So, I normally use this blog as a place to put my creative writing. It is primarily a place for my ideas to live. Sometimes though, I feel the need to express my thoughts in a more direct way. For my international readers, it’s worth noting here that I live in the United States. I will be speaking from this vantage point.
In the national discourse here, I have seen things divide into two very distinct in disparate camps of thought: one of which uses labels as a means to demean, oppress, marginalize, and ignore. The other camp thinks that it’s a fantastic idea to abolish the habit of labeling in its entirety because of the problems that the former way of thinking creates. However, in my mind, this is also fallacious thinking. The thinking of the latter group 6 to abolish labeling in order to paint a more human picture of humanity, ironically. I say ironically because you can’t make someone not human who is already human. You can try to use legislative trickery to take away the rights of a certain group, but you cannot take away the fact that the group is comprised of humans. I’m kind of getting a little off topic here. Sorry about that.
The thing about labels is that sometimes they’re useful. They are things that we can often use to refer to certain aspects of ourselves in order to better explain them. For example, I often refer to myself as disabled, or a person with a disability. In my particular case, it isn’t really all that important to me which one you use, as long as you don’t use a derogatory term like retarded or handicapped. The first indicating that I have some kind of mental deficiency… Which I clearly don’t. And the second implies a level of brokenness that needs to be repaired medically. I’m also a Pacific Islander, I’m also a Filipino-American. I’m also of native Hawaiian descent. All of these things are labels that I use to describe myself, terms or phrases of self-reference. I also have depression, and I’m also a trauma survivor. These words and phrases tell you something about me, that’s why I use them in the first place. None of these labels in and of themselves will tell you who I am.
All of this is to say that labels don’t necessarily need to be judged as inherently bad. It’s what we do with them that matters. It’s a lot easier for me to use some of these things to describe things about me than it is for me to tell you the various stories which belie each of them. I can if someone is interested, but sometimes there just isn’t enough time in the day. To be quite honest, there may be days where I don’t even want to. But whether we’re talking about the Myers-Briggs label of me being in ENTP, the descriptor I use for my ethnic identity, my disability or whatever… These things are particularly useful to me as a person. With that, I give you one final thought: it isn’t labels that are necessarily bad, it’s how we use them that determines their worth. When someone uses labels of their choosing to describe themselves, don’t shut down the conversation by insisting on a particular lexicon, instead, listen to what that person is trying to tell you by invoking that usage. Maybe then you’ll be able to see the story behind that term or phrase. In doing so, we will take power away from those who would use such labels to undermine our humanity, and give the power back to the communities who use them as a means of self-reference and identification to form bonds with others in their communities, thereby empowering social change on our own terms.
Last week sometime, I shared an article written by some pretty cool people on another website about a bill that is currently going through the house called The ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017. I don’t so much want to talk about the bill in this post, but the reaction I got from what I posted. To see the original post, you can find it here. The question I get asked the most is some variation of “how can I hope? What can I do to get people talking?” At the dire risk of sounding like a shameless self-promoter, here’s what you can do: buy my book… Or don’t. If not, by books and documentaries created by people with disabilities. And I’m using that term as broadly as humanly possible. People with mental health conditions, people with physical disabilities, people on the autism spectrum, people who are active in the deaf community. Buy their work! That’s how you can help all of us. And when you’re done with it, give it to someone, talk to other people about what you’ve learned, share your thoughts, talk about how it made you feel. Tell people about how you had thoughts that you’ve never had before. Get involved.
This sounds ridiculously simple, but here’s the thing… It isn’t that simple. There are so many stories out there that haven’t been written, or that have that no one will ever see. That’s the thing about being a part of a marginalized group within the larger society… People don’t always see you, even when they think they do. And a lot of the time, when one of us gets up to speak about some unjust law or circumstance, no one listens. And this is it anyone’s fault, it’s mostly because of a lack of experience. Experience builds empathy… When we read a book written by someone, or we watch a movie or a documentary about someone’s life who has a specific set of struggles… We begin to understand something about that person that we didn’t know before. Not only that, we begin to become more aware of the fact that there are other people out there who have very similar struggles, and that maybe there is something that we can do to make things better not just for them, but for everyone else in the process. This is how we make things better, I building bridges from ignorance to knowledge, and then from knowledge to understanding.
There are people out there that think that the book I wrote is just about me. It isn’t, at least not entirely. I grew up in a school that had a special wing in it for people with orthopedic handicaps. People who use crutches, wheelchairs, and other means of conveyance. Some of them also had cognitive difficulties. The short of it is this: I grew up seeing a lot of people with a lot of different challenges in my life. And most of us, when people ask us if we would give up being disabled, many of us would say no. We would answer that it makes us who we are. And I still believe that it does. But I have seen with my own two eyes how that statement can eclipse every single difficulty that someone has in their life because they feel as though they have to be true to that statement at the expense of everything else that can make life more challenging. So, there are people out there who won’t speak up because they feel like they can’t. These are the people I wrote for, these are people that I knew growing up, and there are people that exist all around the world. My experience informs how I tell their stories, but it doesn’t replace their stories with my own. If you want to support equal rights for persons with disabilities, help our voices be heard. Support us.
If you’re at all interested in finding a copy of my book for yourself, can find it at Amazon here. Thanks for listening!
I walk along the edge,
As the waves crash with varying intensity on the shoreline.
I look out past the horizon,
I See all the loves that came before.
Each of them with their footsteps in the sand,
As the winds of time blow the trails away,
With their steps etched upon my heart,
Impervious to breeze or gale.
I carry them with me,
The ones I accepted,
And the ones I couldn’t dare to.
I carry them to you, bound up in my heart,
Because I can’t remember life before,
You entered as a work of art.
In the current political climate, the assault on Americans with disabilities is no longer limited to attempts to strip them of health care, take away the services millions need to live independently and to work, or make deep cuts to programs that help many make ends meet. Now a bill making its way through Congress threatens to roll back the civil rights of people with disabilities by exactly 27 years. The bill, misleadingly titled the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017, would hack away at the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, the landmark civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability and mandates that people with disabilities have “equal opportunity” to participate in American life.
The bill would roll back disability rights and inclusion
Prior to the Americans with Disabilities Act, it was far more arduous for Americans with disabilities to participate in mainstream society. Public places such as hospitals and restaurants were often inaccessible to people with disabilities, and these individuals had no recourse against the owners of these establishments who, in effect, barred them from entry. After the passage of the ADA, places of public accommodation—that is, privately owned, leased, or operated facilities—were required to take proactive steps to be reasonably accessible to people with disabilities.
Although the ADA has enabled people with disabilities to participate far more fully in public life, some businesses remain inaccessible because of architectural obstacles, such as inaccessible entrances, bathrooms too small to accommodate someone in a wheelchair, and lack of curb cuts, to name just a few. Fortunately, under Title III of the ADA, people with disabilities have the right to file lawsuits against proprietors of businesses that lack reasonable accommodations. Indeed, despite businesses’ obligation to take proactive steps towards accessibility, litigation has been the mechanism through which many gains for people with disabilities have been achieved since 1990. But the ADA Education and Reform Act, which has been met with deep opposition from the disability community, would fundamentally weaken this process in ways that would make it prohibitively burdensome for many people with disabilities to enforce their long-standing civil rights.
What the bill would do
The ADA Education and Reform Act would create onerous red tape for people with disabilities attempting to enforce their rights under the ADA. Specifically, the bill requires anyone seeking to file a lawsuit under Title III to first provide written notice to the business owners in violation of the law, citing very specific details regarding the provisions of the statute that apply to their particular case. Business owners would then have 60 days to acknowledge the violation and another 120 days to at least make “substantial progress” towards rectifying it. This means that under the bill, places of public accommodation—which have had nearly three decades to comply with the ADA—would have yet another six months just to begin to rectify their violations of the law. As the American Civil Liberties Union points out, under this bill, “Business owners can spend years out of compliance and face no penalty even after they receive notice, so long as the owners claim ‘substantial progress.’” People with disabilities, in turn, would have to wait at least that long to access justice.
The bill is based on exaggerated claims
This latest attempt to curtail the civil rights of people with disabilities was reignited by a popular “60 Minutes” segment alleging the widespread filing of frivolous Title III lawsuits by attorneys who spot ADA violations using, for example, Google Earth. The segment implies that people with disabilities have no complaints about the noncompliant establishments but that, because of these lawsuits, business owners end up with a bill that many of them cannot afford to foot. It’s important to note that under Title III, those in violation of the ADA do not have to pay any monetary damages, only attorney’s fees and injunctive relief, meaning business owners must remedy the violation.
So-called frivolous lawsuits, however, are nowhere near as pervasive as proponents of the ADA Education and Reform Act suggest. Proponents of the bill point to increases over the past several years in Title III filings, including a 37 percent uptick in 2016 compared with 2015. But a quick look at the numbers shows that this increase is easily explained by a small number of large-scale filers. In fact, just 12 individual attorneys and a single disability law firm were responsible for more than one-third of all Title III lawsuits filed in 2016, accounting for more than 100 cases each.
Even in the unlikely event that all of these large-scale filers’ lawsuits were indeed frivolous—which is disproven by the fact that many of them have brought to light very real violations of the ADA—they would hardly present an issue systemic enough to warrant federal intervention, particularly when such an intervention would gut a decades-old civil rights law. Additionally, protections against the filing of frivolous lawsuits are enshrined in existing ethics rules. As disability rights lawyer Robyn Powell notes, frivolous lawsuits can already be addressed through district courts, as well as by state bar associations.
What proponents of the ADA Education and Reform Act also seem to ignore is that Title III of the ADA was, in many respects, the product of a compromise between the disability community and business interests. As a result, businesses are only required to provide accommodations when doing so doesn’t present an “undue burden” and when they are “readily achievable”—that is, technically feasible and affordable. What’s more, there have long been in place federally funded resources to help businesses comply with the law, including ten regional centers that provide technical assistance and trainings in every state. And again, under the ADA, plaintiffs are unable to obtain monetary damages from businesses. Any settlements or court orders involving monetary damages are based on state laws, not the ADA.
Places of public accommodation have had a full 27 years to comply with Title III of the ADA. Yet, despite substantial gains since 1990 when the ADA was signed into law, American society is still rife with architectural barriers that prevent people with disabilities from fully participating in public life. The ADA Education and Reform Act all but condones the businesses that, nearly three decades after the ADA was enacted, have yet to comply. As the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities has noted, there exists “no other law that outlaws discrimination but permits entities to discriminate with impunity” until after victims of that discrimination inform business owners that they’re breaking the law.
Eliza Schultz is the research assistant for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress. Rebecca Cokley is a senior fellow working on disability policy at the Center. Rebecca Vallas is the managing director of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center.