Autistic Future
December 16th, 2016

Unsympathetic Plaintiffs

A fence stands in a field, just wires strung between posts. The wire doesn't look electrified and has no barbs. It would be easy to climb through the fence.

Ander­son Coop­er, the ADA, and Sym­pa­thiz­ing with Peo­ple who Cross the Line

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.