Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Skinny

There's a new line of beverages at Starbucks called The Skinny line. Basically without the whipped cream, regular milk, etc. So yesterday a friend and I went to try them out.

We arrived at Starbucks. It was difficult to even get in the door. People, baby carriages and college kids arm in arm kept coming out while we waited for a chance to go inside. We made our way through the cafe, asking folks to move carriages, etc. so the wheelchair could get through. Then we placed our order and went over to a table.

My friend said to me "I think back in the 80's people were more considerate of wheelchairs. I can't believe how people just acted. Stepping over your wheelchair, rushing in front of you to get the first latte that came out-"

I thought about that for a minute. Then I said "Well it is crowded - and what just happened isn't out of the ordinary. Maybe you're more aware of it since you know me."

She thought about that - and wasn't sure. But it was clear to both of us that the idea of access, which has something to do with efforts of builders to create ramps under the ADA, was not the same as access, which has to do with - well - cooperation. And one of the topics that comes up in such a discussion is always - is there a backlash from the ADA? In other words, do people show a resentment toward accommodating people with disabilities because of their perception of the law or its effects?

This evening a friend sent me a link to an article about the consequences of the ADA, among other things. I found this to be an interesting coincidence. It talks about the case of a doctor who is asked by a deaf patient to get a sign language interpreter, the cost involved and the doctor's reaction, as well of that of his medical colleagues. It's quite insightful.

What strikes me is that the article posits that "do-good" laws such as the ADA have been backfiring, affecting employment and "pervasive" doctors' unwillingness to treat certain patients. The author notes that in the medical context it's hard to back that up with any figures or statistics or data, but uses a study saying there was a sharp drop in 1992, the year the ADA was enacted, in employing people with disabilities to prove the theory regarding employment.

It seems to me this is very slim evidence indeed. But in a way that's not the point. The point is how pervasive this kind of reasoning is - how it's okay to openly talk about resenting being legislated to do accommodations while at the same time maintaining we don't need such laws because people will just do the right thing. Or how cumbersome the requirements are - but don't worry, without such a law people would do the right thing.

I agree that you can't legislate attitude or morality. As my ethics professor said on the first day of class, the people who already get it will still get it on the last day of class and as to the others, he'd do his best but could make no assurances. We all chuckled back then but over the years I've thought back to his words often.

People who get it may not need the laws - but what about those who don't? To me, the skinny on this situation is that we need to protect the rights of people with disabilities, and deal with the resentments and objections that come from change. Is the ADA a perfect law? No law is. Has it been used effectively? Many would say no, and there's frustration in the disability community about that. Is it a necessary law? That's where I part company with the authors of this article, because I do think we need legislation to protect the rights of the disabled. And here's why.

As I rolled home from Starbucks, I couldn't help but notice that almost every business has an accessible entrance which wasn't the case a decade ago. I was able to find a bathroom that was accessible. A decade ago I couldn't. And on the way home, I enjoyed the use of the sidewalks and curb cuts, whereas before I was in the street (as some still are).

If it is true that we really don't need "do good" laws at all, then why didn't these changes happen until after the ADA required them?

Yes it is true that such laws may backfire at times. So do other laws. In fact, my ethics professor would be the first to say that some part of enforcing the laws is a human factor, which can unpredictably dictate the interpretation of any law and its course.

Perhaps the better question to ask is not whether we need "do good" laws, since these laws are doing good, but what changes in attitudes and morality do we as a society need to cultivate to enact the changes people with disabilities require to live full and productive lives?