Yesterday I discovered an unsettling but not unsurprising study about adults with disabilities. A survey of about 800 siblings of adults with disabilities reveals that about 13% of disabled adults have nothing to do with their time–no job, no educational activity, and no form of recreation.
Now, numbers can be misleading and our brains are trained to interpret data in a certain way. So if your first reaction to this information was to say, “13%? That’s not so bad!” then I don’t fault you. To be honest, that was my first impulse too.
However, 13% of 800 is 104 people. That’s a significant number. If the percentage holds true across the board (and it probably doesn’t–given the demographic of the siblings surveyed, the percentage is most likely a lot higher), then here’s the breakdown:
- There are 6.2 to 7.5 million people with cognitive disabilities in the United States, so:
- There are 800,600 to 975,000 disabled adults just sitting around all day, unenriched, unfulfilled, and most likely quite depressed.
Again, I’d wager to guess that the numbers are even more dire than these findings reveal. The siblings who were surveyed were wealthier and more educated than the general population as a whole, meaning they’re more likely to have the means to find outlets for their disabled loved ones.
But even having the means won’t do a damn thing if the outlets don’t exist in the first place. My parents are pitch-perfect examples of people who provide their disabled daughter with a happy, fulfilling life–but even they worry about what Martha is going to do with her time when she graduates from the Transition House (part of her local special education program–instead of going to school all day, she goes to a house for disabled students up to the age of 21 that teaches basic life skills). Although Martha is happy and social and would be a wonderful asset to any organization, her cognitive abilities are such that even Goodwill can’t offer her a job. Finding recreational, social, and educational opportunities for disabled adults is a full-time job (usually falling to parents or other family members) that takes tenacity and creativity.
I see this as a fundamental human rights issue. The Declaration of Independence’s “right to the pursuit of happiness” is one of the most influential phrases in U.S. history. Anyone who has ever felt isolated or bored can tell you that an absence of meaning and purpose is one of the most horrible, defeating, and depressing feelings in the world. But our society is simply not set up in a way that allows many disabled adults to pursue happiness.
There is a disabled man who sits in front of my apartment complex’s mailboxes all day, every day. He is always there unless it’s too hot or too cold, at which point I imagine he sits in his apartment. You’d be amazed at the degree to which he lights up every time I’m out walking my dog; I always say hi to him and ask if he wants to pet the dog. I’ve never seen anyone else in my apartment complex speak to him.
Widespread change is going to take a lot of effort; in the meantime, if you pass a person like that man every day, just have a conversation with him. It could be the most stimulating thing he does all day.