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Wheaton Final Project

Erasmus's picture

Riley Wheaton

            The central question here tackled is, what are the benefits and costs of folks with disabilities being counted in the US census.  There’s one coming up in 2020 and time is running short for us to make up our minds.  The science of statistics was born wrapped up in the ideology of eugenics and there are some still reluctant to trust state sponsored statistical analysis for fear it will be misused.  This fear is understandable.  However, today the science of statistics is being approached more conscientiously than at many times in our history, and it is poised to be a relevant and important tool to the disabled community in the United States at a critical juncture.

            Disability historian Lennard Davis writes of the origins of the field of statistics in his disability studies reader.  He notes that statistics seemed to develop out of, or parallel with, the development of some noted eugenic thinkers, among them Sir Frnaces Galton (Davis, Disability Studies Reader 3).  Academic consensus has not been reached on whether the science of statistics inherently bends toward the discipline of eugenics, containing in it some germ of the unwholesome science, or whether it was merely made ill use of by the eugenicists of the day.  One important fact to bear in mind when considering whether the sins to which statistical science was put are inherent or contrived is that Galton and his compatriots lived at the same time as Charles Darwin, whose theories were quite the talk of the day.  Eugenics was bound to be somewhat ascendant after Darwin’s seemingly similar seminal text was published.  For a time, perhaps eugenicists would have had their way with the new science whether or no it bent that way internally.  Today we see more hopeful applications for the art and science of statistics.

            Today, the most institutionalized form of official statistical measurement comes out of the United States census bureau.  The census bureau is responsible, by constitutional mandate, to count every citizen of the United States once every ten years.  Beyond this person by person enumeration, the bureau also does sampling studies following their decennial censuses.  These far reaching explorations of the composition of the states are used to, among other uses, redistribute representatives to the US house of representatives.  These statistical tools are used to determine the balance of apportioned political power in the country, a weighty responsibility for a former eugenicist science.  Additionally, census data is used to apportion federal funding.  For an answer to the question “how much do social security recipients need in the state of Minnesota” we turn to the census.  Federal grants are apportioned based on census data of how many people live where in need of which kinds of services.  The census is a massive undertaking and accounts for the apportionment of more than $600 billion each year.  However, quite apart from its decennial census, the bureau also conducts other sorts of surveys like the Survey of Income and Program Participation, which specifically focuses on analyzing the effectiveness of government programs and the composition of its beneficiaries.  This program investigates disability closely (United States Census Bureau).

            Yes, today government sanctioned statistics which would once have defined folks with disabilities as deviant and a threat to the gene pool have to investigate disability, and that means they have to find some definitions.  If you’re thinking “oh no.  Government bureaucrats trying to understand the culture and complexity of disability.  This is not going to go well” you may be in for something of a pleasant surprise.  The following is a quote from the census bureau’s introductory page on disability “Today, the social model of disability supports a definition as the result of a complex interaction between a person. and his or her environment. The same person with leg paralysis may be considered to have a disability due to their physical impairment as well as the barriers in the environment that prevent full social participation” (United States Census Bureau).  Our governmental system of statistics is recognizing and propagating the social model of disability.  This is a great step forward.

            The bureau’s more specific definitions also give some heart.  The bureau’s American Community Survey (a long form survey which is sent to a sampling of Americans in the years following the decennial census) outlines six categories of disability: sensory, physical, mental, self-care, go-outside-home, and employment.  Each of these six categories is described in terms of tasks which are more difficult for individuals with each manner of disability.  The reason I would argue that this is a heartening mode of description is that focusing on task difficulty is in line with the social model.  The kinds of tasks we value define and create disability, so focusing on those tasks makes a great deal of sense.  Secondly, it shifts the conversation around disability away from imbuing individuals with indelible and seemingly all encompassing definitions.  While discussion is rife and complex on this issue, I find it heartening to see that I would be described not as a “blind person” in the bureau’s statistics, but rather a person with a sensory disability (specifically a vision impairment).

            We should take heart that the most significant governmental statistical organization in the country is keeping up with the times as there has never been a more important time for individuals with disabilities to be considered.  The bureau estimated in 2016 that 12.5% of the population of the United States have a disability.  Lennard Davis once described disabled Americans as the largest marginalized group in the country.  The disability community today has over $200 billion in annual buying power, yet it still faces significant challenges.  A full 73.5% of folks with disabilities are not in the labor force compared with only 29.1% of those without disabilities (United States Census Bureau).  There is no more important time to be taking account of Americans with disabilities as the community experiences great visibility combined with great challenge.  As candidates for high office like Hillary Clinton are once again making appeals to the surprisingly bipartisan disability electorate opportunities exist for disability to reclaim the national conversation in a fashion it has not since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities act (Davis, Enabling Acts).

            Despite some heartening signals from the census bureau that there are individuals there eager to move with the times, it can be difficult to forget the unpleasant uses to which statistics have been put in the sphere of disability.  Earlier this year controversy arose when the US Justice Department asked the census bureau to include a question inquiring about the citizenship status of respondents, hoping to get a sense for how many undocumented individuals might live in given areas.  This question was roundly denounced for two reasons.  The first reason was that it might justifiably cause respondents fear if they felt compelled to tell the administration of Donald Trump their citizenship status.  This follows on explicit comments about rounding up undocumented folks and finding some way to figure out who they are.  There’s an extremely well documented history of explicit threat here.  Therefore, the second concern comes into play, that individuals would fail to answer and the census would be less representative and less correct as it might be missing significant numbers of respondents.  When I look at the questions the census asks about disability, I see neither the potential for exploitation absent the same kind of extended litany of threat and insinuation, along with the low likelihood that census data could be used this way.  Second, I don’t see the questions in the census now as reducing the likelihood of respondents actually responding.  Therefore, in this time when disability rights has more opportunity and import than any time in the last twenty five years, it’s vitally important that folks with disabilities step forward to be counted.  The first step to addressing the problems facing the disability community in society is recognizing them, and whatever its history the science of statistics is here to help in that effort.


Works Cited

United States Census Bureau.  United States Department of Commerce.  2018.  Accessed 18 May 2018

Davis, Lennard.  Enabling Acts: The Hidden Story of How the Americans with Disabilities Act Gave the Largest US Minority Its Rights.  New York, Beacon Press, 2015

Davis, Lennard.  The Disability Studies Reader.  New York, Routledge, 2017.