jobs in our communities?

If you are wondering if your state is one of the 45 that offers CIT and similar mental illness training programs to officers, please review the CIT map offered by the University of Memphis.  Once you have selected your state, you will see the counties highlighted that offers this special training to its officers.  For example, when I checked the availability of the CIT program in South Carolina, I found that only two counties out of 46 offered the program (Greenville and Spartanburg counties).  Needless to say, more counties and police departments need to be exposed to trainings that could greatly impact their ability to better serve their communities.

If you see that your county in your particular state does not offer this program to those in uniform, or if you live in one of the six states that do not offer the program at all, what are you prepared to do to urge community leaders and police departments to change this predicament?  If we do not demand that such programs become widespread, then how are we going to protect those in our communities who could fall victim to this kind of police brutality due to misinterpretation and stigmatization?  

(Featured headline image:  Courtesy of PostDesk.)

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