Disability and the Persistence of Poverty in Detroit

Editor’s Note: Jaime Junior, is the chief operating officer of Warrior on Wheels for Metropolitan Detroit, a disability rights group. She is also a member of the Michigan Developmental Disabilities Council, an advisory group under the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. In this column, Junior explains the nexus between poverty and disability and why Detroit should have an Office of Disability Affairs. For submission inquiries contact Bankole Thompson, the editor-chief of The PuLSE Institute at info@thepulseinstitute.org.

By Jaime Junior

What is disability, and what does it look like? Many people presume to know the answer to this question based on decades of stereotyping and media misrepresentation. At its core, disability is any condition that makes it more difficult for a person to do certain activities or interact with the world around them. Disability looks like the human kind. It shows up in many different ways and can take various forms, from someone like me, for example, who was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy at three years old, uses a mobility device and has primary use of only one-hand, to someone living with mental and emotional health issues and addictions.  It can show up as an invisible disability such as diabetes, lupus, renal disease, and other types of chronic illnesses. It can also include someone involved in an accident and one who experiences undue hardship due to extenuating circumstances from conditions such as pregnancy and aging. Not to mention, they can be temporary, re-occurring or permanent.

The truth of the matter is that disability is a beautiful and natural part of the human condition and those of us affected by it are people- first. Unfortunately, more often than not, synonymous with disability is inequality and poverty- inequality or inequity, as I prefer to call it. Lack of access to affordable housing that accommodates one’s physical needs, untimely and hard-to-use public transit systems, and the inability to utilize on-demand transportation services like taxis and ridesharing services in many parts of the country further complicates the issue.

Community meetings and gathering spaces that are insensitive to differing cognitive ability and that don’t readily provide ASL (American Sign Language) without 1-week notice are not helpful either. The same can be said of businesses that are not designed to be universally accessible inside and out when people are underserved, under acknowledged and undervalued. Today’s language for such behavior is systemic marginalization. In fact, Douglas C. Baynton, in a piece titled Disability and the Justification of Inequality, states that, “Thus, while disabled people can be considered one of the minority groups historically assigned inferior status and subjected to discrimination, disability has functioned for all such groups as a sign of or rational for inferiority.” 

When considering the socioeconomic impact of disability, an important fact to note is the very reciprocal relationship that exists between disability and poverty. People in poverty are more likely to experience disability due to environmental dangers like unsafe drinking water, lead left in public housing, or inhaling dangerous fumes from manufacturing plants. Insufficient access to quality medical care and disparities in health due to language and/or cognition can lead to disability as well.

The National Disability Institute found that on average people with disabilities are almost two times more likely to have income less than $35,000 and that approximately 1 in 3 people with disabilities in America live in poverty. In many cases, this is because families experiencing disability, which can be more expensive, have to be impoverished to gain access to many social programs and services that provide economic relief and healthcare. Evidence of this relationship is made abundantly clearer when you consider that people with disabilities are almost twice as likely to skip medical treatments because of cost.

Further example of how people with disabilities are perpetually locked out and undervalued is section 14c of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which allows individuals with cognitive, intellectual and other developmental disabilities to be paid sub-minimum wage.

Additionally, the education system perpetuates the discrimination faced by individuals with disabilities. For instance, an educational program for a student requiring special/supportive education only provides a “Certificate of Attendance” after completing 20+ years of primary education, a message that reflects low expectations. On the other hand, one without the same barriers receives a high school diploma in addition to vocational training after only 12 years in virtually the same school system. Also, compounding the crisis is the job market awaiting individuals after completion of their education, which overinflates the necessity of this educational attainment, rather than emphasizing the skills acquisition and talent.

Another very real factor to consider is that often the environment in which people with disabilities live and the stigma that comes with disability can be even more disabling than the actual condition itself. Examples include lack of access to dependable para-transit to get to work on time, inability to attend a meeting because one cannot enter the building or, the meeting is on the 5th floor of a building with no working elevator.

In the City of Detroit, there are around 128,000 individuals with various disabilities, meaning people with disabilities account for roughly 19 % of the population, which Focus Group for Disabled Detroiters believes to be much higher. The City of Detroit has an obligation to serve its residents, workers and visitors with disabilities through a proactive approach with the understanding, expertise, and authority to champion a future where all PWD (People with Disabilities) thrive. We know that people with disabilities are falling through the cracks in Detroit and a one-stop office at the city would prevent this from happening.

It is for this reason and others that are far too numerous to mention that many in the disability community led collectively by Warriors on Wheels for Metropolitan Detroit, National Federation for the Blind, Detroit Disability Power and C4DJ ( Collective for Disability Justice) are lobbying Mayor Mike Duggan, City Council and the Charter Revision Commission to create and support The Office of Disability Affairs. This office must be led/staffed by people with disabilities and will both work internally with the various departments at the city as well as be forward facing, so that the public knows where and with whom to interface when we have problems or ideas for improvement.

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