Concern over ADA, court spurs action

Disabled activists 'roll out the vote'

IN EDITORIAL pages and on TV gabfests, pundits worry that an already disconnected electorate is tuning out the issues of this election year, leaving the levers of power largely in the hands of well-heeled lobbyists and special interests.But there are areas where electoral ennui is being beaten back. One of the liveliest may be that of the estimated 35 million disabled Americans of voting age, a multicultural, multi-class community bound together by that most democratic of traits: human frailty.
Concerned over legal attacks on hard-won legislative protections and frustrated at the slow pace of funding for community care, disabled Americans are turning up the heat. Last week an estimated 5,000 demonstrators wrapped up a multi-state "Rolling Freedom" caravan at the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, aiming to call attention to legal threats to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Closer to home, veteran activist Jim Cherry, of the Lilburn-based Americans with Disabilities Association, latching onto that enthusiasm with a "Roll Out the Vote" campaign.
"We've got research showing about a 20 percent lower turnout among the disabled than among non-disabled," Cherry says. "If disabled voters went to the polls at the same rate as the rest of the voters, there would have been 5 million more votes cast in the '96 elections."
Cherry, who says he and his wife generally spend election days ferrying disabled citizens to the polls, is relying on the provisions of the 1993 Motor Voter Act — along with a healthy dose of citizen goodwill — to help organize transportation for disabled voters.
"Under Motor Voter, any non-profit organization that receives federal funds has to do this anyway," he says.
The burgeoning political awareness is at least in part in response to several developments affecting the disabled. In the 10 years since the ADA's passage, numerous challenges to the landmark legislation have been mounted. A backlash has emerged among landlords and business owners fighting sometimes-costly ADA requirements. Among them is the recent case in which a jury declined to award damages to a woman who sued actor Clint Eastwood because a restroom at his Carmel, Calif., hotel wasn't wheelchair accessible.
Echoing a frequent complaint of those who find themselves challenged on ADA grounds, Eastwood said prior to the trial that fee-hungry lawyers are spurring the suits, to the detriment of small businesses as well as the disabled themselves. "The lawyers drive off in a big Mercedes," said Eastwood. "The disabled person rides off in a wheelchair."
The negative publicity from such cases is worrisome for activists like Cherry. But even moreso are challenges like the one being heard by the Supreme Court this week. In Garrett v. University of Alabama, justices will be asked to decide whether Congress overstepped its authority by allowing individuals to sue states in federal court over claims of discrimination.
Disabled advocates fear that the court — which has been increasingly willing to reign in federal authority in favor of "state's rights" — will rule against the ADA, eroding legislation that many describe as the disabled community's equivalent of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision ending segregation in schools.
"The issues surrounding potential Supreme Court appointment are of great concern to a lot of us," says Cherry. "We're afraid there may be a turning-back-the-clock on the ADA, even with the current composition of the court. A lot of the decisions in our favor have only been 5-4, so we're already watching real close."
The next president, he notes, may appoint three justices. If George W. Bush adheres to his campaign pledge to appoint more judges in the mold of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas — reliably conservative jurists who've made no secret of their disdain for expansive federal authority — disability activists may join other segments of the civil rights community in fretting over the outcome.
According to Mark Johnson, disability coordinator at Atlanta's Shepherd Center, an adverse decision in this week's case not only will erode the ADA. It will also cap what he terms "a decade of attacks on the disabled in state courts, in the private sector, and even by big Hollywood stars.
"From a morale standpoint, when you've been getting attacked and attacked for 10 years, you do get tired of getting beat up," says Johnson.
"Some states — not including Georgia --do have comprehensive civil rights laws," says Johnson. "So while it's easy for people to say, 'This is really a states' rights issue, and the states will take care it on that level,' the reality is that they're not."