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Read Liberals and Disability Rights, Part 1

"The fact that society doesn't see our rights as civil rights is our fault," writes Fred Shotz. Read Shotz's and others' letters.



Liberals and disability rights, Part 2
Read Liberals and Disability Rights, Part 1

By Mary Johnson

"It wasn't just one person carrying me up the stairs. It would take one person behind me and one person in front, and many times another person telling the person behind me when to step up." Tennessee court reporter Beverly Jones is a plaintiff in the suit which the Supreme Court heard on January 13. She, George Lane and four others sued their state under the Americans with Disabilities Act because they couldn't get into their courthouse -- unless they were carried.

"Year after year," Jones said, "the same situation would occur." She simply got tired, she said, of being on "public display." The Supreme Court Five seemed singularly unimpressed with her attorney's argument, that the inability to get into a courthouse without asking to be carried involved "fundamental rights of citizenship." What was wrong with having to be carried up the steps, Chief Justice Rehnquist asked. That didn't mean a person was being denied anything, he said.

The whole debate irritated Justice Antonin Scalia: "It depends on what's meant by discrimination," he insisted. Being "turned away because there is no elevator is not a constitutional violation.

"An inaccessible voting place means nothing at all," he went on. "It merely means the state didn't go out of its way to accommodate the handicapped." States "may not have made it easy for handicaps [sic] to vote," he went on, but that was no reason for Congress to subject states to lawsuits. Nor was it a constitutional violation to deny public education to disabled children, he added in an aside.

As outraged as liberals may be by the states' rights mantra of the current Court, we might privately agree with Scalia and Rehnquist that the denials of justice disabled people say they face are not on a par with the real denials of equal rights African Americans faced. We may concede that disabled people's lives are difficult, says leftist Marta Russell, author of Beyond Ramps: Disability at the End of the Social Contract, but many of us don't believe "disability is an oppression that belongs on a theoretical par with race, gender or class." We "don't see basic underlying institutional relations at work when it comes to disablement."

Progressives have marched for civil rights, women's rights. We've taken up gay, lesbian and transgender issues. We speak out to oppose the death penalty. We publicly denounce rollbacks in environmental protections. But disability rights remains on the fringes of our consciousness. We are "oddly reluctant to see disability rights as part of a program of egalitarian civil rights," says Michael Bérubé, author of the 1996 bestseller Life As We Know it, about raising his disabled son Jamie. He says it's "weird" that liberals "see disability as a simple question of deficiency rather than stigma, and thus somehow different from race and gender."

Perhaps the disability rights movement is still too small, says Russell. Leftists who have disabilities do not force their ideological peers to take on the issues. Or perhaps we believe that disability rights are laudable but cost more than society can afford; that they provide treatment. to a tiny group at the expense of the rest of us. These arguments were made by right-wing interests throughout the 90s and have formed most of what has passed for public discussion about disability rights. The majority on the Supreme Court seem to believe them.

Our wrists hurt from typing on flat keyboards; we put the TV on "mute" when it gets too noisy in the bar, so we can follow the action by reading the captions; we slip into the "handicap stall" at the airport because it's big enough to accommodate us and our rollbag and computer bag safely. Yet we don't protest against the conventional wisdom that says the disabled cause problems by wanting "special treatment' at work for repetitive stress injuries; or by suing for accessible public restrooms, or by pressing for more television captioning.

Perhaps we're in denial, suggests Bérubé, for sooner or later, it's likely either we, or someone in our family, will find ourselves thought of as "disabled" in some situation or another. We will encounter stigma. We'll be excluded, shut out by a barrier that is illegal under disability rights law but exists because the law's never enforced.

Sooner or later, we will likely need some accommodation. Whether the accommodation is considered something "special" "for the handicapped" or something entirely normal depends mostly on whether society considers the item something for everyone -- like electric garage-door openers -- or "for the handicapped" -- like a house with a ramp.

Rehnquist walks around the courtroom during oral arguments because his bad back hurts, but he does not see this as an accommodation he is able to make to his disability because he is, after all, a Chief Justice. He does not consider that someone with a bad back who can't sit at a desk all day without pain might have a right as well to an accommodation-such as a different chair.

"Though we are conditioned to think otherwise, human beings do not really exist in two sharply distinct groups of 'people with disabilities' and 'people without disabilities,'" said a 1985 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report, Accommodating the Spectrum of Individual Abilities. Disability is "a natural part of the human condition resulting from that spectrum -- and will touch most of us at one time or another in our lives." That report paved the way to the creation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The law was intended to present a set of new ideas for people -- that equality means, in fact, that sometimes people have to be treated differently, given different accommodations, in order to achieve equal rights. The real goal of the disability rights movement in the U.S. is to provide equal opportunities for all Americans -- not to identify individuals who are entitled to some kind of special treatment.

But we are conditioned to think in terms of "us," normal folks, and "them" the disabled. We are taught that what needs to be done for "the disabled" is to help them get themselves "fixed" -- through medical intervention, or, if they can't be cured, then to help them adjust, as Ruth O'Brien points out in her book Crippled Justice. This medical-model view prevents the disability rights vision from taking hold. And as long as people do not understand the disability rights vision, they do not try very hard to understand the morality of access and accommodation, either.

No large grocery or hotel chain, no home-and-garden supply center would consider designing an entrance without automatic doors. They are standard in hotels and discount stores. Not, of course, for the people who literally can not open doors by themselves-such people are "the disabled"-them, not us. Hotel, grocery and building supply store operators fight regulations that require they accommodate "the disabled." Automatic doors that go in without complains are meant for us, the fit, the nondisabled, to ensure that we will continue to shop at the grocery or building supply center; to make it easy for us to get our grocery carts out, our lumber dollies to our truck loaded with Sheetrock for the weekend project. So the bellhops can get the luggage in and out of the hotel easily. When an accommodation is for "them," it is resisted; when it is for "us," however, it is seen as a design improvement.

Is it better for society to carve off "them," labeling people as "disabled" -- in order to certify them for special benefits or to tell them they are not able to work in our factories, as the Supreme Court Justices seem to want to do -- or better to see them as, simply, part of us? To take the latter view requires that we go beyond the liberal directives of merely including the "less fortunate" in our society, for that is the charity model.

The disability rights model takes a different direction, offering a way of ensuring that we ourselves will remain included in our families, our neighborhoods, our communities, when we become one of those "less fortunate" persons by acquiring ALS, having a stroke or bearing a child with a disability.

We should view disability rights in the same way we view the push for environmental regulation in order to protect our biosphere, our plants and animals, and our own ecological futures. Disability rights is more akin to environmental rights than anything else.We fight logging in the Amazon rain forest not just to preserve the diversity there, but to stabilize the world climate for all of us. We fight for people in nursing homes to have the option of living in the community, because winning that battle will insure that we too will have that option when we need it.

We should make the drive for access our own, never holding a meeting, scheduling a concert, setting up an office or store in an inaccessible building. Besides being illegal, it's immoral. Inaccessible courthouses shouldn't be just George Lane's and Beverly Jones's problem; they should be our problem -- a public problem. We should never create or approve an inaccessible website; accessible websites are easy to create; they work for everyone. Let's pass local laws requiring basic "visitability" access in all new homes.

Disability rights issues could redefine the women's movement, says feminist Ingrid Tischer. "The battles are huge. They include access to affordable healthcare, long-term community-based care and living wages for the workers (a largely female population) who provide personal assistance." Winning these battles would help both disabled people and women.

"I hope that eventually leftists will become aware of the exploitation involved in restrictive government programs like nursing homes," says the University of Hawaii's Ron Amundson. Medicaid, by law, pays for care only in nursing homes -- even when people want to stay at home and get care, and even when that's cheaper: that's because nursing home operators get Medicaid dollars for every "bed" they fill. Their lobby blocks any change in Medicaid law.
"Assisted suicide and 'right to die' issues are a matter of personal choice" -- that's the initial reaction of groups working for healthcare reform, says Diane Coleman.  Coleman heads Not Dead Yet, a national organization that fights against legalizing assisted suicide  "Why do we 'respect' the suicidal wishes of disabled people, yet treat the same wishes of nondisabled people as cries for help?" asks New Mobility magazine's Barry Corbet. "What we confront usually isn't homicidal hate, it's that pervasive assumption that our lives are inherently bad," says writer  Harriet McBryde Johnson. "That attitude can wear us down to the point where we want to be killed." "It takes connecting the dots for most progressives to see why someone like me, someone severely disabled, might have a problem with the 'right to die' and might see it as not so terribly compassionate or progressive," says Coleman.

And Michael Bérubé says, "I'm frankly surprised that more liberals don't latch onto the idea of 'reasonable accommodation' as the standard for all civil rights law."  The Americans with Disabilities Act revived "disparate impact" theory, he points out (lawsuits over employment practices that have a disparate impact on women or minorities -- and thus, said plaintiffs, violated the Civil Rights Act -- had been losing in the Berger and Rehnquist Courts).  But the ADA goes even further: it "requires employers to make 'reasonable accommodation' for all employees, thus giving them a bargaining power that they would not otherwise have in an 'at will' employment system -- and indeed more bargaining power even than many unionized employees have. It is the only civil rights law that imposes positive obligations on employers."

Liberals "have lost so much ground and so much public legitimacy over the past 30 years that it's quite clear we need new ways of thinking about the public sector and the common good," he continues.  He suggests "putting the perspectives of people with disabilities front and center in a second wave of civil rights activism."

It's a kind of personal investment strategy: we press for the disability rights vision to be realized in our communities, in order to ensure that the components of an accessible society -- accommodation, personal in-home assistance, houses we can get in and out of easily, public buildings with automatic doors and no steps, usable websites, captioned television programs --  are there not merely for "the disabled" but for us when we come to need them.  As does protecting the natural environment, creating an accessible society helps all of us in the long run, erasing the us-vs.-them zero-sum mentality that has propped up the case against disability rights.

Posted March 15, 2004.

Mary Johnson edits Ragged Edge. Read her book, Make Them Go Away: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Reeve and The Case Against Disability Rights.

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