One of my “favourite” disability stereotypes is that people with disabilities are rolling lawsuits waiting to happen. I first hit this stereotype when someone directed me to Penn & Teller’s Bullshit episode about the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA], which focused mostly on how the ADA is all about putting people with disabilities down and treating them badly. 1 The episode also included interviews with a town that was hit with many many many lawsuits by a lawyer who is also a wheelchair user, and financially threatened many businesses in a small town.
Another big-name voice that’s come out against the ADA as being “bad” for people with disabilities (and the nice able-bodied folks who are totally oppressed by it) is Clint Eastwood. Strangely, Eastwood didn’t care two wits about the ADA until he was sued for his boutique hotel being inaccessible. Then, suddenly, he was very concerned about the unending stream of lawsuits about accessibility. 2
There are two big problems with this theory. First, and most obvious to me, is that none of these Nice Able-Bodied Folks seem to be concerned that one needs to sue (or otherwise threaten with legal action) in order to get into buildings, get written material presented in a way you can read it, get captioning, get… well, get all sorts of “little things” that people with a variety of disabilities need in order to fully interact with the world. (Trust me, I have missed many of them myself. Many many times.) Oh, but they’re really really concerned about the poor little crippled person who is just a victim of the big bad lawyer who is totally leading them on, gosh darn it. (They are, of course, not concerned about just going “Oh, hey, let me fix that right now! No need for a law suit!” If you really think accessibility is important, and people note that your space isn’t accessible when it should be, why do you fight this suit in court? Is this some American-thing I don’t understand, being from The Great Frozen Post-Socialist Utopia of Canada? Do you lose American-points if you don’t fight law suits in court? I don’t even know.)
The second problem is that most of the people I know with disabilities don’t have the time/energy/inclination/spoons to sue about an accessibility issue.
Let me give you a personal example. (The plural of anecdote is not data, but strangely, there isn’t a lot of data available on “people not suing for accessibility-related issues”. This isn’t something pollsters ask.) Just the other day, Don and I went to the mall to take advantage of Boxing Day Sales. And, like every other time we go to the mall, it became apparent that the mall’s “accessibility plan” didn’t really include making the actual shops accessible. Lots of junk in aisles, aisles too narrow for a wheelchair, ect. (You’d think we’d stop going to the mall, but we only go about once every six months. The other mall we shop at is better, and I keep forgetting why we don’t trek out to this one very often.)
Don, kindly, pointed out that the shops I was going into didn’t have space for him. At first I thought about making complaints at each individual shop, but I wasn’t sure if the mall actually had a policy, and Canada doesn’t have an equivalent to the ADA. So, then we talked about going to the Mall Information Desk and finding out the details there. That fell through when we saw a very lengthy line, and a very harried pair of employees behind it.
In a world of sue-happy disabled people, we’d probably be contacting the Human Rights Commission, or a lawyer, or our Member of Parliament (that’s Federal government) or MLA (that’s Provincial). Instead, we came home, and agreed to stop shopping there because this is rather ridiculous.
Ultimately, I wrote a letter to the mall to bring this to their attention, but I have no idea if that will actually mean anything in the long run.
This anecdote isn’t unique by any stretch, and many people with disabilities I’ve talked to don’t even go so far as to write a letter (or an angry blog post) because this takes energy and time that could be spent doing countless other things.
People with disabilities are really no more sue-happy than your average person. Some people with disabilities, just like some average citizens, call their lawyer whenever there’s a problem – because they have a lawyer to call. Others stoically press on through life. Others write letters, to editors, to MLAs & MPs, to mall administrators. It’s almost like “disabled people” don’t all react the same way to things, and have a variety of ways of dealing with “adversity” (in the form of non-existent ramps).
So, in short, the myth of the sue-happy cripple who’s just a law suit waiting to happen is perpetuated by Nice Able-Bodied Folks who are actually full of Bullshit. 3
- I can’t rant about this enough because this episode really pissed me off. They actually put someone in an iron lung and tried to get around New York, thus demonstrating that you can’t actually make the world accessible for everybody, so obviously the ADA is “Bullshit”. ↩
- And this is why I won’t watch any movie he’s in, produced, directed, mentioned as a good thing, whatever. ↩
- Okay here’s a link to “highlights” of the Bullshit episode on YouTube. It is not captioned, which I guess kinda disproves their ultimate point. I live in a country that doesn’t have an ADA, and I’m still waiting for Halifax to embrace the idea that business owners should be “more compassionate” and put in wheelchair ramps. ANY DAY NOW I’m sure it will be true. ↩