Let’s Talk Disability: An Intro to Forming Partnerships and Recognizing Barriers

By Nathan Cunningham 

Get this: nearly 1 in 5 people living in the U.S. has a disability.[1] That’s a huge number adding up to more than 50 million people! In fact, many of your family members, friends, and neighbors could have disabilities, and you might not even realize it.

What this means is that people with disabilities, like me, have an important role to play in our communities, and youth with and without disabilities, like you, can do your part to make sure everyone has an equal opportunity to participate in school, work, and all other areas of life.

At this point, you may be thinking, “I don’t know much about disability or issues that affect people with disabilities.” That’s okay! It’s a great time to begin because October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, which is a yearly national campaign overseen by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP), where I work. Grassroots efforts have helped many people across the country become more aware of disability issues for the very first time. If you’d like to join in, here are a few tips on how to get started.

Form Partnerships that Include People with Disabilities

As youth, the perspectives you bring to the table are valuable. Recognizing your strengths and interests is an important strategy in connecting with others who can work towards a common goal. Forming partnerships between people of different ages or backgrounds, as well as people with and without disabilities, is an important way to start thinking about change that is positive and inclusive of everyone.

Nothing About Us Without Us

People with disabilities often use the slogan “Nothing About Us Without Us” to explain how changes in policy should not be decided without the full and direct inclusion at the decision-making table of members of the group(s) affected. In other words, youth looking to create positive change around disability issues should first and foremost seek to partner with disability organizations or other people with disabilities to make sure their voices are front and center.

With that in mind, let’s learn about some of the major issues facing people with disabilities today.

Recognize Barriers to Accessibility

If you’ve ever heard the word “accessibility,” you may know that it refers to how useable different types of things are for different people. In other words, information, objects, places, and programs are accessible if people can use them and inaccessible if they can’t.

Even though people with disabilities make up a large part of the population, they face daily barriers to accessing goods, services, and supports such as transportation and technology. Barriers come in three main forms: physical, attitudinal, and programmatic.

  • Physical barriers consist of inaccessible buildings and environments that prevent some people with disabilities from being in a space or location. Think of stairs with no adjacent ramp or elevator, a door that does not open automatically, or a shelf that is too high to reach.
  • Attitudinal barriers stem from misunderstanding, ignorance, or fear associated with disability.[2] These unfortunate opinions and behaviors can have a negative impact on opportunities available to people with disabilities looking to fully participate in their communities. Feeling sorry for people with disabilities, stereotyping them, or treating them as inferior are all examples of attitudinal barriers. Learn more by checking out this information from the National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth.
  • Programmatic barriers refer to how policies or technologies in a program or service can cause challenges for people with disabilities looking to participate. Consider how volunteer, work, or sporting groups might have hiring or training practices that exclude certain people because of the way they are set up or how they communicate information. Examples include computers without screen readers, presentations without American Sign Language interpretation, or meetings located somewhere inaccessible by public transit. Another example is when paid work experiences prevent some people with disabilities from keeping financial benefits or healthcare they need to maintain their physical and mental well-being.

What’s Next?

Now that you understand some of the barriers affecting people with disabilities, think about partnering with disability organizations in your community to eliminate these barriers and ensure that people with disabilities can fully participate in your schools, communities, and other institutions.

For some more information on how to put this knowledge into practice, check back soon for our next post!


Nathan is a Policy Advisor at the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, where he works on policy issues that affect all youth, including youth with disabilities, transitioning from education to adulthood and the world of work. Learn more about this work here.