No, It Isn't All Right To Mock Disabled

COMMENT

January 30, 1994|By BRIAN SULLAM

Just about the time that news reports surfaced that a gang of German skinheads carved a swastika on the cheek of a young disabled woman in Bonn, I received a call from Marilyn Phillips of Hampstead.

Ms. Phillips, a professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore and an activist for disabled persons, was angry that the Carroll County Veterinary Clinic had posted a tasteless message on its sign adjacent to Md. 140.

"A critic," the sign said, "is a legless man who teaches running."

Ms. Phillips, who has been disabled since childhood and uses a wheelchair, told me that when she called the clinic to talk about the sign, the receptionist laughed at her and hung up. When she called back and engaged the receptionist in a discussion about the sign's implications, Ms. Phillips said she was treated as if she were a crank.

Having been very vocal and aggressive in asserting their rights to access and equal treatment during the past two decades, the disabled have been experiencing an unfortunate backlash lately.

As it turned out, the disfigurement of the young German girl may have been self-inflicted, but the pictures of her bloodied cheek conjured up images of the heinous crimes the Nazis committed against disabled people. Crippled, blind, deaf and mentally ill people were expendable according to Nazi doctrine. Like Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals, they were vilified, isolated and killed.

A dislike for the disabled continues in Germany. In the past two years, neo-Nazi extremists have reportedly attacked about 80 disabled people, killing one.

While this country has never had an epidemic of murders of its disabled population, it does have a long tradition of treating these people as second-class citizens.

The veterinary clinic's poor attempt at cleverness was an obvious example that demeaning the handicapped is still acceptable. Imagine had the clinic displayed an equally stupid racial joke.

This tolerance of offensive references to disabled people is an indication of a troublesome phenomenon that all minority groups encounter -- the majority reacts with hostility to the demands of the minority. Whether about issues involving blacks, women or the disabled, the usual refrain is: "What is it going to take to make these people happy?"

After years of ignoring the needs of the disabled, local governments now must make their buildings and services accessible. What with officials complaining about the costs of widening doors, building ramps and installing toilets for the handicapped, one would think that these governments were being asked to waste money.

Westminster's City Council had a long debate about whether the new police headquarters should have an elevator. Opponents said the elevator's cost was prohibitive and not needed because handicapped people could go outside to get to the building's other floor.

Fortunately, reason prevailed and the elevator was included in the remodeling.

pTC Rather than being an extravagance, Police Chief Sam Leppo says, the elevator plays an essential role in the traffic flow of the building. Rather than walk prisoners up a narrow staircase, police officers are able to bring them upstairs in the elevator. Should the need arise, a citizen in a wheelchair or a blind person with a cane or guide dog can easily get from one floor to the other in the police headquarters.

The renovations underway in Westminster's City Hall will make that building more accessible to the handicapped also. Instead of having a council chamber on the second floor that could only be reached by a stairway, the new chamber will be on the first floor.

Other municipalities are beginning to face up to the fact that they must make it as easy for a disabled person to conduct his or her business as an able-bodied constituent.

No one would tolerate public toilets only for men, or doors that women and children could not open. Yet, as a society, we have not acknowledged that we have openly and routinely discriminated against large numbers of disabled people.

By enacting the Americans with Disabilities Act, the federal government has eliminated some of the more blatant discriminatory practices against the disabled. But like the previous Civil Rights Acts, the new law doesn't magically wipe out years of ingrained practices.

For many businesses and governments, complying with ADA is seen as a tremendous and unnecessary burden.

Those who complain about the burden should remember that they too can easily join the ranks of the disabled. A traffic accident, a fall on ice or a severe illness could force them to rely on a wheelchair, crutches or a walker for mobility. If they are lucky, they might be only temporarily disabled. If not, for the rest of their lives they would have to contend with the same obstacles that they now dismiss.

I don't blame disabled people for getting angry. We underestimate their abilities, make it difficult for them to function society, then make fun of them.

Ms. Phillips was right to be outraged. While not as bad as the treatment disabled Germans receive from the neo-Nazis, the sign of which she complained is indicative of the able-bodied population's quiet compliance with discriminatory practices against the disabled that wouldn't be tolerated under other circumstances.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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