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"Triple Jeopardy: Disability, Race and Poverty in America"

May/June 1994 issue of Poverty & Race

by Patricia Kirkpatrick

The civil rights movement and the disability rights movement address many common issues. But the two movements have neglected each other. Organizations advocating for racial minorities, and the foundations supporting them, have all but ignored people with disabilities. Sim-ilarly, the disability rights movement has peen dominated by white activists and has drawn its support from a largely white constituency. Researchers and political scientists until recently have paid little or no attention to the correlation between race, disability and pov-erty. Nevertheless, the connections be-tween these three factors have important political, research, and public policy im-plications.

Approximately 43 million people in America have disabilities. However, the data thus far are incomplete regarding prevalence and distribution of specific kinds of disabilities among minority populations. The disability data from the 1990 Census are not yet fully available in a very useful form. Thus far, statistics show that 14.2% of the white population and 14.9% of the African-American pop-ulation have activity limitations due to disability. The life expectancy for Afri-can Americans is 69 years, versus 75 for white Americans. Because disability ,0,Strongly correlates with advancing years, disability rates for African Americans may rise as their life expectancy increases. Blacks under the age of 45 have higher incidence of tuberculosis, anemia and hypertension, compared to whites or other minority groups. Furthermore, African Americans have an 11% higher incidence of cancer.

The Correlates of Disability

People with disabilities have shock-ingly high unemployment rates, low levels of education, and high rates of poverty. An estimated 19% of disabled Americans live below the poverty line. The situation is doubtless considerably worse for those who are both disabled and a member of a racial or ethnic minority. Statistics in this area are not current or complete, but they indicate that as many as 66% of all working-age Americans with disabilities are unemployed. The major causes have to do with exclusionary practices and attitudes of employers, inaccessible work environments and inadequate levels of education. For disabled working-age blacks, 77.6% are unemployed. One in seven blacks (13.7%) report a work dis-ability rate, much higher than white (7.9%) or Hispanic (8.2%) populations.

Incomes of disabled African Amer-icans average $10,000 annually, com-pared with $13,300 for disabled Latinos and $16,600 for disabled whites. One cause of this disparity may be that the average disabled black adult does not have a high school education, and per-sons without a high school education are almost 2 1/2 times as likely to have functional limitations and almost 4 times as likely to have severe limitations, com-pared to high school graduates.

An interesting example of an overlap between disability and race occurs in the area of special education. A recent study by U.S. News and World Report, among others, indicates that black students are over-represented in special education classes, particularly in predominantly white school districts. Almost 1 in 4 special education students drops out of high school; 43% of those who graduate remain unemployed 3 to 5 years after high school, and nearly one third- - mostly those with learning and emotional disabilities - are arrested at least once after leaving school.

Department of Education data show that twice as many black as white stu-dents are classified as mentally retarded. Although mental retardation can be caused by poverty conditions (e.g., in-fants receiving poor prenatal and peri-natal care or consuming lead paint chips), the greater number of black children in special education cannot be explained solely by socioeconomic factors. Critics claim that culturally biased IQ tests are partially responsible for the vast numbers of black students labeled "mentally re-tarded" and placed in special classes. In some cases, disabled white students are given the less stigmatizing label of "learn-ing disabled" rather than "mental retard-ation," in order to gain access to better services in a less segregated learning environment. California is the only state where African-American students have a much higher proportion of kids classified as "learning disabled" versus "mentally retarded," undoubtedly a result of a lawsuit which barred California from using IQ tests to determine special educa-tion needs for blacks.

Disability is more common in children living in families with a single female--headed household than with two-parent households. Children with disabilities are more likely to be found in families with monthly incomes of $600 (4.5%) than in families where monthly income is $3,000 (2.6%), regardless of race.

People whose annual family incomes are below $10,000 and whose health is fair to poor are less likely to see a physician than those with higher in-comes. In addition, the same people have fewer short-stay hospital days than their higher-income counterparts. Among the black and American Indian populations, the number of AIDS cases (recognized as a disability under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act) has tripled between 1986 and 1989 for those 13 and older. For whites, Latinos and Asians, the increase was between 2.4 to 2.6 times. In New York City, the incidence of new cases of tuberculosis in 1986 was 130.4 per 100,000 and the premature birthrate was 20.5% of live births. These statistics have vast implications for disability-re-lated issues such as health care and loss of human potential.

Underreporting Minority Disability Rates

There are a variety of reasons to suspect that even higher rates of disability exist among racial minority populations than what is reported. Some contributing causes of disability which should be thor-oughly analyzed are:

To what extent does violence con-tribute to disability?

Are racial minorities engaged in work that is more likely to present health risks?

What impact do lower levels of educa-tion and income have on incidence of disability?

How do factors such as smoking, substance abuse and diet impact disability? , What are the differential cancer rates in African-American, Latino or other ethnic communities?

How does environmental pollution--toxic dumps, lead poisoning, air pollution--pause disabilities?

What are the causes of lower life expectancy in African Americans?

How many disabled African American war veterans are there and what kind of support is being provided?

How can better preventive health education and health care be made avail able to lower-income disabled indi-viduals?
Research, Public Policy and Political Implications

It is evident that considerably more research is needed into the correlation between race, disability and poverty. The information gap is not merely statistical. There has been virtually no sociological, psychological, economic or other search on the lives of men, women and children who are both disabled and members of minority groups. We need more information about situations in which people are facing dual discrimina-tion (racial minority status and disabled) or triple discrimination (racial minority, disabled, and female).

We need to examine how government programs and agencies can begin to deal with the crossovers between race, pov-erty and disability. We also need to question why many large philanthropic foundations refuse to consider disability as an area for funding. To take just one example, homelessness, a major current funding area, cannot be addressed in any sensible manner without recognizing that up to half of all homeless adults may have a physical or mental disability. In a broader context, we need to consider how race, poverty and disability impact public policy in other areas of social concern, such as education, medical care, attendant care, aging, nursing home and employment.

Racial minorities have rarely gotten deeply involved in the disability move-ment. Some of the reasons for this may be attributable to identity issues. People of color were struggling with their own needs relating to survival and acceptance in a largely racist society. Fighting for disability rights as a disabled black, Latino or Native American may have been perceived as shifting alliances and possibly facing double (or, if female, triple) discrimination. On the other hand, even after 25 years, the focus of disability groups is largely on personal assistance services, assistive technology and health insurance, not particularly on minority groups with disabilities and their specific needs. Greater examination, too, is needed of culturally based values and ideas regarding disability and how lack of self-acceptance and self-esteem in disabled men and women may impede critical coalition-building and involve-ment in disability rights policy issues.
Disabled racial minorities urgently need to have their perspective repre-sented in disability policy, in addition to providing positive role models in disability fields. At present, outreach efforts to ensure participation of minority groups in the disability move-ment are wholly inadequate. Established organizations representing minority groups must expand their mandate to include individuals with disabilities.

Disabled members of racial minority groups should demand involvement in all disability- and rehabilitation-related research. More centers for independent living need to be established where minority groups live. Advocates for racial minorities also need to become familiar with the legislation that protects persons with disabilities. For example, the newly implemented Americans with Disabilities Act and various related state statutes may offer powerful new weapons for lawyers and others representing seg-ments of the African-American, Latino, Asian American and other populations. Service providers also need to represent the racial community they serve and be adequately trained to assist with cultural--specific problems. For example, standard "independent living" concepts may need to be modified in order to harmonize with the cultural backgrounds of the clients being served.

The potential exists for a powerful alliance between traditional minority organizations and disability organiza-tions. That alliance will require efforts focused on the issues they share, financial support from the philanthropic com-munity, and expanded research into the overlap between poverty, race and dis-ability. Perhaps most important, it will require new leadership, sensitive to both disability and race, with a heightened awareness of the civil rights struggle they both share against the demons of dis-crimination, poverty and stereotyping.

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