Disabled People
From Grolier's The New Book of Knowledge

A disability is a permanent condition that makes it difficult for a person to do something important in everyday life. People who have such conditions are said to be disabled. For example, people who are deaf cannot hear; they have difficulty in understanding what other people say. People who are blind have difficulty in seeing the world around them and in reading print. Physically disabled people have difficulty in moving about. Mentally retarded people are limited in their ability to learn abstract ideas. Emotionally disturbed people have difficulty controlling their emotions.

All disabled people have abilities, however. They can and do use these abilities to get educations, perform meaningful jobs, support families, and contribute to their communities. Often disabled people use aids and devices that help them overcome their disabilities.

This was not always the case. In prehistoric times, small groups of people lived off the land. They hunted and foraged for food wherever they could find it. In these groups, disabled infants and adults were often left behind because they could not help the group obtain food. In the Middle Ages, people thought that disabilities were caused by some evil spirit. The fear of that demon made people afraid of disabled persons.

Today we know that disabilities have specific causes. Because we know this, we can work to prevent disabilities from occurring. Medical advances may someday eliminate many of the most common limitations. Meanwhile, machines--including computers--can do many of the things for disabled people that they are physically restricted from doing. These steps are helping disabled people live more meaningful lives. And these people can look forward to the day when they will no longer be considered disabled.

Kinds of Disabilities

At least 27,000,000 people in the United States are disabled. That is one out of every nine people. This figure includes about 4,000,000 school-age children; 13,000,000 working-age adults; and 10,000,000 people over the age of 65.

Sensory impairments (damage to one or more of the senses) are the most common disabilities. If you have ever played "Blind Man's Buff" or tried to understand someone talking through a glass window, you may have a sense of what it is like to be blind or deaf. Blindness and deafness occur most often among people who are in their 60's or older. But in some cases, children are born blind or deaf. Younger people may also become blind or deaf through accidents and illnesses.

Blindness is defined as 20/200 vision. That is, a blind person can see at 20 feet (6 meters) a letter on a chart that a normally sighted person can see at ten times that distance. Deafness is the inability to understand speech with the eyes closed. Many people who are not blind or deaf nevertheless have limited abilities to see or to hear. These people often benefit from hearing aids and eyeglasses. Very few people (about 10,000 in the United States) are both deaf and blind.

Physical disabilities usually occur because of accidents or illnesses. Traffic accidents are a major cause of such disabilities. Illnesses such as poliomyelitis, spinal meningitis, and measles can also lead to physical impairments. But modern medical treatments have greatly reduced this risk. Occasionally people are born with physical disabilities. Such impairments are known as congenital disabilities.

Mental retardation is most often present from birth. It may result from genetic (hereditary) factors, an illness the mother had before the baby was born, or birth complications. There are other conditions that are related to the brain as well. Epilepsy is a condition in which electrical activity in the brain cells can lead to short periods of unconsciousness. Learning disabilities restrict people from doing certain mental tasks. People with the learning disability called dyslexia, for example, have difficulty learning to read.

Emotional disabilities include mild emotional disturbance and more serious mental illnesses, such as psychosis. The cause of many of these impairments is not known. There is much to learn about how the brain works and why it sometimes fails to work properly.


Almost every disabled person can be helped. The whole process of helping the disabled make the most of their abilities is called rehabilitation.

Often the first step is medical and surgical treatment. For example, a short, twisted leg may be straightened and even lengthened by transplanting bone from another part of the body. Surgical steps that were unknown just a few years ago are helping many disabled people. Surgeons can now replace parts of the eye or ear, restoring vision and hearing. A technique called microsurgery allows doctors to replace severed limbs. It is also possible to implant in the body special aids, such as artificial joints, that help people walk again.

Even when normal abilities cannot be restored surgically, much can be done to let the disabled person lead a more meaningful life. Aids and devices such as braces, artificial limbs, wheelchairs, and crutches help physically disabled people move about. Other aids help deaf people--hearing aids and special telephone devices called TDD's (Telecommunications Devices for the Deaf) that let people make phone calls without hearing. Blind people are helped by tape recorders, raised letters on signs, and Braille (a coded "alphabet" of raised dots). There are even "talking" computers that can read out loud. With such devices, disabled people can complete their educations.

Education is an important part of rehabilitation. People who are deaf, for example, are taught to read lips and to use sign language. People who are retarded can be taught step-by-step to do things that were once thought impossible for them. Psychotherapy, medication, behavior modification, and diets may help emotionally disturbed people function more normally. Today many disabled children attend regular public schools. When they complete their educations, some enroll in vocational programs that help them learn how to perform meaningful jobs.


Thirty years ago it was rare for severely disabled people to have full-time jobs. Today many disabled people support themselves and their families.

In years past, deaf people applying for jobs were told, "You can't use the telephone, so we can't hire you." Today deaf people can show that, with the help of TDD's, they can use the telephone as well as anyone. Blind people were once told, "You can't keep up with the paperwork." Today blind people can use computers to read anything. Physically disabled people were once denied jobs because employers believed they could not get to the workplace. Today motorized wheelchairs, buses equipped with special lifts, and other devices help these people get from their homes to their jobs. Some even work from home, writing with computers and sending the information they produce to their employers over telephone lines. With education, job training, and modern technology, disabled individuals can do almost any job their abilities and interests lead them to try. In fact, it is becoming difficult to identify jobs that disabled people cannot do.


Despite all this progress, the fact remains that most disabled people do not have full-time jobs. There are still barriers that keep them from obtaining employment.

The most obvious barriers are physical ones. Some of the new aids and devices are expensive--a financial barrier. Not every blind person, for example, can afford a talking computer. Physical barriers include flights of stairs, curbs, doorways too narrow to permit a wheelchair to pass. People are removing these barriers slowly. As new buildings replace older ones, they are designed to be free of barriers. But it is expensive to remove existing barriers, and for this reason the process is a slow one. So it is still true that many physically disabled people have difficulty getting to and from work.

Less obvious are attitude barriers. There are still many employers and school administrators who do not believe that disabled people can perform jobs or attend classes. This attitude is as forbidding a barrier as a solid wall, and it stops many disabled people from supporting themselves. When more people learn to look at what disabled people can do, rather than what they cannot do, more disabled people will be helped.


In the United States a number of government agencies provide services for disabled people. They include the Department of Education, the Veterans Administration, and the Department of Labor. Within the Department of Education, the Office of Special Education Programs helps disabled children and young people receive a free, appropriate public education. The Rehabilitation Services Administration, also in the Education Department, coordinates job-training programs for disabled people, young and old. Disabled veterans receive vocational training and helpful devices through the Veterans Administration. The Department of Labor enforces federal laws that forbid discrimination in employment on the basis of disability.

Disabled citizens who cannot support themselves can receive financial help from the U.S. government. Aid for such people is available from the Department of Health and Human Services. There are three programs--Social Security, Disability Insurance, and Supplemental Security Income. They provide cash payments for living and medical expenses to disabled people who do not work full-time.

Important services are also offered by private organizations. The National Easter Seals Society, the National Association for Retarded Citizens, and Goodwill Industries are some of the private sources of assistance for disabled people. There are many other private groups that play an important role in helping people with disabilities.

The Need Now

With advances in medical treatment, people are living longer, but often with disabilities. It is becoming very expensive to care for these people through government programs. Our best bet is to help them help themselves. We must continue to make medical and surgical advances. It is important that we remove as many physical barriers as we can. Perhaps most important, we must alter our attitudes about disabilities.

People with disabilities are people with abilities. They must be helped to use the skills they have to overcome their limitations.

Frank Bowe
Author, Handicapping America

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