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Addressing Disability and Age Discrimination: Fighting Judgment of the Outside with Compassion for the Inside

young woman pushging elderly woman in a wheelchair

Two dear friends recently told me how often they are accosted with inane remarks and mean tweets as one goes about her day in a wheelchair and the other walks down the street with his guide dog.

Seattle architect Karen Braitmayer described an incident when she was in an elevator with a stranger. He looked down at her as she sat in her wheelchair and demanded to know “What’s wrong with you?” Karen is a smart, capable, and accomplished woman.

Similarly, Peter Slatin, who has a consulting business and is an award-winning journalist based in NYC, is blind. He walks confidently with his loyal yellow lab or cane. He says he’s often told “You don’t look blind. You must be able to see something.”

These experiences are common place for my friends. They say some people comment—or tweet—whatever pops in their minds as they judge the outside of a person without knowing anything about the inside and what they experience.

I have had similar run-ins as I grow ‘wiser’—experiencing thoughtless comments about my age. As a senior City Councilmember, I witnessed increasingly negative attitudes during my tenure. I was surprised when one of my colleagues declared on camera that her opinion on birth control and funding health clinics was more incisive than the opinions of us older colleagues, who are all mothers and grandmothers.

Anger and violence exploded across our country this past year. People are rightfully infuriated because of systemic inequities arising from racism, sexism, heterosexism, and more. But we must all realize and name inequities arising from negative feelings about people who are aging or disabled. These inequities are intertwined with these other “isms,” causing disparate treatment.

As with any victim of discrimination, people with disabilities and people who are aging often feel robbed of a fair chance to live productive lives or to be their full true selves. Discrimination demeans with its claims of inferiority and pumps its perpetrators with false pride.

There’s good reason to acknowledge that both “ableism” and “ageism” must be addressed just as other forms of discrimination must be stopped. Sixty-nine million of us in the United States are over age 60; and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four adults—61 million of us—have a disability that impacts our daily living.

Disabilities show up in many forms. A genetic condition like muscular dystrophy can come on strong either early or later in life. Some disabilities such as depression result in loneliness, which is now recognized as a significant public health problem and a significant problem for lonely older adults. Some neurodiverse conditions such as ADHD and autism create less visible challenges and are often misunderstood. And the truth is that other conditions such as those arising from a sudden disabling accident are just one moment away for any of us or someone we love.

Similarly, for those of us lucky enough to be growing older, we may not walk as fast as we once did nor may we hear or see quite as clearly. We will inevitably confront opinions on “successful aging” and what we should or shouldn’t do. The term “successful aging” initially arose from a medical model and has unfortunately become part of our social norms. It comes with baggage: the assumption is we’re healthy or wealthy because we choose to be or we made smart investment decisions somewhere along the line. In other words, we made good choices about our health; hence, we are deserving of our abilities.

“Successful aging” was introduced as a concept in the 1997 publication of The Gerontologist by Dr. John Rowe, then-President of the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, and Robert Kahn, PhD at University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. They were one of the first to publish their medical research in academic journals defining ‘successful aging’ as avoidance of disease and disability, maintaining high levels of cognitive and physical health, and staying engaged in social and productive activities.

The primary problem with this definition is that ‘success’ under the medical model is rarely within our control. In contrast, many people with disabilities—like Karen and Peter—function well using assistive technology tools like a wheelchair or screen readers.

Gerontologists remind us we all face the social complexities of aging. Much of my work has focused on taking action now to help our future selves.

Some of these steps apply to any form of discrimination. First, we take a look at our own actions and check for hidden biases—are we annoyed that the woman in line ahead of us with a walker will slow us down or that the guy with a hearing aid asks us to speak up … again? Will we treat them as obstacles or ask if we can assist and see this situation as an opportunity to respect another human being and exercise our developing compassion?

Verifying our opinions about ableism and ageism as well as other “isms” can be an effective part of our approach to changing community norms.

Second, we’re making our communities more structurally welcoming for those who need support now and for our future selves by taking consistent political action. Specifically, many cities have followed AARP/World Health Organization’s recommendations and have received their “Age Friendly” designations. This means that local elected officials are committed to make their city accepting and accessible for all ages and abilities. They need to act on those promises.

Here’s one example of how cities are walking the walk: many cities require designers of new buildings and public spaces to apply Universal Design principles—the concept that makes these building and public spaces more flexible and easier to access for everyone. Incorporating Universal Design principles addresses mobility, cognition, hearing/vision needs on the front end; this does not cost appreciably more. A wider sidewalk with curb cuts makes mobility easier for the person using a walker as well as the young dad with a stroller and the eight-year-old riding her scooter. To pay for these accommodations, cities can demand additional block grants, private investments, and funding from the federal government.

Third, if we tap our under-tapped resources by including those previously overlooked, creativity sparks new ideas and leads to more equitable outcomes. Giving qualified architects like Karen Braitmayer and highly capable people like Peter Slatin a seat at the table for these conversations early assures that decisions are made based on lived experience, not assumptions.

Including the formerly excluded will make our communities better for all of us now and in the future. Avoiding mean tweets or inane remarks is merely a baseline but an important one. By respecting the needs of those who can use a little assistance now—and who doesn’t need assistance at some point?—and by learning from their lived experience and examples, we are creating respectful communities for our current and future selves. If the pandemic has taught us anything it is that we need each other every day.

Sally BagshawContributor Sally Bagshaw is a Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative Senior Fellow, former three-term Seattle City Councilmember, and Chief Civil Deputy for the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Sally is a lawyer, mediator, and advocate for government that functions responsibly.

This article originally appeared in the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative Social Impact Review on February 23, 2021.

Posted in Advocacy