By Deborah Walters
The USA has come on leaps and bounds in the past century when it comes to the treatment of people living with disabilities. As the National Parks Service rightly outlines, this wasn’t always the case; treatment prior to 1962, treatments for disabilities were often inhumane and derisive, treating those living with disabilities as incapable of making their own decisions. With changes in civil and legal views of how people should be treated, this situation has, fortunately, rapidly changed. While more needs to be done, and there is one final frontier that truly needs to be broached by society-at-large, a long distance has already been covered.
Disability has, in the past, been treated as something where those impacted are victims that are unable to make proper decisions in regard to their care. This is, of course, not the case, but that view has persisted until fairly recently. A 2005 study showed that young adults perceived children with cerebral palsy in a negative light compared to their peers, showing that positive interventions were needed to help build awareness of the condition. Things have improved in the past decade, however, and there’s now a lot more reason to be cheerful about attitudes towards disability, and what that does for wider societal values and facilities.
Studies have shown a general improvement in the US towards people diagnosed with a disability - especially in children. A 2021 study published in the Heliyon journal outlines how increasing numbers of young people surveyed take a more progressive view towards disability, although there remains a significant gap. One interesting angle seen is that more people take physical disability with more empathy than other, ‘hidden’ disabilities. That reveals something crucial about the US and its history with disability, and the final frontier in disability acceptance - hidden disabilities, and mental health.
Mental health stigma, along with the stigma associated with other conditions that primarily impact cognition and psychological health, is endemic in the US. According to McKinsey, 37% of people impacted by mental health conditions do not want people to find out about it, and 52% of those with substance abuse issues specifically. Mental health is poorly understood and often denigrated by the wider public in the USA, and tackling stigmatization in this regard will help to bridge the final gap in disability acceptance. It has been shown that people are willing, able, and even happy to be empathetic to the challenges faced by those living with physical, or ‘obvious’ disabilities. Less care is shown for those that are challenged by their own disabilities in ways that aren’t immediately seen by their peers and the public.
Breaking down this barrier will do an enormous amount of good for the happiness and health of people living with disabilities everywhere. Anxiety and depression, along with other mental health conditions, are frequently experienced alongside more commonly recognized disabilities. Fixing one problem by having people provide that empathy opens the door to wider acceptance and support.