In his book “No Pity: Individuals with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement,” Joseph Shapiro tells the story of Evan Kemp Jr., the former chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), who left his Washington, D.C., headquarters and flew to a distant city. Upon his arrival at the airport, Kemp, who used a wheelchair for mobility, discovered that the city that had invited him to speak had sent an ambulance to transport him to the event because they didn’t have any form of accessible transportation. Kemp refused the proffered ambulance on the reasonable ground that he was not the least bit sick, and promptly returned to Washington on the next available flight, his speech never delivered.
It has been more than a decade since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. The ADA provides for equal employment opportunity for individuals with disabilities, and applies to virtually all employers. The law also requires physical accessibility in state facilities and programs as well as public accommodations. Significantly, however, the ADA is not an affirmative action law with respect to employment and only requires businesses to take “reasonable” steps to make their facilities accessible.
The ADA is just the latest in the pantheon of regulations designed to protect the civil rights of persons with disabilities, having been preceded by the Architectural Barriers Act (1968) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (1973). These two regulations were generally limited to entities receiving U.S. government funding. The impact of Section 504 is not without its significance, but its impact was dealt a blow in 1984. At the time, the Office of Revenue Sharing (ORS) was the principal means for the federal government to disburse funds to cities and towns. In 1984 it issued Section 504 requirements that would have forced most cities and towns to make immediate changes to insure accessibility for persons with disabilities. A short time after the regulations were issued, however, President Ronald Reagan abolished the Office of Revenue Sharing.
While the ADA is certainly an advance over earlier regulations, it is not without its flaws. One provision allows ADA lawsuits to cover legal fees, on the theory that persons with disabilities would receive competent legal representation if attorneys knew their expenses were covered. That has been transformed into a cottage industry of sorts for law firms who have targeted small businesses. Recently, the state of Tennessee sought to have the ADA declared unconstitutional on the basis of “state’s rights.” While the Supreme Court ruled against Tennessee in that instance, the court has not always favored ADA litigation. It has sought to narrow the coverage of the law by declaring the act’s definition of who is considered disabled is far too broad.
In the much-publicized case of Casey Martin v. the Professional Golf Association, one Supreme Court justice compared Martin’s request to use a cart on the PGA tour to a disabled Little League ballplayer being entitled to five balls and four strikes. That comparison struck many as an absurd departure from the norms of legal analysis. Martin won his case in a majority decision.
It is not often mentioned that persons with disabilities were among the first victims of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime in Germany. They were subjected to crude forms of euthanasia later “perfected” in the death camps. It was portrayed as a form of pity, in extremis. It was murder.
There are countless organizations devoted to fundraising which, with some notable exceptions, also use a more benign but no less insidious form of pity in their strategies. As one activist in the disability civil rights movement has noted, “Who wants to hire a pity object to do a job?” Unemployment statistics for persons with disabilities are rarely publicized but are thought to be in the 60 to 85 percent range, depending on type of disability.
Some 43 million Americans are persons with disabilities, according to recent data.
Although the civil rights movement for persons with disabilities has not captured the level of public awareness generated by the broader civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s, it is far from quiet. Organizations such as Americans Disabled for Attendant Programs Today (ADAPT) and the Disabled People’s Liberation Front (with its slogan of “Build Ramps, Not Bombs”) have used civil disobedience to make progress. “The earlier civil rights movement fought against someone being forced to sit in the back of the bus because of their race. I learned a lot from that, because for years I couldn’t even get on a bus,” says one activist.
The struggle continues.
Lawrence Albright is a reader of the People’s Weekly World.