Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Census and Americans With Disabilities

The U.S. Census Bureau has released a report which recounts important and thought-provoking information regarding the millions of Americans who are currently living with disabilities. (The report can be downloaded as a pdf file here).

The report, based on the most recent census data available, reveals that 54.4 million Americans (18.7 % of the population) are currently classified as disabled, and 35 million (12%) of Americans qualify as severely disabled. Both percentages have risen since the last census, and the numbers are most likely expected to rise again in subsequent studies of a significantly aging American population.

In terms of needing assistance with Activities of Daily Living (ADLs) or Instrumental Activities of Daily Living (IADLs), 11 million people (4.1 % of the population) over the age of 6 need assistance with such activities. When examining sensory impairments, 7.8 million people are not able to hear a normal conversation, 1 million are unable to hear at all, 7.8 million people cannot read normal newspaper print, and 1.8 million report not being able to see whatsoever.

When assessing mental, cognitive or emotional function, 16 million Americans are apparently affected, with approximately 8.4 million of those individuals reporting that their condition can prohibit or limit their ability to perform any number of ADLs or IADLs.

Economically speaking, 27% of disabled Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 reportedly live in poverty, compared to 9% who are not disabled in any way. For people with a severe disability, median monthly income was $1,458, whereas it was $2,250 for those with a non-severe disability and $2,539 for those with no disability at all.

In children, 13% (4.7 million) aged 6 to 14 are disabled, the most common difficulty being the completion of schoolwork.

As an individual living with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, a condition recognized and protected by The Americans with Disabilities Act, I am---as usual---disappointed that environmental illnesses (including MCS and Gulf War Syndrome) have once again been left out of the data. While it is true that individuals with environmentally- or chemically-induced illnesses do indeed experience cognitive, emotional and physical disabilities as effects of their condition, it would be monumentally helpful for studies as relatively exhaustive as the U.S. Census to allow for some extrapolation of data vis-a-vis this constellation of woefully overlooked conditions. And while individuals with MCS and related conditions do not necessarily use wheelchairs, canes, and walkers, we do use oxygen, protective masks and other devices in order to function in the face of our condition. Perhaps, some day, these illnesses will receive their due, and be formally included in such reviews of the disabled and chronically ill.

That said, I am still impressed with the breadth and scope of the census data. The economic disparities reveal what most of us already know: that Americans with disabilities are astronomically more likely to live in poverty than their non-disabled counterparts. It is also extremely helpful and revealing to glean such minute detail about the day to day struggles of the disabled in this country. Regardless of my disappointment about the irksome ignorance of so many about environmental and chemical disabilities (a wrong I am determined to somehow right), this census data is a quantum leap forward and should provide grist for many in the disability rights arena.

The disabled are a large portion of the American voting public, and a vocal percentage of the American disabled are socially progressive and politically active. I hope that the data collected, collated, extrapolated and published by the Census Bureau will be used in ways that greatly benefit the subjects of this study, and that the voices of those who work for disability rights are heard loud and clear by the hopeful new administration assuming power in just under a month. The lives of poverty-stricken disabled Americans deserve to be brought out into the open, and the census data make clear that we still have a long way to go. Be that as it may, our government is indeed paying attention to the disabled members of the population, and for that I am excessively grateful.
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