From 1970 to 2016, What Has Changed for Persons with Disabilities?

The Perspectives of an Arlington Human Rights Commissioner

Picture by Miguel Mndoza – creative commons

As a former teacher of special needs children, I am especially conscious of the barriers that prevented my students from full participation in the life of their communities. Some of those barriers were physical, but many were rooted in the misconceptions of the general public, their uneasiness with other-abled people, or their simple lack of awareness as to the needs of that particular population.

I was made shockingly aware of these psychological barriers when one of my students – a lovely, kind 5th grader with a moderate case of cerebral palsy – told me about something that had happened to her while she was out shopping with her mother. While the mothers were occupied with making their purchases, another child came over to play with her. Seeing her child with my student, the mother called to him, “Get away from her. She’s contaminated!” My student told me this story with a mixture of hurt and incredulity. I was infuriated that a grownup who should have known better could have been so cruel and ignorant.

“Get away from her. She’s contaminated!”

I believe that in the past several decades since that incident occurred the general public has become more aware of the needs of people like my student, primarily through implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. As cities such as Boston have improved accessibility to public transportation, government buildings, and public places in general, other-able people are more visible in those public places as well as in offices, schools, and entertainment venues. Visibility has raised awareness, as have educational efforts in schools and in some children’s programs such as Sesame Street. I believe that children like my student are far less likely today to experience the insults that she was subjected to in 1970, although the need for education and, at times, legal redress continues.

Much more needs to be done to make our country

more just and inclusive.

As news reports frequently point out, racism, sexism, anti-gay and lesbian incidents, ageism, the criminalization of homelessness, and other insulting or bullying acts against minority communities are still common occurrences in our society at large. Much more needs to be done to make our country more just and inclusive. In contrast, there is much support for diversity and equal treatment for all in Arlington. I feel privileged, as an Arlington Human Rights Commissioner, to participate in work that maintains and expands that support so that no one in our community will be denied his or her God-given human rights because of gender, sexual preference, ethnicity, religion, age, or physical limitations.


Ghanda Di Figlia


GhandaDiFigliaGhanda Di Figlia is the former Department Administrator in the Philosophy Department at Harvard University.  Prior to that, she worked for church-based non-profits and as a teacher of special needs children.  She moved to Arlington in 2011 and has been an Arlington Human Rights Commissioner for nearly 3 years.

The mission of the Arlington Human Rights Commission is to make our town an even more welcoming and safe place for people of color, LGBT people, and members of other minorities by educating about human rights issues and supporting legal measures aimed at protecting and extending those rights for all in Arlington. For more information about current openings at the Arlington Human Right Commission, visit the AHRC’s page on the Town website.


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