More than thirty years ago, in an essay called “Uncle Tom and Tiny Tim: Some Reflections on the Cripple as Negro,” I suggested that cripples emulate the civil rights movement by focusing on political solutions to the problems of living under difficult physical conditions. (It’s a lost battle, but I continue to prefer the term “cripple” to the bland “disabled.”) The problems cripples faced seemed as much the result of our inability to define our needs as they were the fault of a society quite willing to live with its ignorance of those problems and quite willing not to see us at all unless absolutely forced to. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that cripples began to believe that they had the right to demand that America meet their needs.
Anyone who has spent significant time living with a serious physical condition probably has had an experience similar to the following: entering a restaurant with another person, he (or she) finds that the waiter is addressing not him but the person he is with. He is a category, and categories are simply assumed to be unable to take responsibility even for something as minor as placing an order. Yet even such infantilization can seem liberating if the cripple realizes that the problem it bespeaks is political rather than psychological: One infantilizes the other by assuming attitudes held by society at large. And this process is something that the cripple, too, is encouraged to do. Even Randolph Bourne, as tough a social critic as America ever produced, looks inward in his famous essay “The Handicapped,” published back in 1911. Writing about other issues, Bourne understands that political problems demand political solutions. But when it concerns the cripple, among whose ranks he was numbered, he was curiously inner-directed and soft.
The demand for the rights of cripples was already under way as I was writing “Uncle Tom and Tiny Tim.” And while I would be happier without much of the rhetoric of the Disability Rights Movement, to its credit, it has helped change the consciousness of those who must confront the world with physical disabilities. Both its success and its burgeoning political potential seemed wishful thinking in 1969, when I still dismissed its prospects. But that success was confirmed with the enactment of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990. Despite its admitted weaknesses, few Congressional acts more deserve the term “landmark legislation.” The Americans With Disabilities Act promised those forced to live with severe physical impairments the possibility of legal if not functional equality. Its most profound accomplishment, even allowing for the vagueness of definition that has come to haunt it, was to accept the idea that cripples have the right to specific accommodations that meet their employment needs. For a population battling the indignities of permanent illness, its promise was comparable to that of the Civil Rights Act for African-Americans in 1964.
Twelve years after its passage, that promise seems about to be swamped by a legal system in which what constitutes a workplace disability is undefined and perhaps undefinable. The confusion about what would seem to be the most elementary of definitions–what is meant when we speak of a disability–threatens to weaken if not make the act virtually useless. The cripple’s demand for rights still commands a good deal of public interest and a degree of public sympathy. Yet the Americans With Disabilities Act has not led to widespread political activity on behalf of the nation’s cripples. Their quest for equality is not only threatened with that most severe of American sins, being relegated to political unfashionability, but the question of what a disability is shows few signs of being resolved in favor of those whom the act was supposed to help. Recent Supreme Court rulings in which disability was ill defined must be seen as setbacks for those who look to the judiciary to enforce what the act called for, a policy of accessibility and inclusiveness. The Court ruled in April by a 5-to-4 majority in US Airways v. Barnett that US Airways’ seniority system took precedence over the right of a disabled worker to transfer to a more suitable job. In Toyota Motor Manufacturing v. Williams, the Court ruled unanimously that the definition of disability must mean substantial limitations on abilities “central to daily life,” not just the job. And the Court also unanimously held, in mid-June in Chevron U.S.A. v. Echazabal, that employers had the right to refuse to hire a worker whose health they believed might be impaired by performing a particular job.