In an era when just about every important vote in Congress breaks sharply on party lines, it’s instructive to recall that for several decades, at least one area of federal policymaking has been truly bipartisan, consensus-based, and generally effective. That area is disability policy. To be sure, conservatives have raised legitimate objections to some provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990), the ADA Amendments Act (2008), and other legislation, federal and state: “professional plaintiffs” and the excessive burdens that disability regulations place on small enterprises, for example. But the principle behind it all, that people with disabilities have a right to accommodations and accessibility in public spaces and the workplace, so that the difficulties resulting from their disabilities are not amplified further, is an important one that has made a great difference in many people’s lives.
Like many other rights, those pertaining to disabilities are much more effective when the general public is aware of them and the people who enforce the rights understand them correctly. When they don’t, the result can be something like the dismaying scene that occurred on a New York City ferry platform recently.
A woman I know has musculoskeletal disabilities that are not visible, but that make it hard for her to stand for more than a very brief period. When waiting for the ferry, instead of going to the back of the line, she sits on a bench, then gets up and joins the middle of the line when it’s time to board. Most of the ferry workers understand the situation and let her cut in, but a few have been known to raise a fuss. One in particular has repeatedly harassed this woman, to the point where one day last month the worker refused to let her board unless she waited for the end of the line. My friend protested and started to board the boat, whereupon the staff member stepped into her path, bumped into her, and then claimed she had been assaulted. At this point three men surrounded my friend, who sat down on the gangplank until finally the captain came out and told them to let her board.
The worst part, though, was the jeers and insults directed at her from her fellow passengers, which made her refuse to board until the crew promised to protect her. New Yorkers in general tend to oppose authority, and they seem more likely to yell at police officers and security guards than to support them, but in this case it was clear that virtually everyone was casting the disabled woman as the villain. And the same pattern can be seen in many other areas. Employees who require accommodations in the workplace (which could be office furniture, special apparatus or software, or modified work duties or hours, among other possibilities) are often resented by co-workers — especially if their disabilities are invisible, but sometimes even if they aren’t. Conservatives raise legitimate questions about awarding different treatment to different groups on the basis of race or gender, but with the disabled, there is no question that they need accommodation. The law, with strong backing from both sides of the aisle, recognizes this; it’s time that the public recognized it as well.