response to Disability Law

In response to my post Disability Law,
Stephen said…
McCain’s record of voting against issues important to people with disabilities speaks for itself. This recent complete reversal on his views is nothing more than typical McCain political pandering.

I started replying in the comment field but realized my reply is bigger than a comment.
So here goes.
I don’t know McCain’s record on the issue, but I’m not surprised to hear this Stephen. I do know that the quote in this article reads, to me at least, as McCain saying that his goal is to change the law to make it HARDER for people to qualify as “disabled” and thus limits the people who can seek legal recourse for discrimination and other (unnecessary, remediable) disabling circumstances.

I want to take a moment and clarify my definition of disability. To me, disability has (at least) a double meaning. That is, it can be a property of the individual when it comes to something like the ability to live without pain, the ability to think and reason at your full intellectual potential (that alone is a loaded term, “full intellectual potential”. It would take another post to unpack and you all would have to bear with my halting attempts to articulate something I haven’t really gotten straight in my own head. For the moment, assume I mean it in a more or less self-relative way). However, it is also and often a property of the individual in the environment. Is my now chronic joint pain disabling? Aside from the more person-based aspects of it, it certainly is in the practical or environmental sense if I cannot access accommodations like a van to get me around campus.

Here’s an example. I was once told on campus that access to a certain service was a privilege, not a right. This came up when I was trying to file a deferment of student fees over the phone. “No, you have to come in in person and do it” I was told. “Can I make an appointment then?” I asked. “No. It’s walk in only,” was the response.

Now, it was the start of the winter semester. There was snow everywhere and my campus does a notoriously poor job of removing that snow. This means if you have any mobility issues, getting around on the sidewalks on campus is exceptionally hard. It can create insurmountable problems if you don’t have the means, time and equipment included, to plan ahead. Moreover, even once you navigated your way to the building where you had to go in person to sign up for the deferment, you would have to stand (if ambulatory) in line, sometimes for over 30 minutes.

This was a problem for me. Although I can get around on my feet on all but the worst days, on most days I can’t stand for a half hour, and some days I cannot stand around for much over 5 minutes. Sure, I have the option of sitting on the floor – the floor that is covered in sandy slush from the boots of students standing in line. I have the option of stepping out of line and sit in a chair and hope the people before and after me are nice enough to let me back in with no or minimal fuss (and there is likely to be fuss because due to prevailing attitudes and how I look, I would be perceived as wanting “special treatment” by my peers). Thus, neither of these are ideal options. Neither is practical, and moreover, neither allows me the minimal level of dignity and self reliance that most of us (whether more or less disableable) reasonably expect.

So what to do? It seemed reasonable to me that the university should have some way to accommodate this, and I said so to the woman on the phone. What seemed easiest was to allow students for whom the set up and culture of the campus made accessing this service in person extra difficult to access this service remotely – i.e., by phone. The woman I was talking to became contentious. Her response – deferment is a privilege, not a right.

By extension, accessing fee deferment services apparently is a privilege afforded only to students who are not easily disabled by the (remediable) environmental restrictions of the campus (in winter) and the office (year round) in the context of the culture.

Could I have arranged a van pick up/drop off, I wonder now that I’ve managed to secure access to the campus van. Yes. However, in the case of accessing “walk in” (ha) service on campus, you never know (a) when you’ll be seen and (b) how long you’ll wait to be seen and (c) how long it will take to get the business done that you came to do – all of which create problems for trying to schedule van drop off and pick up times. So the van would be a problem (they prefer 24 hour notice of pick up/drop off times and locations) and if I didn’t want to end up sitting on a slushy floor or relying on the kindness of strangers, I’d have to wait until I had a full two hour block or a ride from a friend (which I hate using because my physical condition necessitates way too many “favors” already) to go in in person and conduct my business. Moreover, there was still the issue of standing around waiting in line. So it had to be a day when I wasn’t feeling shitty so I could stand in line for as long as might be needed. This is truly hard for me to predict with any accuracy, which means I may need to cancel a 24 hour in advance booked van ride at the last minute (something they frown on), cancel my request for a ride from a friend (thus “burning” a favor), or rally myself to get over there only to find I am too drained to wait as long as I need to in order to conclude my business. End result? What could be a more manageable aspect of my physicality becomes a disability with financial and education access repercussions (not to mention the emotional aspects of being told my physical status makes me unworthy of this “privilege” and of being totally thwarted in my attempt at self sufficiency).

I feel this should be the spirit of any law which is meant to address equal access for people with potentially disabling conditions. That is, the law should reduce disabling situations or disabling environmental properties. Not every physical trait can be predicted, although clearly some should be (limb use, sensory differences, and stamina being high up on the list), and thus the notion of “accommodations”. So when a situation or environment is such that despite being accessible for the predictable varieties of humans who will use them, any good law should grant and ENFORCE access to accommodations. Certainly, no law is going to make me pain free, but if it’s written right and enforced, it will make it so I don’t have to choose between hurting myself and readily accessing opportunities and/or services which are available with what are at most only minor inconveniences for other people.

Thus, my limited understanding of how the language of the law has been interpreted is that it has had the effect of creating increased disability (with the definition of disability being one which includes the context of the person in his or her environment) by assuming an overly narrow interpretation of what it means to be traited in a way that makes you more easily disabled and what it means to disable.

I added a link to this blog which I have only had a chance to explore briefly, but it looks pretty good. It’s an advocacy blog for the ADA Amendments Act. I’m looking forward to reading more on this issue and following it in the coming months.

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