Part 2: Defining and Defying: Discrimination of the Developmentally Disabled

Yesterday, I wrote about three babies in our Down syndrome community, all the same age as our daughter, Lyra, who died in the same week. One of the deaths sparked many national discussions on the issue of organ transplantation and whether or not people with disabilities are equitably placed on transplant lists. While touching on the issues of soft bigotry, I want to follow up and dig a little deeper on the issue of discrimination against the developmentally disabled. Though it is illegal to discriminate against a person with a developmental disability, it is undeniable that discrimination still occurs, which should come as no surprise. Ask any person of color if the illegality of racial discrimination has provided him or her with a life of equal treatment.

Discriminating against a specified group of people is to deny that they are fully human. To have those who make important decisions—medical professionals, law enforcement officials, teachers, employers, politicians, to name a few—deem a population as lesser human inevitably results in unequal access to medical care, justice, education, jobs and protection under the law as provided to those groups who are considered fully human.

A friend reminded me this morning of the American civil rights heroine, Ruby Bridges:

Ruby Bridges, a brave little African-American girl, entered an all-white school on November 14, 1960.

As soon as Bridges entered the school, white parents pulled their own children out; teachers refused to teach while a black child was enrolled.

Only one person agreed to teach Ruby and that was Barbara Henry, from Boston, Massachusetts, and for over a year Mrs. Henry taught her alone, “as if she were teaching a whole class.”

Every morning, as Bridges walked to school, one woman would threaten to poison her; because of this, the U.S. Marshals dispatched by President Eisenhower, who were overseeing her safety, only allowed Ruby to eat food that she brought from home.

Another woman at the school put a black baby doll in a wooden coffin and protested with it outside the school, a sight that Bridges said “scared me more than the nasty things people screamed at us.”

Though it was over 50 years ago, the openly vicious hatred of a little girl simply for the color of her skin doesn’t seem so long ago (perhaps because I was born only five years later). Yet today, who would question that this was unmitigated racism or that clearly Ruby was not seen as an equal human being in the eyes of many of the white citizens of her town? And  while there are those who still believe that black children should not attend schools with white children, they are not likely to stand screaming about it on the curbside with casketed effigies of black children.

No, today discrimination is subtle, which, in some ways makes it more pernicious than what Ruby Bridges faced. For one thing, it’s harder to identify and easier for the perpetrators of discrimination to genuinely believe they are not biased against a particular group of people. Such is clearly the case with developmentally disabled Americans in need of an organ transplant. As pointed out in this article (published in 2004), in light of the Americans with Disabilities Act becoming law in 1990, developmentally disabled Americans have “moved from automatic exclusion to selective inclusion” in organ transplantation, often meeting many barriers along the way that organ transplant candidates without developmental disabilities do not face. The methods are so subtle as to be unrecognizable even by the perpetrators themselves:

There is certainly a sense…that these negative attitudes often have as much to do with not being as energetic in treating people with disabilities as it does with being actively resistant to treating them. People have been and are the victims of both benign neglect and active denial of treatment. Many respondents have been told that surgery or transplantation was just not offered to people with disabilities.

So why are some medical professionals less energetic in treating people with developmental disabilities? In many articles I have read, patients and their families report being told by their medical professionals that persons with developmental disabilities are not capable of following the intensive post-transplant care regiments or that they do not physically handle transplant surgery as well as the typical population, yet the very opposite is true.

Maybe it is obvious, but the question needs to be asked: Why are people with developmental disabilities discriminated against, which by definition means that significant (and often powerful) members of society do not see the developmentally disabled as fully human? Personally, I believe exaggerated value is placed upon one component of being fully human—cognitive ability. That people with greater levels of intelligence are considered more valuable to society and their lives worth saving more so than the lives of the developmentally disabled. Never mind that the range of cognitive abilities in people with Down syndrome is wide, never mind that any threshold of intelligence is never a predictor of a productive life. And by productive, I mean many things beyond economics, for while it is true that more and more adults with Down syndrome are entering the workforce, there is immeasurable value in how one person affects the lives of so many others.

Which brings me back to the three little ones who died in the past seven days. Their lives have touched countless people. Perhaps those of us who have had intense discussions about organ transplant policies this week will carry on the work of defeating the discrimination against those with developmental disabilities so that instead of “selective inclusion” there will be equal access to organ transplants. I sure hope so.

However, if discrimination were removed entirely from the scene, people with disabilities would still have a problem getting life saving transplants because there are not enough organs.

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