ELIZABETH – As a longtime leader in the advocacy of equality for all citizens, Community Access Unlimited (CAU) recently hosted a conference at which internationally renowned social epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson discussed the impacts of inequality in a society. CAU provides support and services to people with disabilities, including advocating for their rights to access to housing, employment and social equality.
Wilkinson is co-author of “The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better,” along with follow social epidemiologist Kate Pickett. Social epidemiology is the science of the incidence, distribution and control of social disease in a population. Wilkinson and Pickett maintain that because humans are social animals, those living in highly unequal societies often suffer from a range of pathologies, or social ills, both at the bottom and the top.
At the conference, Wilkinson noted that the United States is second in the world in disparity between the nation’s wealthiest 20 percent and poorest 20 percent, behind only Singapore. He explained how his research indicates that more unequal societies – and more unequal states within the United States – experience higher rates of health and social problems; mental illness; drug use; infant mortality; obesity; high school drop out prevalence; teenage pregnancy; homicide; and imprisonment. Conversely, more equal societies and U.S. states experience better child health; longer life expectancy; higher educational scores; and more innovation.
“If you fail to avoid high inequality, you will need more prisons and more police,” Wilkinson and Pickett state in their book. “You will have to deal with higher rates of mental illness, drug abuse and every other kind of problem.”
Community Access Unlimited was the ideal host of the event, as the agency was founded in 1979 specifically to remove 20 adults with developmental disabilities from state institutions and place them successfully in the community. In the 31 years since, CAU has enabled more than 7,000 people with disabilities and at-risk youth to live independently or semi-independently, according to Sidney Blanchard, executive director.
“Equality in a society goes beyond access ramps and handicap-accessible workplaces,” Blanchard said. “Equality must start with and always return to respect, dignity and a sense of self-worth. That is at the core of everything we do at Community Access Unlimited, whether it involves housing, training in life skills and vocation, or recreation.”
Both Wilkinson and Blanchard, who provided the opening remarks at the equality conference, maintain that an unequal society can become more equal through awareness and advocacy. Wilkinson told the audience that those desiring a more equal society must communicate to government and business leaders and the public in general about the detrimental effects of inequality on a society. He maintained that achieving greater equality in the workplace, where most people spend the greatest amount of time, is one essential step.
“That’s one of the reasons we hosted this event,” Blanchard said. “Advocacy is a cornerstone of advancing the interests and protecting the rights of our members and is something both our members and staff do every day. We have to help people see not just the value of every citizen but also how disparity of wealth keeps so many people from reaching their full potential.”
The Why Equality is Better for Everyone conference was held at Kean University Friday, January 21, and was jointly sponsored by the board of trustees of CAU, the New Jersey Chapter of the national Association of Social Workers and Next Step, a national advocacy organization.
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