Let’s Bust Some Myths: People with disabilities just want to sue the world into compliance

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

  1. 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”.
  2. And this is why I won’t watch any movie he’s in, produced, directed, mentioned as a good thing, whatever.
  3. 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.

By 30 December, 2009.    101   



26 Comments

  1. Do you lose American-points if you don’t fight law suits in court?

    Lose too many of those points, and you become Canadian! 😉

  2. I can’t even watch that kind of show, it makes my emotions get to dangerously out-of-control levels and I don’t want to take it out on my loved ones. But I have noticed a trend in people (usually, oddly enough, white males) who consider themselves skeptics but use that position to “logically” defend views that are sexist, racist, ableist, and so on. It makes my blood boil (and often, my teeth bite my own skin) to watch people whose view of “logic” contains huge servings of unearned and unexamined privilege. And where their biases are the “default” but where any reality that contradicts those biases must be rigorously proven or else face being considered an “extraordinary claim”.

    Which is why it has had to be “scientifically proven” before people like that would even begin to accept (just a little) that babies feel pain, animals have emotions, cognitively disabled people can think, and other things that are blatantly obvious unless you are massively prejudiced.

  3. …never mind that suing people costs money, which people with disabilities tend to have a lot less of (on average), on top of having fewer spoons with which to take on extra “hobbies” such as suing people.

  4. Maybe some folks from the U.S. could comment on whether the sue-happiness is truly an American thing. It could also be that it is some kind of stereotype that TV series in general like to feed on for sensationalist purposes.

    I live in the Netherlands, and lawsuits on disability are rare here. We have some lousy excuse for an anti-discrimination act which applies only to certain aspects of life (eg. higher education, employment and most recently housing but only in the sense that you can’t be turned down by housing folk just for being disabled). Suits are more common for other minority groups which have better protection (eg. women, GLBT people, religious minorities), but usually they are settled in soem kind of commission whose advice is non-binding.

  5. SUE-HAPPY! Are you kidding me? About 90 percent of the time, people with disabilities who encounter discrimination or problems
    such as this go unnoticed. Case in point: In April, the ABC news affiliate in Los Angeles ran an expose’ about the poor service
    that the MTA Bus lines provide for people in wheelchairs. In August, there was an interesting follow-up story which showed that
    nothing had changed. Bus drivers either had [redacted as per commenting policy – editor] ass excuses about the wheelchair lift being broken or they simply passed up a
    wheelchair passenger. There wasn’t one lawsuit involved. The person who inspired the story just wanted what she was entitled to,
    better service. I mean, come on. This is segregation in the purest form.

  6. Amanda, I got into such a rage state when I first saw it that it’s taken me over a year to actually write about it. Just… REALLY? And the whole episode is framed in this really offensive way. If I recall correctly, it opens with Teller in a wheelchair, talking about all the ways that the area he’s in violates the ADA and how he’s going to sue, and while a non-speaking Black man in a wheelchair is doing tricks and picking stuff up behind him. (You can see a bit of that guy at the end of the linked clip.)

    *sigh*

    Astrid, my understanding – filtered through Canadian sense of superiority (I love my country, but we really have some issues with Americans)- is that things seem “sue happy” to us because our laws about suing people are structured differently. In Canada, there are many cases where, if you sue someone and lose, you’ll be responsible for their court and lawyer fees. I don’t think this is true in the US. But, again – Canadian bias.

    Robert – yeah, I mean, sort of the same thing here. Last year they suspended giving free bus passes to blind people because of cost-cutting and “we’d have to give free bus passes to everyone with a disability, and that would be bad!” You’d think of we were all sue-happy, there’d be law suits and Human Rights Commissions complaints. My understanding is there’s a letter-writing campaign. OH NOES!
    .-= Anna´s last blog ..And so. =-.

  7. Trust me, because I’m living it right now.

    The ADA is only as good as the people who are charged with enforcing it.

    If those people don’t care, no amount of fighting is going to get you what you need.

    I am having to walk on eggshells to avoid being fired, and even though any court would rule in my favor in two seconds’ time because it would be That Obvious that it was retaliatory, we can’t afford the lawyer to sue with. Especially if I am, you know, without a job?

    And I’m requesting something simple, that requires no money spent or rearranging of office pragmatics. Something very, very small that needs done, but which, when not done, makes a very, very big impact on my ability to perform my job.

    Ugh. I’m not fucking sue-happy. I’d much rather there be a regulatory body which provides oversight and enforces this law without complaints having to be made — who does it as a matter of course, like any number of other matters which are handled in this fashion (the FDA? airport security? etc.), just sets down rules that everyone has to follow from the get-go — than have to hire a lawyer and go through a lengthy and exhausting court process in order to change one stupid fucking little thing that makes no difference to the Nice Abled People around me but makes quite a large difference to me.
    .-= amandaw´s last blog ..Creative diversity =-.

  8. I tried reading “Make Them Go Away” btw. I made it less than three pages. It was just so much hatred, so much awful awful hostility packed into such a small space, that I started crying and knew I couldn’t keep reading. I gave it back to the library unread.

  9. I just watched the Penn and Teller hate piece.

    I had no idea that buildings were required to be built in an accessible manner and that ROUND DOORKNOBS are ILLEGAL in public buildings and ATM machines are required to have BRAILLE INSTRUCTIONS on them and OH THE INJUSTICE OF IT ALL!!!

    And their point about handicap parking is just spot on… I mean, if we go around mandating that businesses accommodate disabled people that just leaves NO ROOM for compassion! If we keep mandating that these things are civil rights and not charities how are abled people supposed to feel superior and fluffy accommodating our cripple asses?

    Tsk Tsk.

  10. I didn’t know that about Clint Eastwood. Grr. I will not be supporting any move in which he has any part from now on.

  11. We have accessibility laws here in Ontario, especially in our building code. Implementation isn’t perfect; it’s a work in progress.

  12. Gahh, the Penn & Teller clip… gaaahhhh. (Thankfully I’ve got enough hearing to be able to decipher it using headphones even without captioning… but I’m still thinking of taking on the effort of transcribing it for anyone else who might be interested in joining in the debunking.)

    I was a bit annoyed from the start, when the one interviewee was talking about how so many disabled people would be better off without the ADA (which is great if, y’know, they could get jobs in the first place; maybe it’s just me, but I’d think there’d be more people on welfare without the law in effect). But then I really started fuming when Penn claimed that the ADA website grossly overestimated the number of people with disabilities… and how did he calculate this? By comparing it to the number of blind people, deaf people, and wheelchair users, ignoring Every Single Other Disability Out There. Because clearly those are the only ‘real’ problems. Even though the person you used as an example of someone with a disability only uses crutches. ::headdesk:: OH PENN JILLETTE NO.

  13. Amanda- great comment. The whole white-male-skeptic complex you’ve identified is a huge part of why I don’t identify as a skeptic.

  14. And incidentally, as far as I’m concerned, you’re totally spot-on about the lack of captioning disproving P&T’s point. Again, anecdotes aren’t data, but I’ve seen far too many times that companies tend not to even think about the issue of captioning… and that even after there have been complaints filed against them, they still often refuse to bother with it, because it’s just too much of a hassle, too expensive, yada yada yada. (Particularly annoying when it comes to multi-million-dollar productions by multi-million-dollar TV and film companies, when even the most expensive captioning would only run several hundred.)

    In fact, I don’t think that a lot of what is currently captioned would even be so, were it not for the fact that the FCC had mandated it for TV broadcasts a while ago…

  15. Not surprised at all about Eastwood. He did make all those right-wing movies in the 1970s, like Dirty Harry — granted, he didn’t write or direct them, but as a megastar you can bet your a$$ he had script approval. He always did have a reputation as a right-leaning libertarian sort, although possibly he has either softened somewhat politically or learned to play it down. You’d think by his age he’d actually have a few friends who used assistive devices, though.

    And it’s too bad about the P&T, too. I did like their “Bullshit” episode on fat, so it’s too bad they couldn’t have taken the next step and realized how much fat hate is rooted in ablism.

  16. Pitty about Eastwood…

    Speaking of, didn’t he just finish playing crip drag in Gran Torino?

  17. I just watched that video – I can’t believe this show – devoted to debunking (what they consider) “Bullshit” used the “why do drive-up ATMS have braille?” trope. Research fail.

    And good on that lawyer – some people need to be poked to realize they’re doing something wrong. And people wouldn’t be seen as “walking/rolling lawsuits” if the businesses weren’t accessible.

    People holding open a door for man using crutches=/=equal access for everyone.

    Oh, and we’re all different, so eff the PWD? Gah. I was talking to the screen, to my (unresponsive) mom (whatever, you’ve already told me this). Without the ADA and Section 504, I wouldn’t have graduated from high school. And one guy? To represent everyone the ADA helps? I’ve seen this attitude before – well, this (kind of “socialist”, not libertarian) law isn’t perfect, life still sucks, so chuck it!

    (I had surgery yesterday. Hope I’m making sense. I loved watching the video – so pissed I didn’t think about the pain!)

  18. Oh, hey, related to this. I’m re-reading Longmore’s Why I Burned My Book & Other Essays about Disability, and he has citations rather than anec-data.

    2/3rds of people with disabilities in the US feel their lives are better than before the ADA.

    As for Ontario – *sigh* I admit, I only hear about the breaches in the law. I understand Tim Hortons [urgle] is an accessibility-nightmare, and the government isn’t do much to enforce the law. Which is why I don’t buy coffee from Tim’s.
    .-= Anna´s last blog ..And so. =-.

  19. This reminded me of this horrible _King of the Hill_ episode that I saw several months ago. The main character, Hank Hill, hires a drug addict who uses drugs on the job and doesn’t do any work or know anything about grills/propane. Once Hill realizes that the guy is an addict he fires him but the guy figures out how to use the ADA to keep his job (but still does not work). He has a social worker who comes to work with him and threatens to sue. Then all of the other employees come up with other “disabilities” so that they don’t have to work either and can’t be disciplined or fired.

  20. Kat – I remember that episode. Some episodes of King of the Hill make me so uncomfortable! (Especially the later ones focusing on Hank/propane. Plus, they dissed Memphis.)

    The one about Canada stills bugs me.

  21. I live in the U.S. I swim three times a week in a facility built after the ADA was passed, which has a number of glaring access issues. (Yes, this facility is a rehab fitness center, targeted for people with health issues.)

    The designated fire exit in the pool is a gentle slope leading to three stairs which then leads to a gentle switchback ramp to outside. (I know, why are those stairs there?) There’s plenty of room to make a conforming ramp. But they didn’t. They won’t even put the required sign on the door saying “Stairs.”

    I contacted every law firm in Madison about filing suit. This is clearly a fire code violation under local, state and federal regulations. Only one of the law firms would even do an intake interview; that interaction required a $500 down payment. At the end of the intake they asked for $10,000 upfront before any further consideration. I don’t have that kind of money.

    All the civil rights laws in the U.S. are civil laws, heard in civil courts. Police enforce criminal laws; we enforce civil laws by paying the cost for lawsuits (and possibly the court costs and opponents’ costs if we lose).

    In other words, I call bullsh!t on P&T

  22. @Kaitlyn (#21): I only started watching after I lived in north Texas for a while. (Apparently the fictional town is based on that part of Texas since they mention Denton.) Some of the episodes I’ve seen made me uncomfortable too. What made that episode even worse was when I complained to a friend about it, she didn’t get why I was so angry about it.

  23. Thanks to that clip, I now know that I don’t have a disability since I’m not bind or deaf and I don’t use a wheelchair, but if my devlopmental disabilities, learning disabilities and other problems did count as disabilities, that means appearntly I’m worse off for being mainstreamed in a public school, since my district didn’t allow people with disabilities to be mainstreamed before some lawsuit happy parent of a pwd sued the district and ADA showed no compassion in forcing the schools to accept us. This is of course in contrast to the compassion the kindergarden teacher showed when she told my mom that I couldn’t attend kindergarden at her school because she couldn’t teach someone she couldn’t understand or the compassion showed by my second grade teacher when, after I finally attended my nieghboorhood school, told my mom that kids in the special education program were just spoiled. Thanks to this program I now know who to blame the next time I’m wishing I didn’t have my high school diploma or my bachelor’s degree.

  24. I hate so much the American cultural discourse around lawsuits in general, and Penn totally embodies it in this video, along with his raging able-bodied entitlement and tokenization of PWD to buttress his bullshit.

    I don’t want to derail into that, though. It’s just this whole idea that lawsuits are bad when often lawsuits are the only recourse for people to get what they need, after all else fails. As in this case, when so much of the US is so damned lax about adhering to the ADA, and enforcement bodies are often ineffectual.

  25. Hi all, I think I might have found a new favorite board to visit. I feel a little guilty now being a white abled male 😉 but this episode filled me with so much rage that I couldn’t finish it. I find that Bullshit often rubs me the wrong way, but sometimes gives me some perspective… but this episode on the ADA didn’t even come close to offering a valid perspective (I did notice that Teller was fairly, though not totally, absent in this episode… I wonder if he had personal qualms with the awful subject matter). (Oh, I also want to ask if “abled” is something that is technically correct to use or if it’s a tongue-in-cheek expression– it sounds tongue in cheek so that’s why I used it 🙂 )
    Anyway, I worked, albeit briefly, with my university’s 504 compliance officer (who is also a great professor in my department) before being given a teaching gig that was a full-time assistantship, nothing against the other position, and I had a few discussions about these sorts of issues. Also, I was able to interact first hand with some students with severe cases of cerebral palsy and other disabilities that just left me awestruck.

    That being said, some of these students with brilliant mind and fortitude that I can’t imagine would have been unable to attend college if it had not been for the ADA and IDEA. My own uncle suffered a massive TBI decades ago and has been cared for by my grandmother for nearly all of my life. As I watched the show and imagined my grandmother trying to help my uncle navigate his wheelchair or my uncle trying to do it himself without accommodations mandated by ADA… well, it made me so angry at Penn’s ranting from a position of such privilege and lack of perspective that it made me yell at my TV (I’m sorry, TV). It was a series of strawmen, weak strawmen, imaginary strawnmen, arguing against a system that does far, far more good than harm by a considerable amount.

    Leave compassion to the people who are able to feel it? Is that the best you have? Oh, of course it is, you’re a “libertarian.” Yes, you think that people should be compassionate, but they shouldn’t HAVE to be compassionate, which means YOU shouldn’t have to be, which means someone *else* should be compassionate but only because they choose to be, right? That’s how it goes– we shouldn’t have any form of socialized medicine here because if people can’t afford it, their neighbors and friends ought to help out, someone *else* ought to help out. It’s always about touting how great their country is but not wanting to have to take any responsibility as a citizen of that country to care for the rest of the citizenry. No health care, no education, no accessibility, no child care, no school lunches (well, because there shouldn’t even be schools!), and on and on. No, no, no unless you can pay for it yourself out of pocket. If you can’t? Then maybe someone will be kind enough to help you? Who? I don’t know, not me! Don’t have any friends? Any church (Oh, right, to be a good libertarian in the Ayn Rand sense, we’d all have to be atheists)? Neighbors? Because someone else should step up, some good people (who aren’t me!) should step up.

    Look, we’re a nation of people, the nation exists as a social contract between people that should be mutually beneficial for all. You have the benefit of making a great living here? Good! You should pay your taxes for the wonderful right you have to live here and do so well for yourself. You don’t own that money, it belongs to the government anyway. The laws that protect your commerce and property? You didn’t do that yourself. Anyway, you think you’re good people? Part of a good country? Then the country should reflect that kindness and collective compassion and make life more livable. The anti-government schtick is just a thin cover for greed. If you want people to be so compassionate so badly, then just pay your taxes with a smile knowing that some of those dollars will help people that you won’t even see! Isn’t that great?!

    I think it is.

    I’m sorry, it’s late, I’m tired and had a big rant in me.

    Great blog, I’ll be back 🙂