As I See It: Injured Wing
July 20, 2009 Victor Rozek
About the only time I set foot in a shopping mall is during the holiday season–coincidentally the same time everyone else does. So it’s no surprise that as I circle the parking lot for the fifth time, looking for an empty space that isn’t there, my frustration mounts. I can almost feel the holiday spirit leaching out of every pore. But just when I’m ready to run over Santa and be done with it, the answer to my problem glares at me from the front of every row. There, in the primo spot, at the head of every line, as close as you can get to the store without driving through the front doors, is the empty handicapped spot.
Now, I don’t begrudge a handicapped person a parking space. Still, I couldn’t help but think: If there were that many disabled people out shopping, the spaces would be full. But they almost never are. So I kept circling, annoyed that inconveniently injured, invisible people prevented me from parking where I wanted. Boy, was I stupid.
I must have racked up some bad karma, because two weeks ago while trimming hedges, the ladder I was on broke and I crashed to the ground. Instinctively, I reached out with my right hand to break the fall, but all that broke was my wrist. The radius snapped, crushing the head into several fragmented pieces, and my wrist suddenly looked like as “S” scrawled by a preschooler.
That was the moment I began to viscerally understand a fraction of what disabled people endure every day.
When your dominant hand is useless, the minutia of day-to-day life becomes one continuous frustration. Writing a check, typing on a keyboard, tying my shoes, opening a jelly jar, peeling an orange, buttoning a shirt, cleaning my glasses, carrying multiple bags of groceries, driving a stick shift, and anything that you would normally do in the bathroom, becomes either wearisome and clumsy, or impossible to do without help. The fruitless sound of one hand clapping is only surpassed by the futility of one hand attempting to wash itself. My condition, of course, is temporary. But if I had to live the rest of my life without the use of my right hand, I would desire some accommodations to permit me to function with greater ease. (Since I’m typing this left-handed, voice recognition software comes to mind.)
When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law in 1990, it represented the long-awaited acknowledgment that limitations require accommodations. The ADA has its roots in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which offered protection against discrimination based on race, national origin, religion, and sex. The disabled, however, were still largely invisible, and had to wait another 26 years until public sensibilities stretched far enough to embrace their reality.
In essence, the ADA’s employment provisions prohibit discrimination against “qualified” individuals with disabilities who are seeking public or private sector jobs. Provisions include a requirement that employers covered under the act make “reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of qualified applicants and employees, unless providing such accommodations would impose an undue hardship on the employer.”
The modifier “qualified” was included because without reasonable guidelines the inevitable mission creep would occur and before long people with restless leg syndrome would be demanding relief. One student actually sued because he wasn’t allowed extra time to complete his law school admissions exam, arguing that his ADHD should be a protected disability. Why he thought anyone would want to hire a hyperactive lawyer with a poor attention span is not clear. Regardless, saner minds prevailed and the plaintiff lost his first and only case.
Although the passage of the ADA did a great deal to improve public access and transportation for the disabled, its most important goal–providing an opportunity for independence and fulfillment through employment–has been less than spectacular. Paradoxically, the enforcement provisions in the act, deemed necessary to ensure equal treatment, have had the opposite effect. The intention of the act was to establish “a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination” and “clear, strong, consistent, enforceable standards addressing discrimination.” But the moment you introduce enforcement, you invite caution in risk-averse employers. At least two studies show a sharp drop in disabled hires after the law was passed.
Ironically, although the ADA requires compliance, it does not award damages. Some states do, however, and have spawned a generation of professional plaintiffs. But even though actual lawsuits are rare, they have done inordinate damage to the cause of equal treatment. Like much of the prejudice addressed by the Civil Rights Act, the bias against the disabled went underground.
Undaunted, the handicapped continue trying to carve a place for themselves on the planet, rather than revolving like distant satellites around the lives of others. Along with commerce, the struggle for equal opportunity is moving into cyberspace, and there, too, it is finding opposition. An Internet-based hotel room marketer is being sued because customers with disabilities cannot reserve hotel rooms without a great deal of extra effort not required of persons without disabilities. Likewise, retailer Target was sued because its Website is inaccessible to people with poor or no vision. The accommodation sought is virtual rather than physical, but no less important for that. For the first time in history, the most severely disabled can project their trapped minds beyond their non-functioning bodies. Computer technology coupled with the Internet may well accomplish what the ADA could not, which is to provide a convenient and non-threatening way for the disabled to work.
But equal access is just an ethical abstraction until tragedy strikes close to home. Twenty-one months ago, the son of a friend was in the woods playing war. Moving through the understory with his paintball gun, he was unaware that he was about to become a very real casualty. A hunter, armed with a man’s weapon and a child’s unthinking carelessness, drove by in a four-wheeler and seeing movement in the bushes, fired from his vehicle, hitting the young man in the neck, severing a portion of his spinal cord and damaging the rest beyond repair. He spent his 21st birthday in the ICU, robbed of every bodily function save the ability to blink. It took months for him to tolerate just sitting in a specialized wheel chair. He will never again feel the warmth of human touch below his head, never run, or ride a bike, or hold a child. But he can think.
With therapy and herculean effort, he is now able to use a mouth-operated sip-and-puff device to steer his wheelchair and use a computer. He would like to finish his education. He would like to work. Surely any law that helps him do that; any law that strikes down one more obstacle in a life filled with obstacles, is just and righteous.
It has been said that the measure of a civilization’s greatness is the way it cares for the least of its people. But providing that care will always be challenging because it countermands a baser instinct. Herd animals drive out the injured, fearing that the disabled will attract predators. Thus, human nature makes us leery of people who require too much care, too much accommodation. And when economic decline ratchets up the danger to the herd, the disabled lose whatever small advantage might be available to them in abundant times. Human nature, I suspect, is why laws are sometimes necessary to help us do the right thing.
As for me, the next time I drive by another empty handicapped parking space, and experience that momentary jolt of annoyance, I will remember something Katherine Hepburn said in her Oscar-winning performance in The Lion in Winter: “Human nature, my children, is what we are placed on this earth to rise above.”