Robert B. Simpson: As you sow …

October 26, 2013 

When Baraka Kanaan prepared to make a business trip from his home in Maui, Hawaii, he called Delta Airlines to make special arrangements. That's because Kanaan is a paraplegic; when he travels by air, he has to make prior arrangements with the airline for assistive equipment at any terminal where he must embark or disembark. What happened this time is enough to make you swear, especially if you or someone you care about is a paraplegic or quadriplegic. (Disclosure: My wife has been a paraplegic for more than 16 years, in a wheelchair, trying to live as normal a life as possible. Having written about it more than once probably offers a clue that I take this stuff seriously.)

New Mobility, a cutting-edge publication devoted to the problems and frustrations faced by handicapped citizens, explains that when Kanaan reached his destination, Nantucket, Massachusetts, no assistive equipment was available. His request for help from the aircrew was denied. He had to crawl, in his business suit, down the steps and across the tarmac to his wheelchair, which had been unloaded separately. On the return trip, he endured a similar experience. His complaint to Delta gained him an offer of $100 and 25,000 Sky Miles. Stunned by this corporate insensitivity not just to the inconvenience but to the shame and embarrassment he'd endured, Kanaan is suing the airline for Americans with Disabilities Act violations.

A lawsuit is the ultimate conclusion of some of these cases. And some litigants will be suspected of using their disability as a means of attacking and punishing companies and local governments. Those who suspect this have probably never had to see a spouse or a child humiliated and embarrassed, or even endangered, by ignorance of or insensitivity to the needs of the handicapped. It is worth noting that, despite widespread belief otherwise, the courts are not flooded with ADA cases and, except in California, which has made its own additional state rules, private litigants cannot receive financial damages from ADA suits. Only those suits brought by the Justice Department can result in fines for violators. Otherwise, if violations are proven in court, the violator must correct the fault that caused the suit. If the cost is excessive, the government will help.

Distasteful, time-consuming, and frustrating as lawsuits may be, both for the handicapped litigant and the defendant, it turns out they are pretty much the only way the ADA gets enforced with reluctant violators. The government is rarely proactive in ADA matters, with the result that, while the act has been helpful, violations are widespread.

Some violations are the result of cost concerns. Some are from human foot-dragging. Some are from ignorance, on the part of businesses and the public in general. Access to public facilities is sometimes less than adequate because those responsible don't realize that the law is quite flexible in allowing sensible and inexpensive modifications when that is more practical than more elaborate ones and as long as reasonable access is provided.

And the general public is often ignorant of the need to make daily life not quite so onerous for their handicapped fellow citizens. Or of the part they can play, with little inconvenience, in doing so. Long ago I wrote about the frustration of finding the diagonally-striped unloading zone beside handicap van parking, designed to allow room for wheelchair- or walker-using persons to dismount, occupied by motorcycles or shopping carts, or even other cars or vans. A lady wrote to me last week to say that, until she recently read what I had written, she'd never realized what those marked spaces were actually for. Even so, she said, she would never have had the audacity to assume she could commandeer them for her own use.

In my opinion, if we aspire to live in a rational, fair society, we each need to be concerned that the provisions of ADA be enforced. And that we as individuals avoid thoughtlessly obstructing fellow citizens struggling to live semi-normal lives.

You may be young and healthy today, but if you are fortunate enough to get old, you may find yourself needing special consideration that allows you to live a reasonably normal life. Or, long before old age sets in, you may find, in the blink of an eye, that an accident or illness has turned your life upside down, and you may hope that the compassion and understanding you've offered others will now be returned.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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