Usually, when someone talks about marginalized communities, they are talking about a group that makes up a relatively small minority of the overall population. In the United States, some examples of marginalized groups that are relatively small might include Black Americans, who make up about 13% of the population, the LGBTQ+ community, who account for about 5% to 7%, and religious minorities such as Muslims, who total just over 1%. And it kind of makes sense that being marginalized often corresponds to being a minority, because people tend to discriminate against those they are unfamiliar with or perceive to be different. But there are some exceptions where marginalized groups are either majorities or very large minorities, yet still face marginalization and discrimination. One example of this is with disabled communities.  

Disabled people make up approximately 25% of all Americans, and for those over 65, that number jumps up to 40%. The rate of disability is similarly high for certain racial groups such as Native Americans (a little over 30%), individuals who are homeless (just under 40%), and other marginalized groups (for more information about demographics and disability, check out this article.

With this high statistic, it is likely that all of us know not just one disabled person, but several. So, if people with disabilities aren’t unfamiliar, and are, in fact, part of our communities, families, and friends groups, why are they so often discriminated against, their needs marginalized or ignored? My suspicion is that a large part comes from the fact that even though a considerable number of people are disabled, many of those disabilities are invisible to those who aren’t already aware. While there are plenty of people with very visible disabilities (e.g. those with cerebral palsy or those who have had an amputation), as much as 80% of those with a disability have a hidden one such as diabetes, dyslexia, or one of hundreds of others. Because so many different types of disabilities are not visible, it can be easier for nondisabled people to ignore the experiences and needs of their disabled community members and loved ones; not because nondisabled people don’t care about the struggles they face, but because those struggles aren’t obvious. 

That being said, this lack of understanding or awareness means that disabled people can face harsh discrimination as a result. Visibly disabled communities often face discrimination based on stereotypes about their disability and their perceived capabilities. This can mean denying disabled people opportunities and making assumptions about their health, or infantilizing these communities. For those with disabilities that are not obvious, there are fewer direct assumptions about capabilities, and those with hidden disabilities are less likely to receive direct, hostile discrimination. But they are also likely to be denied specialized care or services since others don’t know it’s needed or don’t believe disabled people about their own accommodation needs. This leads to situations where those with invisible disabilities must convince others about the validity of their accessibility requirements in order to get equal access to services, spaces, and treatments. For more information about different types of discrimination about disabled people, check out this article from Medical News Today.

So, if a lack of education and understanding of the needs of disabled people is part of what’s creating this discrimination, then one of the best things we can do to create equity and improve accessibility for disabled people is to learn more about their needs. And with International Day of Persons with Disabilities coming up on December 3rd, it’s a perfect time to learn more! This might mean learning more about a loved one’s disability, from the causes and effects on the body to the legal rights they might be entitled to. This might mean learning more about a disability you’ve never heard of, since this can give you a more well-rounded understanding of types of disabilities and the disabled community’s unique experiences and needs. Or this might mean learning about disability history and rights, from legal battles to advice for making your own spaces more accessible. I’m going to challenge myself to read more about disability this month by reading memoirs about those with disabilities I know nothing about. If you’re able, I’d encourage you to learn more in whatever way is meaningful to you! If you need help getting started, check out a title from this list.