Kanye West's recent demand that every member of the audience stand up during his show in Sydney, Australia showed a fundamental lack of understanding about the world in which we live. Kanye took it a step further by literally shining a light on two members of the audience who remained seated due to their disabilities. Kanye demanded confirmation that they were indeed disabled thereby singling them out. At this point, Kanye went from showing a lack of understanding to being downright offensive. However, Kanye's actions should come as no surprise because the world of disabilities remains largely hidden from the mainstream. Due to this, most Americans don't think to consider the quality of life for individuals with disabilities in America.
Many Americans do not realize that an estimated 1 percent of the world's population uses a wheelchair. That is 1 out of every 100 people. There are approximately 2.6 million wheelchair users in the United States alone. Despite these large numbers, how many people using wheelchairs do you see on the street? In your workplace? At a sporting event? Unless you live in a metropolitan area, chances are the number is very small. That's because, even with significant advances in accessibility thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act, most Americans with disabilities remain on the sidelines.
For example, 8 out of every 10 Americans with disabilities remains unemployed. Barriers to employment include everything from lack of accessible transportation (subways, buses, taxis) to discriminatory hiring practices. Recently, the Obama Administration implemented a new regulation designed to change these employment numbers, when they set a 7 percent hiring target for people with disabilities by federal contractors. Since 22 percent of the American workforce is employed by federal contractors, this new rule has the power to transform employment outcomes for people with disabilities. Cities across the country, including New York and Washington D.C., are beginning to require accessible taxi cabs, which means more and more people with disabilities can get to and from work and other activities.
These and other initiatives will transform the landscape for people with disabilities. However, the power of one or two people to transform the dialogue should never be underestimated. People with disabilities don't ask to be singled out. They do however ask to be treated fairly and have access to the same opportunities as any other American. My hope is that Kanye, everyone who attended his concert, and anyone paying attention to this story in the media, learned a little bit more about what it means to be a person with a disability in the modern age and uses their voice to help people with disabilities get off the sideline.