Sympathy for people who break the law seems to have an almost universally human allure. Most cultures have some stories about rebels and outlaws, some (affiliate link) Robin Hood figure who captures the public imagination. American history and culture offer some particularly colorful, compelling stories of people who, for whatever reason, just didn’t stay on the right side of the law from activists like John Brown to more selfish types like (affiliate link) Bonnie and Clyde. Sympathy for law-breakers usually comes up in the criminal context, where stories are colorful, and a big personality can really leave an impression, but it happens in civil law, too. The outlaws we pity or admire, the people we like even though they broke the social contract in some fairly major way, tell us a lot about what we value and what garners sympathy in our culture. Sometimes, our love of outlaws is less about the person who broke the law and more about the identity of the victim. If we’re sometimes disposed to like rule-breakers, we’re also not always concerned about the people who get hurt when someone doesn’t follow rules that are in place for a reason.
Anderson Cooper’s expose on “drive-by ADA suits” is striking, then, for what it tells us about our culture. Cooper may have been trying to suggest that there is a problem with people who have ignored their responsibility to comply with federal civil rights law for over 25 years getting sued, having to fix problems with their businesses, and facing the consequences of their actions. We aren’t usually sympathetic to people who ignore the law in ways that have real, palpable consequences and victims for years on end. People who run convenience stores don’t fit the mold of the compelling outlaw. They’re hardworking. They pay their taxes and sometimes create jobs. We might think of them as solid members of their communities, wholesome, decent. They aren’t exciting characters like (affiliate link) Billy the Kid. They’re not the stuff of anti-authoritarian legend.
Why, then, do some people sympathize with them when they violate the ADA? It may have less to do with who they are than who they hurt. People with disabilities still aren’t a priority in our society, and individuals who ask, or especially demand, to be fully included are still viewed with distaste. Just look at what some prominent figures associated with the Trump administration have to say about disabled children who exercise their right to a free and appropriate public education. In this environment, adults with disabilities breaking with their traditional role as beggars and supplicants, enforcing their rights through the courts, and making money in the process is bound to make some people clutch their pearls in horror. People who are upset by the idea that disabled people might not ask nicely anymore, might nowadays file suit and demand their rights instead of pleading for them, are probably in for many more unpleasant shocks in years to come. The first disabled Americans born after ADA are now adults with a healthy sense of entitlement to being able to engage with society. Expect to see more loud, mouthy, uppity, litigious disabled people in years to come. The era of meek telethon kids is over.