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July 26, 2005

The past and future Act

I notice that today's New York Times "This Day In History" feature is about The CIA. "On July 26, 1947, President Truman signed the National Security Act, creating the Dept. of Defense....[and] the Central Intelligence Agency."


Yeah, and 15 years ago we got the Americans with Disabilities Act. I haven't seen where The New York Times has noticed that. Which, I might add, is typical.

My hobbyhorse of late has been how the Act has been so totally misunderstood. It was written as a civil rights law, and as such, it was supposed -- supposed -- to protect people from those who were discriminating on the basis of disability. Read that again. It was supposed to protect people from discrimination.

In fifteen years that's gotten totally flipped on its head, as the courts -- topped by our just-retired Sandy Supreme -- kept interpreting it much like a benefits law.

Are you "disabled enough" to be "allowed" to use the law?

That has always made me think about what would have happened had the Civil Rights Act been interpreted the way the ADA has. You'd have to prove you were "truly" a "racial minority" -- what percentage black? What percentage Hispanic?

The whole thing is ludicrous, or would be if it weren't so tragic in the effect it has had for the thousands of folks who really do face all sorts of disability discrimination and can't now do a thing about it, even though there's this Americans with Disabilities Act that we go around cheering.

Meanwhile, the folks who tell you "you're too disabled to drive a truck, you have high blood pressure" or "you can't operate a forklift, you have a history of heart disease" get home free, no questions asked. This law was supposed to be about bringing discriminators to heel; to make them accommodate people who they are discriminating against on the basis of disability. It's not supposed to be about who "deserves" to use it.

I am particularly frustrated by the numbers of folks who themselves have disabilities -- "real disabilities," is how they'd put it to me -- who are perfectly happy that the Ella Williamses of the world can't use the ADA.

A few of them have written to Ragged Edge in the last few days in response to my piece on John Roberts, now nominated to replace Sandy. He was the guy who shilled for Toyota and kept Ella Williams from being allowed to use the ADA. (Other letterwriters say we shouldn't be too quick to judge Rogers -- that, after all, he was just working for Toyota as their attorney. To which I say, "yeah, sure -- but note that he hasn't taken any cases for ADAPT.")

Here are some links that might shed some light on the rant I'm throwing at you today:

The Disabilities Act covers all of us, on Ragged Edge Online in 1999, after the Court's Sutton decision, and Harriet McBryde Johnson's "Reclaiming our civil rights", written back then as well.

Legal scholar Ruth Colker has a new book out looking at a lot of this, and Art Blaser has just reviewed it for Ragged Edge. Blaser's review gives a good overview of the problems, but if this really interests you, you should get her book. And while we're on shameless book plugs, you should also read mine, Make Them Go Away.

Probably the most exhaustive look at what has gone wrong with the ADA -- and what needs to be done to fix it, if it ever can be fixed -- is the series from the National Council on Disability, Righting The ADA, and it's free, accessible and online.
COMMENT-BODY:"Are you "disabled enough" to be "allowed" to use the law?"

Disabled is not something they can use metrics on! Or handle in a "line in the sand" sort of way.

But sadly, as you've said, it happens far too often.
COMMENT-BODY:And I believe that "are you X enough to qualify" is exactly the line that the feds take with American Indians and civil rights, treaty rights, etc. In terms of relative poverty, social invisibility as an ever-present minority, lack of national voice...hmmm, maybe the disabled "tribe" (as so many refer to others with whom they share affinity) should make common cause with another set of citizens with a long history of fighting for autonomy, sovereignty, and the dignity of their own past.

Posted by mjohnson at July 26, 2005 10:48 AM