Why the Rehabilitation Profession Needs Disability Studies

Vocational rehabilitation was created to serve the needs of men injured in combat in the first and second World Wars and to serve the needs of men injured in industrial accidents. Except for the remarkable efforts of the National Colored Women’s Association, which created job training and housing for African-American women in the late 19th Century, there has never been a vocational rehabilitation system created to meet the needs of women. Not all men had their needs met either. For example, African-American combat veterans were not given the same benefits as their white counterparts.

Although vocational rehabilitation as a profession challenged the medical model in that it posited disability as a barrier to employment rather than as the end of employment, it never really succeeded in its mission. Indeed, it took the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 to bring the epic levels of unemployment of people with disabilities to national attention. The ADA, of course, would never have surfaced without a Disability Rights Movement. Although vocational rehabilitation professionals were allies in the passage of the ADA, they cannot be recorded as the leaders, the innovators in the movement toward quality lives for people with disabilities.

Even within the rehabilitation profession, the fact that the Disability Rights Movement emerged roughly at about the same time as the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement is rarely recalled, or even known. People with disabilities were closing down federal buildings, creating independent living centers, and protesting on college campuses. When women and minorities did the same thing, all sorts of things happened in higher education. Services for minority and women students emerged in equal opportunity programs and centers. Africana, Hispanic, and Women’s Studies emerged as new academic disciplines. The question is what happened to the logical emergence of Disability Studies? Why didn’t it follow along with the rest of the revolutionary pressures of the 1960s and 1970s?

My hypothesis is that just as the potentially revolutionary aspects of vocational rehabilitation were subsumed by the medical establishment, vocational rehabilitation suppressed the emergence of a revolutionary disability rights movement. In the 1960s and 1970s, the federal government offered stipends to graduate students in rehabilitation counseling programs. This had the deceptively benign effect of grabbing off the best and brightest people with disabilities and engulfing them in the profession of vocational rehabilitation, a profession beholden to the medical/legal establishment.

The medical model creates disability as disaster, as something to be fixed – no matter the cost to the person involved – as a thing to be conquered. For this reason, vocational rehabilitation with its roots deeply embedded in workers’ compensation systems, state departments of rehabilitation services, Social Security, and the Veteran’s Administration can never be a force for change since there is too much to give up. Having persons with disabilities administer these programs gives them credibility and extends their longevity.

Without a Disability Rights Movement and Disability Studies in higher education, the experience of disability as seen through the lens of the person with the disability can never be understood or even explored. The person with the disability will always be seen as other and persons who happen to be women and/or members of a minority group will be further distanced as alien others.

And just as Women’s Studies is not the study of women’s reproductive organs, Disability Studies is not the study of medical/psychological/legal definitions of porno disability. Both subscribe to standpoint theory. That is, you cannot understand my experience unless you look at it from my point of view.

Finally, the rehabilitation profession needs Disability Studies to revitalize itself as a profession, as an academic discipline. Without Disability Studies, the field will never realize its potentially revolutionary power.

Home modifications: accessible spaces and facilities

The following sites are great for finding information about the
American Disability Act (ADA) guidelines for your home or business.
It is extremely important  and beneficial when constructing a home or
building, for measurements to meet ADA requirements,
especially when a family member or employee is disabled.  Keep in
mind that that all of the measurements given, are the “minimum”
required.  Doorway and hallway widths will vary depending upon the
size of the individual and/or the width  of their wheelchair.

Key things to remember:
• Entry and exits should be barrier-free (eliminate stairs, use ramps, and keep threshold heights at a minimum).
• When building a ramp, remember that for every inch of vertical height you need  to have a foot length in ramp (For example:  18 inches of height requires a ramp of  18 feet in length).  Ramps need to have level landings at the bottom and top of every ramp.  If a ramp exceeds 30 feet in length, a landing needs to be made at the bottom/top connecting to the remaining ramp length.
• Flooring in the home should be flat and smooth to ease mobility in a wheelchair (wood, tile, linoleum, and commercial are good suggestions).
• Hallways should be wide enough to allow an individual in a wheelchair to turn around with ease of needed.
HINT:  If it is not possible to make your entire home wheelchair accessible,
make the pathway between bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, family room,
and at least one entrance/exit into your home accessible.

Home modifications and family tips

This bathroom was built large enough to accommodate movement of a large wheelchair.
Lower towel racks and a roll-to sink make it much easier to use for an individual with disabilities.

Use a lawn chair in the shower or tub (with plastic webbing and arms) to assist caregiver with the person’s bathing.
Penny- Omaha, NE 19 year old multi-handicapped twin women

A pocket-door is helpful in the bathroom.
Donna P.- Omaha, NE 21 year old son with Cerebral Palsy

A shower seat that folds up against the wall is helpful for a bathroom that is shared with non-disabled person. (see picture “Fold out shower chair”)
Donna P.- Omaha, NE 21 year old son with Cerebral Palsy

Install a fiberglass shower stall that has the grab-bars molded into the wall rather than having to install grab-bars on one’s own.
Donna P.- Omaha, NE 21 year old son with Cerebral Palsy

Install a “governor” (a device that maintains a safe temperature range) onto the plumbing of your sink and shower to mix the hot and cold waters together to prevent injury. This will also help in curtailing injuries to the legs when a person “wheels” up to the sink and touches a too hot pipe.
Tom Q.- Omaha, NE 18 year old woman with Cerebral Palsy

Install a double showerhead unit into the shower to ease the person in self-bathing. Otherwise, use the single showerhead unit but with extension tubing and two holders placed at different heights.
Tom Q.- Omaha, NE 18 year old woman with Cerebral Palsy

This bathroom was built large enough to accommodate movement of a large wheelchair.
Lower towel racks and a roll-to sink make it much easier to use for an individual with disabilities.
A wheelchair friendly bedroom is set up with ample room to maneuver around.
The room is set up so that everything can be accessed from the middle of the room.

The window seat in the rear provides a great place to go when the person wants to take a break from their wheelchair.

Use egg crate foam on top of mattresses to soften the bed and allow for pressure relief.
Penny- Omaha, NE 19 year old multi-handicapped twin woman

Place glow-in-the-dark stars or other objects on the ceiling or walls for nighttime stimulation when the person cannot sleep.
Penny- Omaha, NE 19 year old multi-handicapped twin women

Place pictures or posters on the ceiling of person’s room for visual stimulation while lying in bed.
Penny- Omaha, NE 19 year old multi-handicapped twin women

Add a grab bar inside the closet (i.e. using PVC pipe secured onto two 2×4’s on the door frame) for the person to hold onto while pulling clothes off the hanger. Using PVC pipe will allow the bar to “grow” in height/length as the person grows.
Tom Q.- Omaha, NE 18 year old woman with Cerebral Palsy

Many times those of us who are not in wheelchairs do not recognize the many things we take for granted.
This photo illustrates how special arrangements were made to lower the windows so the person with disabilities could see out of the window, too.

Notice the hand controls (crank) for the window are at the bottom of the window where the person can reach them.

Providing a person with control over their environment is an important aspect of empowerment.

Use egg crate foam on top of mattresses to soften the bed and allow for pressure relief.
Penny- Omaha, NE 19 year old multi-handicapped twin women

Place glow-in-the-dark stars or other objects on the ceiling or walls for nighttime stimulation when the person cannot sleep.
Penny- Omaha, NE 19 year old multi-handicapped twin women

Place or posters on the ceiling of person’s room for visual stimulation while lying in bed.
Penny- Omaha, NE 19 year old multi-handicapped twin women

Add a grab bar inside the closet (i.e. using PVC pipe secured onto two 2×4’s on the door frame) for the person to hold onto while pulling clothes off the hanger. Using PVC pipe will allow the bar to “grow” in height/length as the person grows.
Tom Q.- Omaha, NE 18 year old woman with Cerebral Palsy