Robert B. Simpson: The ramped-up Nanny State

May 25, 2013 

The Austin, Texas, city council recently came up with an idea that drew an immediate and lively reaction. I'm not aware if the measure has come to a vote yet, or if so what the outcome was, but it has certainly stirred a lot of comment.

The council proposed that the municipality adopt a requirement that all houses constructed from now on include wheelchair ramps. There was some indication that, if you were building your own house for your own use, the rule would not apply. This seemed odd, as the overall proposal was based on the assumption that most people, if they live long enough, will develop mobility problems. So why would not the old saying, "What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander" apply, whether the house is being built on spec or by owner? Assuming that the goose is as likely to need a ramp as is the gander.

One of the most interesting things about this proposal, to me, was the way it drew emotional responses not necessarily in synch with normal political positions. Builders apparently were almost uniformly opposed to the proposal, as could be expected. Some people usually dedicated to the idea of small government thought this particular proposal was OK, something city governments could require, just like smoke detectors and proper electrical wiring. Some who were physically handicapped and could certainly see the value of ramps were violently opposed, considering this an unwarranted intrusion by local government into private matters.

An assistant district attorney in Austin said he objected because such a ramp would be, in his case, "a useless and unneeded convenience." An unfortunate choice of words, perhaps, and it drew strong reaction from those who considered it a necessity, not just a convenience, but his point was logical. He's fairly young and in good health, and he has no need for this now and maybe never. When people said he was being short-sighted, because there might be physically challenged people who would like to visit him, but he was keeping them away, he pointed out that he also has walls on his house and doors with locks, yet the city government is not requiring that he give everybody a key.

I have the impression that a surprisingly large number of people seemed ready to accept the ramp requirement without grumbling, or even with outright approval. They seemed not bothered by the old idea that, if you let the camel stick his nose inside the tent, soon he will be all the way inside.

I am intimately aware of the value of wheelchair ramps, and how awkward and difficult it can be to add them to an existing building. And I know very well that you don't have to be elderly to need them. It can happen to you in a flash. Still, I personally do not want the government, any government, dictating such rules for private property. Safety measures are a different matter. If a new rule needs to be added to the building code, let it be a requirement for fire sprinklers to be installed in all new residential construction. That would save lives.

Public facilities are something else again. Ramps, yes. Adequate handicap parking, yes. Accessible seating or wheelchair areas that don't set aside wheelchair occupants like lepers, but are as much in main seating areas as is feasible, yes. And an enlightened public that understands you don't park so as to block the wheelchair cut in a sidewalk. Nor do you park in that white-striped area adjoining a handicap parking slot, even if you're handicapped.

In fact, if I could just convince the general public that those particular white-striped areas are to provide space for a person in a wheelchair to be able to depart from a motor vehicle safely, not as parking space for motorcycles and shopping carts, I'd consider my life's mission accomplished.

But as for requiring ramps on private dwellings, that idea, welcome though it may be in later years in individual cases, seems mostly to appeal to those who just can't see that it's a very important case of government meddling. Or to those who have a brother-in-law in the ramp-building business.

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