Why Everyone Thinks that They Care About Disability Rights When They Really Don’t

On Thursday, Rachel Maddow asked “Who campaigns on gutting the American’s with Disabilities Act?” in a segment that included no interviews with disabled people.

She asks the question and seems to understand that the answer is “no, one” but she fails to ask or investigate why no one would ever openly say

“Send me to Washington, I’m going to stick it to disabled people. Send me to Washington and when I take my votes, you’ll see blind people, and people in wheelchairs being hauled out of the gallery in the house and arrested because I’m taking away the most important parts of the most important legislation that has integrated disabled people into mainstream life and American public accommodation”

or have an

“I’m a wheelchair user’s worst enemy caucus”

but still, vote in favour of legislation that will invariably harm disabled people.

Because, to be clear, this question isn’t just about the HR 620 vote that Maddow is addressing in that segment. That’s just the latest example of the say one thing but do the opposite phenomenon that is an all too common aspect of disability-specific legislation and policy in the United Staes and beyond.

This phenomenon was also front and centre in every attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

It is present in the continuing controversy about austerity measures and benefits cuts in the United Kingdom.

It can be found in the fact that Toronto’s Transit Commission is unlikely to meet the goal of making all subway stations accessible by 2025 as the Access for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) requires.

This is a really common thing. You ask a random sampling of nondisabled people if they support more rights and opportunities for disabled people and the majority if not all will emphatically respond with a “yes”

If you ask them to follow through with the actions needed to make that ideology a practical reality, suddenly they’re either no longer available or they start making excuses.

There are a number of factors at work here, to create this paradoxical reality where disability rights are being clawed back or are under threat and yet most people when asked will passionately claim that they love disabled people and want them to thrive. It would take more space than I’m sure you have attention for to go through all of it (it could fill several books) but I’ll try and go through a few of issues at play. It all boils down to a single idea though.

The bar for what constitutes solidarity for disabled people is so low that simply not actively hating us is considered a radical act. Put another way, people have convinced themselves that simply reacting with the appropriate emotion is considered an act of resistance. As opposed to actually acting to resist systems that oppress disabled people.

Some of this is culturally constructed. One of the big reasons people can say one thing but let the opposite thing happen is because of how we understand poverty.

Western cultures all generally have some kind of understanding that there are portions of the population that are going to require assistance. They may differ on how they think those people should be helped. Should the government be in charge? Should it be nonprofits? Should we leave it to religious institutions?

Ultimately, who’s in charge is irrelevant because inevitably people are fine with the amorphous idea that people who are poor, sick, disabled, or elderly need and deserve assistance. Problems show up as soon as people start to act on those ideas and the need is too great for the resources available. Instead of looking for more resources, people start debating about “who really deserves to be helped”.

That’s where narratives of the lazy poor or benefits cheats come from. Not because those are widespread phenomena but because doubt is useful to people who either don’t know how to help or feel that too much is being asked of them. So they come up with excuses about why the person who needs help isn’t really deserving after all.

Disabled people have long found themselves firmly in the category of people deemed worthy of assistance but they often don’t get it. Consider the “ugly laws”, a set of policies and bylaws often incorrectly assumed to ban disabled people from public spaces outright. They were, in fact, more accurately anti-vagrancy laws. They were often premised on the idea that disabled people were justified in begging. The problem was they were convinced that people were faking disabilities to unfairly gain sympathy.

While that undoubtedly did happen it likely wasn’t as widespread as people thought. The suggestion that, that beggar might be faking his war wound was enough doubt to allow people to not only feel justified but righteous in not giving the poor money. “The ugly law” also allowed for people who were begging to be removed from the streets. Often specifically under the guise of removing the “riff-raff” so that the truly deserving poor would not be disadvantaged.

That dichotomy of the deserving and undeserving poor allows for people to maintain the idea that they want to help poor and disadvantaged people (the deserving poor) while putting up ever more restrictive barriers to getting access to that assistance (the actual poor…excuse me the “deserving” poor).

A lot of social services are delivered with expansive mission statements that do not seem to match the output of those services.

Disabled people, in general, have theoretically maintained “deserving” status throughout the history of social services in the last few centuries. Yet we remain underserved.

The rhetoric never seems to match the output.

Consider how British Prime Minister Theresa May talks about Personal Independence Payments (AKA PIP a financial benefit for disabled people in Britain) in the midst of real concerns over the impact of cuts. These statements were made in the context of there being clear identifiable harms happening as a direct result of government policy.

“If you look at what we’ve been doing on disability benefits, what we have done is look at focusing disability benefit payments on those who are most in need. In fact, we are spending more on disability benefit payments than has been done by any government in the past,” she replied.” (emphasis mine)…

“We have changed the way that disability benefits have been paid and I know there are some issues that people continue to raise about assessments that are made on those payments. But we will continue to be moving to a system that ensures we are supporting those most in need.” (emphasis mine)

In the face of cuts, the official line is still “the people who need it are getting help” the implication is thought that the people who saw their payments cut or lost benefits altogether are no longer in need. So, if they complain they are lazy scroungers.

It doesn’t matter that the restructuring of benefits did not come as a result, a large scale movement of disabled people into work. People were not becoming spontaneously cured. Their needs didn’t change. The only difference is how the government defined them.

People also can’t seem to remember that disabled people deserve access to public spaces the second money comes up. It’s always too expensive to make things accessible. That’s the basic crux of HR 620, the legislation seeking to gut the ADA.

It’s just really unfair that people have to actually make an effort to make their businesses accessible. It’s a step too far. Can’t we all feel really good that the ADA exists? Do we really have to follow it through? Can’t we just bask in the glow of the intentions behind it?

Though as the Toronto Transit example points out even keeping accessibility legislation as is won’t stop people from not following through with its requirements if they can claim it’s too expensive.

I wonder sometimes how much it costs to build steps. To pour the concrete for that one step into a building. How much do stairs cost to go between floors? How much does building the accessibility of nondisabled people cost? Is it more than a ramp? Is it more than the lowered sink and tilted mirror in the bathroom? Did the other sinks and mirrors cost so much more? or is it just that the things that accommodate disabled people in those spaces are always seen as extra?

Disabled people are a cultural paradox. We are both widely considered deserving of rights and dignity but if we are denied them, little is done and excuses are made.

The fact that disabled people are now more likely to demand meaningful inclusion and not simply settle for the subsistence of charity has also challenged the historically paternalistic view of disabled people.

They are supposed to save us. Often from the ravages of our own bodies and minds. We are not supposed to say that we really need saving from exclusion and systems that keep us in poverty.

Unfortunately, people still look to charity as not only the best way to assist disabled. On this front charities are fundamentally failing the people they claim to want to help. Awareness is big business but the bar is unfortunately not set at meaningful understanding of the cultural and economic status of disabled people. They instead far too often ask only for sentiments. In short, they ask for nondisabled people to affirm that they do not hate us.

From the Cerebral Palsy Foundation’s functionally meaningless “Just Say Hi” campaign which basically asks that people prove that they are not afraid of disabled people by saying “hi” to them.

It doesn’t interrogate why people are uncomfortable around disabled people. It doesn’t question whether disabled people want to be said “hi” too just because they’re disabled. It doesn’t consider how this campaign contributes to a toxic culture of voyeurism that strips disabled people of privacy.

Easterseals has recently rolled out its Celebrate, Don’t Separate campaign which is supposedly about changing the way people see disability. The campaign is filled with the voices of disabled people explaining how they want to be seen.

What action then does Easterseals recommend people do?

Do they want you to call your government representatives and demand action on inclusion in the workforce or in education?


Do they want you to consider ways that you can make your home/workplace/school more accessible?


Do they want you to donate money to create a fund to invest in accessible infrastructure?


They want you to take a photo of you hooking your index finger with someone else’s and posting on social media.

I can’t think of a more empty gesture.

We already know that people find it all too easy to express warm and fuzzy sentiments about disabled people. It’s the work of making those sentiments a practical reality that they can’t seem to grasp.

Empty gestures that lack meaningful action only reinforce the idea that conjuring up the right emotion is a radical act. It lets people think that they are either helping or at least not contributing to the problem as long as they can call up a warm and fuzzy feeling at the general concept of inclusion without having to create it. The fact that we don’t live in a world that can live up to the intentions of existing policies and legislation is largely irrelevant.

Hell, we live in a world where those intentions are held up as evidence of success even as they clearly haven’t been lived up too or are being actively undermined.

Any campaign built on recruiting sentiment instead of action needs to be abandoned.

If you claim to care about disabled people and our rights, be prepared to act in defence of them.

Here are some things that you can actually do.

Call politicians about bad disability-related legislation.

Attend protests in support of disability issues. Don’t just gasp and clutch your pearls when ADAPT activists are being arrested and dragged out of their wheelchairs. If they get arrested, you should step into the protest in their place.

Donate to charities and organizations that are run by and for disabled people

Support disabled content creators. Put money in the hands of disabled people.

Do not hide behind a generic feeling of fellowship and good intentions. Make sure those intentions are matched by measurable outcomes.



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The Real Problem with “Drive-By Lawsuits”

On Dec. 4 the show 60 Minutes featured a segment on “Drive-By Lawsuits” hosted by Anderson Cooper. A drive-by lawsuit is a lawsuit filed by a disabled person based on an ADA (or other accessibility law depending on country of origin) violation. These lawsuits are framed as a nuisance as they are sometimes filed by people or law firms who do this regularly.

There are a number of problems with the segment.

It utilizes stigmatizing footage of disabled people

The segment utilizes background footage of Ingrid Tischer who has this to say about seeing herself in this context,

You know what’s awesome? Seeing yourself — excuse me, parts of yourself, the non-mouthy parts — on The TeeVee showing how disability access in built environments are achievable and cool in a segment where the talking parts of other people — excuse me, men people — explain the horror of running a business that doesn’t break the law or limit their customer base. Courtesy 60 FoxNews Minutes

The footage does not include her head. She is completely depersonalized.

It doesn’t delve into why there are so many ADA violations

There is no active monitoring of ADA compliance. Dealing with infractions of laws governing accessibility (in the US & many other countries) is often primarily done through complaints. So while the law may say what needs to be done, unless someone actually complains there is little incentive to actively comply. There is no independent body doing regular inspections and meting out fines for noncompliance.

The segment doesn’t question why so many of the people hit with these so called nonsense lawsuits are ignorant of the law but it shows that ignorance as reasonable. No one questions why business owners are so unaware of their responsibilities.

It suggests that compliance is only necessary if people are complaining

One of the questions that every business owner is asked is whether anyone has either actually used an accommodation or asked for it prior to the lawsuit. The answer is invariably “no”.

This is framed to seem as though the accommodation has been up till now unnecessary and that the request was ultimately frivolous. Ingrid Tischer provides insight into why disabled people don’t make requests and don’t forcefully complain if an accommodation is unavailable.

You know why I never used to ask for a pool lift and maybe never even sought one out? (Despite excellent legal reasoning that ought to render the issue moot.) Because I’ve been hardened by the indifference of business owners. You know – the people who admit on national television they weren’t following the law and somehow are the sympathetic victims of rapacious crippled people.

This segment ultimately frames accessibility law as overreaching legislation that demands things that are unnecessary but fails to look at the reality of living in a world that is routinely inaccessible. There is very real truth to the idea that if you aren’t expected to show up then you will simply learn not to. Particularly if your presence and needs are treated as an inconvenience.

It frames people who file these suits as nuisances

One of the glaring omissions of the 60 minutes piece is that it doesn’t look at how these ADA infractions would be ameliorated if not for these lawsuits (in fact it none to subtly suggests that maybe there didn’t really need to be accommodation in the first place).

The ADA is law and yet it is widely overlooked by the people who are supposed to be subject to it. The segment points out repeatedly that proprietors don’t think that the people filing are actual customers but my question is; so what? These accommodations aren’t supposed to be things people have to ask for. They are simply supposed to be available. Why is it relevant who points it?

Cooper also talks about the lack of warning before a lawsuit but he doesn’t actually look at whether warnings are effective. In fact, they go out of their way to make accommodations seem inconvenient and excessive. They point out both the specificity of the requirements (though brief lip service is paid to the importance of this) and the costs. Then they go out of their way to say that the expensive accommodation goes unused.

It basically undermines the very purpose of the ADA.

It doesn’t look at how poor enforcement of the ADA has led to the abuse of disabled people

The segment also looks at how unscrupulous lawyers recruit disabled people to use as claimants and then cheat them out of the proceeds. This is a real concern. The segment however, points at the ability to sue over ADA violations as the major contributing factor in this kind of economic abuse. However, if the ADA was actively enforced it would do away with the very need for widespread filings and thus make this kind of abuse less likely to occur. Suing over ADA violations would be less lucrative.

It puts the blame for societal stigma against disabled people on disabled people who demand access

Perhaps the most egregious part of the segment is that it makes a point of voicing the idea that demands for access breed ill will toward disabled people. The problem is that this ill will already existed. The proprietors just had plausible deniability. They didn’t accommodate because they just didn’t know any better and they didn’t know any better because they didn’t take time  to think about the needs of disabled people and their legal obligations towards them. This lead to the creation and maintanence of inaccessible spaces.

Ill will doesn’t only exist when people acknowledge it. It was just subversive and deniable. Having it pointed out and there being a financial ramification is not disabled people’s fault. Saying it is, only serves to encourage disabled people to stay silent.


It would be far better if government took an active role in monitoring and enforcing accessibility legislation. It would likely create a more accessible environment. It would also remove the need for mass lawsuits. It would also remove the proprietor as victim narrative because the law would be enforced more uniformly. People would not be able to opine that they had been hit with an infraction when the guy down the street did not.

Complaint based systems are not useful in enforcing legislation that is designed to help a marginalized group. It creates an adversarial environment where the marginalized are somehow always to blame because they can’t see and force everyone to comply equally.

Creating a law meant to create more equality but not including a substantive way of enforcing it says a lot about how unimportant that equality really is.

The real problem with drive-by lawsuits is not that they happen but that we live in a world that makes them so easy and in some ways necessary to create accessible spaces.

I only wish Anderson Cooper and 60 Minutes had considered that before airing that segment.