The International Day of People with Disabilities (IDPWD) is observed globally every year on December 3rd and is a day dedicated to promoting awareness, understanding, and support for the rights and well-being of people with disabilities. The day aims to foster inclusivity and celebrate the achievements and contributions of individuals with disabilities in all aspects of society.
The United Nations established this day in 1992 to promote the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities. Each year, there is a specific theme chosen to focus on different aspects of disability rights and inclusion.
This year the theme was ‘United in action to rescue and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for, with and by persons with disabilities’, and with each passing year I can see a greater social presence and awareness centred around this day.
The day serves as a reminder of the importance of removing barriers and creating an inclusive environment for people with disabilities. It also encourages discussions and actions aimed at improving accessibility, advocating for equal opportunities, and challenging societal stigmas associated with disabilities.
It’s important to note, that historically the barriers have been very real for people with disabilities, and of course, these barriers have not been fully eradicated yet. You only need to look to the findings from The Disability Royal Commission, which was published earlier this year to gain an appreciation for the current state of play for individuals with disabilities.
Of course, people with disabilities have been represented and had their stories told differently throughout the years. Jerry Lewis famously held The Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon, which aimed to raise funds for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Although it was heralded at the time, many people (particularly those in the disability community) have criticised it for its representation of disabled people. For many, it made us seem like pitiful objects of charity.
Another famous representation from the past, that aimed to take a more unflinching look at the struggles of people impacted by their disabilities was Geraldo Rivera’s expose, The Willowbrook Case. This was a 1972 broadcast that explored the class-action lawsuit against The State of New York on behalf of 5,000 residents of the Willowbrook State School. The suit was filed after much publicity was brought to the appalling conditions at Willowbrook. It was called a school, but in reality was an institution for people with chronic developmental and intellectual disabilities. Robert F Kennedy famously called it a “snake pit”.
The footage from Rivera’s news piece is deeply uncomfortable to watch, but I think it’s an important piece of history to learn from, and I encourage others to watch it.
Willowbrook was officially closed in 1987.
Today, many countries and organizations around the world hold events, workshops, seminars, and campaigns to mark this day, highlighting the achievements and challenges faced by people with disabilities. It's a crucial opportunity to raise awareness about disability issues and promote a more inclusive and accessible society for everyone.
Each year, when we celebrate International Day of People with Disabilities, let’s reflect on how far we have come.