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A Win for the Disabled -- and Dignity

By Suzanne Robitaille The U.S. Supreme Court recently voted 5-4 that states failing to make their courthouses and services accessible to the disabled can be sued for denying them their constitutional right to due process. But more important, in deciding in favor of the plaintiffs in Tennessee v. Lane, the high court did more than validate at least part of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the 1990 legislation that ensures civil rights for the disabled. It also helped better define the context in which assistive technology should be viewed.

George Lane is an amputee who uses a wheelchair. In 1996, he crawled up the steps of the Polk County (Tenn.) courthouse to appear at a reckless-driving case. When he refused to crawl for a second appearance and declined the offer to be carried up to the second-floor hearing room by court officers, he was arrested.

REASONABLE ACCOMMODATIONS. Lane sued the state under Title II of the ADA, which requires that public buildings and services be open and accessible to the disabled. He was joined by Beverly Jones, a court stenographer whose dependence on a wheelchair for mobility kept her out of many courtrooms, and five other Tennesseans who had experienced similar problems.

The state didn't dispute Lane's lack of elevator access, but it contended that his 14th Amendment right to due process wasn't violated because other ways existed to get him up the stairs. Tennessee contended that Congress had gone too far in requiring states to make accommodations for the disabled under the ADA, claiming that the 11th Amendment protected them from such a lawsuit and overrode plaintiffs' rights for due process guaranteed under the 14th Amendment.

The May 17 ruling in Lane's favor is significant. It allows him to return to a lower court and seek $100,000 in damages, and it compels states to make their courthouses accessible or risk being sued for denying the disabled due process. Says Lane's attorney William Brown: "An elevator to an individual with disabilities is no different than stairs are to me as a person without disabilities. It's the way I get there."

COURTS, NOT STADIUMS. For many disabled people who use assistive technology, the victory is huge: Tennessee v. Lane negates the notion that wheelchairs, hearing aids, and guiding canes are somehow less than essential to live free and independent lives in an able-bodied world. A wheelchair, for instance, does more than allow someone to move to and fro: It helps the disabled person interact with the world. It levels the playing field and helps to preserve the individual's autonomy and dignity.

Sometimes it makes sense for a person to be separated from their assistive device. When a blind person goes through an airport metal detector, his or her cane is momentarily put aside. At theme parks, deaf people remove their hearing aids on rides where they might be splashed by water. Mobility-impaired people don't sleep at night in their wheelchairs. But the high court ruling makes it clear that asking people to remove their assistive equipment and function without it is indeed a form of discrimination.

Unfortunately, the decision focuses only on the issue of access to courtrooms. Other public edifices like museums, sports stadiums, or even statehouses don't fall under the scope of the ruling because access to them isn't a constitutional right. So unless future rulings expand the scope of protection, citizens can complain, but they can't sue for damages.

ELEVATING DECISION. With regard to the private sector, it's unlikely that Lane's case would have stood a chance before the Supreme Court. Since the '90s, the court has embarked on a steady course that has shrunk the scope of the ADA, thus shielding many entities from excessive lawsuits. The law says access modifications for businesses like restaurants, retail stores, hotels, and funeral homes must be "reasonable," not overly excessive or expensive.

Indeed, as recently as 2002, in Toyota v. Williams, the court held that the carmaker wasn't in violation of the ADA when it refused to tailor a job for an assembly-line worker who claimed she developed carpal-tunnel syndrome while on the job (see BW Online, 1/10/02, "A Victory in Disguise for the Disabled").

Tennessee v. Lane isn't a perfect ruling for people with disabilities. But despite its narrowness, the court's decision emphasizes once again that the ADA is an important law. Lane was right to refuse being carried up the stairs. In upholding the ADA, the justices upheld Lane's dignity. Let's hope that eventually, the ADA elevates all disabled people, in every aspect of their lives, as it was originally intended to do. Robitaille writes Assistive Technology only for BusinessWeek Online

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