Don't be a petty jerk be a BIG jerk

April 04, 1996|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Compassionate government has recently rained new rights and entitlements so rapidly that you may have missed this beauty:

You have a right to be a colossally obnoxious jerk on the job.

If you are just slightly offensive, your right will not kick in. But if you are seriously insufferable to colleagues at work, you have a right not to be fired, and you are entitled to have your employer make reasonable accommodations for your ''disability.'' That is how the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is being construed.

This is explained in the current issue of The Public Interest quarterly by G.E. Zuriff, professor of psychology at Wheaton College and a clinical psychologist at MIT. His essay ''Medicalizing Character'' suggests that the Disabilities Act, as elaborated by regulations, threatens ''to undermine our culture's already fragile sense of personal responsibility.''

The act is generally thought of in terms of guaranteeing wheelchair access and other provisions for the physically disabled. But its definition of disability includes ''mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.'' During the act's first 15 months, complaints of violations pertaining to mental disabilities were nearly 10 percent of all complaints, second only to complaints pertaining to back problems.

Regulations say ''mental impairments'' include ''any mental or psychological disorder such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness.'' But no regulation defines what constitutes emotional or mental illnesses. For that, as the legislative history and court cases arising from the act demonstrate, the authority is the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association. In the context of the Disabilities Act, the manual's nearly 900 pages have the potential to produce legal chaos and moral confusion.

Consider the definition of ''oppositional defiant disorder'' as a pattern of ''negativistic, defiant, disobedient and hostile behavior toward authority figures.'' Diagnostic criteria include ''often loses temper,'' ''often deliberately annoys people,'' ''is often touchy'' or ''spiteful or vindictive.''

No waiting in line

The manual's list of ''personality disorders'' includes ''anti-social personality disorder'' (''a pervasive pattern of disregard for . . . the rights of others . . . callous, cynical . . . an inflated and arrogant self-appraisal''); ''histrionic personality disorder'' (''excessive emotionality and attention-seeking . . . inappropriately sexually provocative or seductive''); ''narcissistic personality disorder'' (''grandiosity, need for admiration . . . boastful and pretentious . . . interpersonally exploitative . . . may assume that they do not have to wait in line''); ''avoidant personality disorder'' (''social inhibition, feelings of inadequacy''); ''dependent personality disorder'' (''submissive and clinging behavior''); ''obsessive-compulsive personality disorder'' (''preoccupation with orderliness, perfectionism . . . may be excessively conscientious, scrupulous . . . mercilessly self-critical . . . rigidly deferential to authority'').

It is, as Professor Zuriff says, momentous for society to decide that what once were considered faults of mind and flaws of character are ''personality disorders'' akin to physical disabilities that demand legal accommodation. Suggesting some of the real-world consequences of the psychiatric profession's success in medicalizing emotional problems, he asks:

''How will workers react when they see chronically late, socially difficult, temperamental, or unlikable colleagues being given special privileges? What will workers think of sensitivity-training sessions that encourage them to tolerate, and even empathize with, a co-worker who is rude or lacks self-control?''

Because lots of people manifest, at one time or another, many of the traits associated with various ''disorders,'' judgments must be made about what is ''excessive'' manifestation. That will vary with particular cultures and contexts. Furthermore, we are, says Mr. Zuriff, far from knowing biological or psychological causes of ''personality disorders'' understood simply in terms of observed constellations of personality traits.

Mr. Zuriff believes that people manifesting these traits ''should be held morally responsible for them. They should be encouraged to accommodate to society rather than the reverse.'' Instead, the Americans with Disabilities Act, as elaborated with regulations that inadequately clarify and limit the definitions of mental disabilities, encourages the proliferation of claimed disabilities. Thus does life imitate art. Read on.

In a satirical novel published just 13 years ago, Peter De Vries wrote, ''Once terms like identity doubts and mid-life crisis become current, the reported cases of them increase by leaps and bounds.'' And, ''Rapid-fire means of communication have brought psychic dilapidation within the reach of the most provincial backwaters, so that large metropolitan centers and educated circles need no longer consider it their exclusive property, nor preen themselves on their special malaises.''

So it now is with mental disabilities. Name them and they will multiply, particularly if people who acquire them acquire power in the bargain. How long is 13 years in America? Long enough to turn satire into solemn law.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/04/96

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