Not all disabilities are created equal

Posted on August 3, 2010

On July 26th, there was a celebration at the White House to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the passing of the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA), which for the first time protected the rights of people with physical and mental disabilities, and prohibited discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, public services and public accommodations

For those of you who don’t know, I am legally blind.  While I don’t consider myself disabled in the full sense of the word, I can get accommodations under the ADA.  However, since my handicap is physical it does not have nearly the stigma as mental illness.

As a matter of fact, I would venture to guess that many people don’t know that people with mental illness are covered under the ADA.  Working at Virginia Supportive Housing has taught me that people with mental illness are discriminated against in housing and employment more often than physically disabled people and many times their disability is far more debilitating.  People with serious mental illness often become homeless because of their disability and have a very difficult time getting into and staying in permanent housing.  It is estimated that nationally 20 to 25% of individuals experiencing homelessness have a serous mental illness.

At VSH, we are successful at helping people with mental illness obtain and maintain permanent housing because of the clinical nature of the services we provide.  We have seen many people whose lives have been transformed through patient and consistent services that are available to them, in some cases 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Last week, I was especially heartened to see that Nathanial Ayers performed in front of President Obama at the commemoration of the ADA.  I was glad to see that Mr. Ayers was still doing well.  Mr. Ayers is a musician who was homeless for many years due to his mental illness.  He was befriended by Steve Lopez, a journalist with the Los Angeles Times who wrote a book, The Soloist, that eventually became a movie.  Mr. Lopez and a nonprofit supportive housing provider took the time to work with Mr. Ayers and get him into permanent housing where he is living with his disability with respect and dignity.  Another success story!

But there are still a lot of people out there who are disabled due to mental illness who still need compassion, respect and a place to live.  I hope all of us continue to work hard to make sure that persons with mental illness are afforded the same opportunities and rights that Mr. Ayers received so that in 20 years when we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the ADA there are many more success stories.

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