United Ways, Disability Network partner for Disability Equity Challenge

Nearly half of Michigan residents with disabilities are struggling financially, according to a United Way report.

To help people better understand the challenges faced by those with disabilities, the United Ways in Michigan on Aug. 1 launched the 21-Day Disability Equity Challenge. The challenge is intended to help raise awareness of the financial and other disparities highlighted in the report.

In the United States, 27% of disabled adults live below the poverty line, compared to 12% of able-bodied adults, according to the US Census Bureau’s 2015 Community Survey.

West Michigan counties fare slightly better:

  • In Kalamazoo County, 19.5% of disabled adults have incomes at or below the poverty line, compared to 12% overall.
  • In Kent County, a little more than 18% of disabled adults live at or below the poverty line, compared to 11% overall.
  • In Ottawa County, those figures are 13% and 6.7% respectively.
  • In Muskegon County, 19.5% of disabled adults are at or below the poverty line, compared with 12.3% overall.

The 21-Day Disability Equity Challenge will take a deep dive into what people with disabilities are capable of accomplishing and spotlight the barriers that still obstruct their progress.

“One of the biggest barriers, I think, is an attitudinal barrier,” says Brad Hastings, advocacy and certified Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) coordinator for Disability Network West Michigan. “People are unsure how to respectfully interact with people with disabilities. It’s not a topic people may have engaged with on a very meaningful and in-depth level.”

Through Aug. 29, 14 United Ways across Michigan are partnering with local Centers for Independent Living to promote the challenge’s efforts.

On the Lakeshore, Disability Network West Michigan, Disability Network Lakeshore, The Arc Muskegon, The Arc of Allegan County, and Disability Advocates are promoting the challenge. People may sign up at

Those living in other counties may sign up at hwmuw.org/disability-challenge.

Daily informative messages

Participants will receive one email each weekday beginning Aug. 1 that features videos, articles, podcasts, and discussion questions that are intended to shed light on issues your neighbors, loved ones, and relatives with disabilities wish you knew more about.

Topics include ableism (discrimination against people with disabilities), the history of the disability justice movement, intersectionality (discrimination due to an individual’s social identity), language, accessibility, systemic inequalities for people with disabilities, allyship (those who advocate for the inclusion of a marginalized group of people), and disability pride. A discussion guide may be downloaded as well.

Additional subjects include what respectful disability language entails, job accommodations, income inequality, subminimum wage, education and marriage inequities, and disability pride.

The challenge was launched in conjunction with the latest installment of the ALICE in Focus Research Series from the Michigan Association of United Ways (MAUW) and research partner United For ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed). This report, which was released on July 26 on the 32nd anniversary of the passage of the ADA, will use data and analysis to spotlight the realities of people living with disabilities in Michigan.

Inequities the public doesn’t see

The challenge brings to light concerns and issues that are too often unknown to the public, says Dominique Bunker, community engagement director for United Way of the Lakeshore.

“This challenge brings to light a marginalized group of people that we overlook,” says Bunker. “Individuals living with disabilities come in all shapes and sizes and different disabilities. We tend to lump everything together and tend to think that it’s a very small group of people.”

Compounding the problems for people with disabilities was how life ground to a halt because of COVID-19.

“For a lot of folks who depend on public transportation and other services that were shut down for a while,” says Hastings, “they couldn’t make medical appointments or go to the grocery store. COVID had a disparate impact on people with disabilities.”

Ending the stigma

The challenge is an avenue for essential conversations.

“There are a lot of stigma words that we want to get into so we’re all speaking the same language and really start an understanding,” Bunker says. “There’s still even a language difference. Do we say folks living with disabilities? Is it a disabled person? Is it handicapped?

The Disability Equity Challenge is modeled after the 21-Day Race Equity Challenge developed by diversity experts Dr. Eddie Moore Jr., Debby Irving, and Dr. Marguerite Penick and adapted for the United Way network by United Way of Washtenaw County. The specific content in the 21-Day Disability Equity Challenge was developed by Disability Network Southwest Michigan.

The nation has come a long way since Franklin Roosevelt was president. He forbade photographers to snap pictures of him while he was in his wheelchair. Thanks in part to the ADA, concerns that people with disabilities are “less than” others have dissipated. Even so, there is a need for people with disabilities to be assured that their full potential is reached.

“There’s a huge stigma around having a disability because of preconceived notions about what someone with a disability can or can’t do, and that really varies from person to person,” Hastings says. “One of the major messages we try to promote is not to make assumptions about what people can and cannot do. They may need an accommodation to perform the functions of their job, but that does not mean they are unable to do it.”

Andrea Goodell contributed to this report.

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