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The threat to disability rights in post-Roe America

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Sammi The threat to disability rights in post-Roe America

By Sammi Lawrence
Legal Fellow
Freedom From Religion Foundation

Disability rights are a state/church issue.

While America’s conscience has not consistently recognized this, there are clear ties between the Christian nationalist ideology that pervades legislation and the ongoing reality of stagnant and inadequate disability rights laws. The dangerous theocratic Christian ideology that led to Roe v. Wade being overturned is the same ideology that continues to play a part in the oppression of the 61 million disabled adults across the United States. This ideology has guided both harmful disability rights policy and the dismantling of abortion rights. To put it simply, if you care about disability rights, then you also care about the separation of state and church.

Ever since Roe v. Wade was overturned, the issue of bodily autonomy has remained at the forefront of people’s minds. Bodily autonomy is the simple concept that individuals should have the right to control what does and does not happen to their bodies. The Christian worldview is often one in which an individual’s bodily autonomy is subject to debate and compromise whenever that autonomy conflicts in any way with Christian ideology. Too often, the individual whose bodily autonomy is up for discussion is not even invited to the debate, let alone given a seat at the metaphorical table. Those who are anti-choice view a person’s body, typically a woman’s body, as the conduit for something “greater,” a vessel that is subject to a god’s will, whether that will be an unwanted pregnancy or a disability.

Disabled Americans have made strides, in fits and starts, toward equality. The same year Roe was initially decided, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was enacted. Section 504 prohibits discrimination against disabled people in programs receiving federal financial assistance. However, Section 504 was not enforced until 1977, when a group of over 100 disabled activists staged a sit-in in San Francisco’s local offices of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. The sit-in lasted over a week, leading to the department finally implementing Section 504.

In 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) was enacted. This was the first time that disabled children were able and entitled to access public education. Prior to the act, disabled children were left out of the public school system.

Over a decade later, in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was finally passed. The ADA remains one of the most comprehensive civil rights laws ever passed, modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It prohibits discrimination against disabled people and attempts to ensure that the disabled have the same opportunities as anyone else. More than 30 years later, it remains, in many ways, the touchstone of disability law in the United States, despite the fact that 30 years of hindsight make it plain that the ADA was only the start, not the finish line. The inadequacies of current disability rights were and continue to be highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Despite legal pushes toward equality, societal views toward disability continue to oppress disabled Americans. The dismissive, harmful and often infantilizing views that many in the United States hold toward the disabled and disability are primarily rooted in Christianity.

One of the earliest models of disability within Western societies grew out of Christianity and the Catholic Church, and became more prominent beginning in the High Middle Ages (roughly 1100 C.E. to 1400 C.E.). In this context, I use the word “model” to refer to a lens through which a society views disability. This model, which I’ll call the Christian model of disability, preaches two inconsistent views on disability and the disabled.

The first is that disability is a punishment from God or exists as a means through which God may display his alleged greatness. To provide but a few examples:

“And the Lord said unto him, Who hath made man’s mouth? or who maketh the dumb, or deaf, or the seeing, or the blind? Have not I the Lord?” (Exodus 4:11)

“Also every sickness, and every plague, which is not written in the book of this law, then will the Lord bring upon thee, until thou be destroyed.” (Deuteronomy 29:1)

And, my personal favorite, in the book of John, Jesus heals a blind man who was born blind for no other purpose than so Jesus could heal him later: “As [Jesus] went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9) The disabled person is viewed as morally inferior, as a living warning against disobedience or a walking advertisement for God’s mercy.

This viewpoint is reflected in Christians who insist upon praying for disabled people’s disabilities to go away. Many, if not most, disabled people will at some point have the awkward and condescending experience of some well-meaning Christian wanting to pray to God on their behalf to ask God to “cure” or “fix” their disability.  I’ve had this unpleasant experience several times in my life, and each time it has taken a significant amount of self-control to not laugh in people’s faces.  Of course, beyond being creepy and insulting, the idea that praying to a god can cure a disability is irrational. Disabilities are the result of myriad factors, but none of those factors is supernatural. Praying to a deity is not going to suddenly “cure” blindness, autism, bipolar disorder, paralysis or any other disability. Additionally, it’s incredibly dehumanizing and belittling to assume that all disabled people want their disabilities “cured.” For many disabled individuals, they view their disability as an integral part of their identity and not as something that needs to be “fixed.”

The second view perpetuated by the Christian model posits that disabled people are somehow more pious than the non-disabled. Disabled people are charity cases, martyrs, lack sexual or romantic desires and exist as a walking symbol of purity. Disabled people, likewise, serve as a means for non-disabled people to grow and become better people via taking on the burden of befriending or caring for the disabled person. Unfortunately, these harmful stereotypes persist in contemporary American society.

The Christian Model and both its conflicting viewpoints directly influenced the development of and continuing prevalence of the Medical Model of disability. The Medical Model asserts that disability is always “bad.” It is an abnormality that must be fixed or cured. Under this model, health care professionals, and authority figures generally,  hold the exclusive power to cure, fix or accommodate a disability. Disabled people are told that they do not know what is best for themselves, that their input in their own treatment, accommodations and life choices are unnecessary and unpersuasive, and that they should be content with the choices that are made for them. The Medical Model is so pervasive that it invades nearly every aspect of life for disabled Americans, including the workplace and education.

Even while attending law school as a fully functioning, mentally capable 26 year old, I, along with other disabled students, were repeatedly told that our input on our own accommodations was not persuasive or necessary. Despite being capable of getting accepted to law school, we were still viewed largely as children who did not know what was best for ourselves or what we needed. Authority figures within the institution did not take our complaints seriously, despite evidence of how online learning and the Covid-19 pandemic were negatively impacting disabled students, and acted as though we were incapable of forming legitimate opinions about our own needs.

This infantilization of the disabled extends directly to bodily autonomy. As a result of the Christian and Medical models continuing to pervade society, bodily autonomy is a privilege that disabled people may be deprived of in whole or in part at any time throughout their lives, even as adults, even if they do not have any or significantly diminished mental capacity. Unfortunately, the Medical Model has been the prevailing disability model for decades now and has heavily influenced the ADA.

In contrast, contemporary disability advocates reject the Medical Model in favor of viewing disability as something that is neither morally good nor bad. Disability is simply one facet of an individual’s identity and a key component of how they socialize with the world. The disabled individual should, to the greatest extent possible, be in charge of their own life and medical decisions and be granted the same bodily autonomy that any other non-disabled person would be granted.

Of course, in a post-Roe world, disabled people capable of becoming pregnant are now at an even greater disadvantage. Already, disabled Americans are being forced to carry unwanted pregnancies, being denied access to medication they need, and continue to be discriminated against by health care professionals.

As a recent NBC News article highlighted:

“‘I think one of the reasons that disabled people are not centered in these conversations, even though we should be, is that typically disabled people are desexualized,’ said Maria Town, president and CEO of the American Association of People With Disabilities (AAPD). ‘We are not seen as sexual beings. In fact, the assumption is that we just don’t have sex, when, in reality, disabled people do have sex. We need and deserve accessible, affordable reproductive and informed reproductive health care, and that includes abortion.

“‘Even after years of highlighting the longstanding lack of access to reproductive care, people with disabilities are still less likely to have health care providers and routine check-ups, and are more likely to have unmet health care needs because of the cost, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Access to reproductive services is even slimmer.'”

The progress that disability rights advocates have made socially and legally in the past 50 years is not necessarily permanent, nor is it even adequate. Dobbs serves as a wake-up call for the disability rights movement. The same Christian theocratic rhetoric that fuels the anti-choice movement and Christian nationalism is already being used to halt and reverse progress. The fight for a society that views disabled people as full, competent, worthwhile human beings who are capable of participating in society and deserving of bodily autonomy and other basic human rights is now more important than ever.

Sammi Lawrence joined FFRF as the Anne Nicol Gaylor Legal Fellow in June 2022. Sammi graduated magna cum laude from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in 2017. She first worked for FFRF as a legal intern while attending law school at the University of Wisconsin. She graduated with her Juris Doctor from UW-Law in May 2022.

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