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Friday, January 9, 2009

Dignitas Under Investigation

Not Dead Yet noted that British and Swiss newspaper are reporting that Dignitas, the assisted suicide clinic where Daniel James and almost 1,000 other people ended their life, is under investigation. According to the Swiss newspaper Blick the man in charge of Dignitas, Ludwig Minelli, financial affairs are under investigation. Mr. Minelli has apparently failed or refused to provide investigators with financial documents requested. Newspapers report that Swiss authorities are concerned Mr. Minelli may be profiting from those that have sought assisted suicide at the clinic Dignitas. Some sensational reports claim that one British woman supposedly paid ten times the normal fee to end her life.

This is not the first time Dignitas and Mr. Minelli have generated scandalous headlines. In 2008 Dignitas was evicted from a Zurich flat it owned. Residents complained about bodies being taken out in the elevator and hearses parked outside the building. Another avenue of investigation involved membership in Dignitas. Apparently any person that seeks assisted suicide must become a member of Dignitas. Exactly what membership entails and what it costs is unknown. According to Juerg Vollenweider, state prosecutor in Zurich, authorities do not know what Dignitas does with the money it is paid. Regardless of one's views on assisted suicide, profiting from the death of another human being is morally repugnant and illegal. If Mr. Minelli is profiteering from assisted suicides arranged by Dignitas he should be prosecuted under Swiss law.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Another One Bites the Dust

I never cease to be surprised by curb cuts that line the side walks of American cities and towns. Two things in this regard mystify me. First, why do curb cuts exist at one end of the street but not the other. This creates a side walk to no where, a conclusion that is easy to reach. Second, in parking lots across the country curb cuts are routinely placed in distant if not bizarre locations. Handicap parking is located in one part of a parking lot and the curb cut in another area. People that use a wheelchair know all too well that the problem I am describing is not only aggravating but dangerous. Parking lots and roadways, the gutter in particular, are not places I want to traverse in my wheelchair. Yet I often must push my wheelchair along the gutter and across parking lots to get to where I want to be.

Readers unfamiliar with wheelchair access might think my comments are an exaggeration. I assure you they are not. In the last month two people that use a wheelchair have been killed. Their stories and death were not widely discussed or deemed all that news worthy. The two deaths I am referring to appeared in Newsday, a New York tabloid, shortly before Christmas and in a local Fayetteville paper this week. The people killed were Amelia Shean and Ranford Beckford. Both people used an electric wheelchair and died in the street gutter. What were they doing in the gutter? In Mr. Beckford's case that has not been disclosed, perhaps because he was allegedly killed by Laura Dean who was apparently drunk. Ms. Shean was killed because she was not eligible for paratransit and the bus stop nearest her home was relocated. Ms. Shean's daughter thinks her mother was killed on her way to the grocery store.

The above two deaths are far from unusual. They are as common as my use of road side gutters. Another all too common variable are dehumanizing headlines: "Wheelchair Crash", "Wheelchair Man Killed in Hit and Run", and "Wheelchair Struck and Killed". This is perfect filler and often relegated to newspaper page B 19. On a slow news day a photograph of a battered wheelchair will be published. What is rarely if ever reported is why the person, the human using a wheelchair, was using a roadside gutter. These deaths are unnecessary and bring to mind far too many close calls I have had navigating streets, parking lots, airports, and service stations. The danger is very real, the consequences deadly. Those unfamiliar with using a wheelchair simply do not care or do not appreciate the dangers involved. For example, to enter my son's elementary school a single curb cut exists. When my son was in elementary school this curb cut was regularly blocked by parked cars and buses even though it was well marked "No Parking". When a vehicle was in front of this curb cut it was impossible for a person using a wheelchair to get to the entrance. I was often stuck waiting in the parking lot and asked more than one stranger to enter the building for me and ask the principal to make an announcement that a car with the following license plate number was blocking the entrance. In the five years my son attended elementary school I would guess this happened twice a month. When I suggested to the principal that this was not acceptable and that a second curb be created I was stunned by her reply. She told me that "I do not mind making the announcement to have someone move their car". She went on to state that in her estimation the curb was well marked and that a secondary curb cut would be an "eyesore". The most disturbing aspect the principal's reply was that it was exactly what I expected her to say. The point I am trying to stress is twofold: first, people that use a wheelchair are grossly underrepresented when issues of access are discussed and decided. What may appear to be a "reasonable accommodation" to people that do not use a wheelchair is in fact quite unreasonable. People like the principal of my son's school, an educator no less, simply don't get it. Second, the lack of wheelchair access in particular and disability rights in general indicate the presence of people with disabilities remains out of the ordinary. This is a big problem because too few think about why people with disabilities are not present and active in the workplace, school system or use the mass transportation system on a regular basis. Disabled people are not present because they remain the most disenfranchised minority group in the country in spite of the fact they were granted equality when the Americans with Disability Act was passed almost twenty years ago. In short, those pesky curb cuts described by the principal of my son's school as an "eye sore" are the symbolic representation of a much larger civil rights issue--the equality denied people with a disability.

Disability, Writing Style and the New York Times

The New York Times is the one newspaper I read regularly. I absolutely love and hate the NYT at the same time. The NYT is a paper of extremes in terms of disability. As many familiar with disability rights know, the Sunday Magazine section thrust Harriet McBryde Johnson's debate with Peter Singer into the national spot light. In contrast, readers of this blog know I have severely critiqued NYT articles for publishing sloppy and simply terrible articles about disability. In fact I would characterize most articles that the NYT publishes that touch upon disability related subjects as uniformly bad (the sports, dining, and health sections are consistently terrible).

Given the above I am not sure how to react to Philip B. Corbett contribution on January 6 "Language and Disabilities". Corbett is the deputy news editor who overseas the New York Times style manual and the short essay in question is part of Times Topics, After Deadline. In Mr. Corbett's opinion "we should take extra care in references to people with disabilities". He writes that the "difference between 'the disabled' and 'disabled people' (or 'people with disabilities') is subtle but significant". In addition, "some advocates, in fact, object to any phrase that refers to the disability before the person". Corbett opines that using the word disability in this manner is not always "feasible" for writers in the NYT because it is too wordy or simply awkward. He concludes that "a person with a disability is a person, first of all, with many characteristics beyond the disability".

Golly, I feel so much better. Thanks Mr. Corbett for acknowledging my humanity and the fact I have many character traits beyond my disability. My mother be will thrilled to know that I am more than my disability. Of course, as an "advocate" for people with disabilities one must "take extra care" when near me. We people with disabilities are ever so sensitive.

Sarcasm aside, I appreciate Mr. Corbett's effort and wish him well. I hope all reporters that write for the NYT take his comments to heart--it can only help. But what I want to know is why it took so long for the NYT to acknowledge the humanity of people with disabilities? The ADA was passed almost two decades ago and people with disabilities have fought long and hard to become part of the fabric of life in American society. Do not misunderstand the point I am trying to make: the stylistic change Mr. Corbett suggests is important yet it is one that should have been made long ago. Thus the fact Mr. Corbett and the NYT have just realized the importance of the language associated with the word disability is troubling. Unfortunately Mr. Corbett and the NYT have a lot of company. Few Americans know that the ADA is civil rights legislation, disability rights groups like ADAPT are active, and that the unemployment rate among people with disabilities is almost 70% Hopefully Mr. Corbett's contribution will herald a real change in the way the NYT handles disability related matters. I doubt this will happen but at least one person at the NYT is on the ball.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Slandering the ADA

In the last month two articles have been published about the ADA that sent my blood pressure through the roof. The first was published by Time on December 29, 2008 entitled ""Lawsuits by the Disabled: Abuse of the System" and the second in the Los Angeles Times today January 5, 2009 entitled "Disabled Man's Crusade a Bane to Business Owners". The articles in question skewer disabled men that have filed multiple, as in hundreds, of ADA complaints. One of the men singled out by Time, Jarek Molski, is characterized as a "hit and run plaintiff", a "serial claimant", and an "opportunist". The victims of these so called "frivolous" ADA law suits are the most vulnerable in a weak economy: small businesses. The large number of ADA law suits filed by such "opportunists" could have a profound effect on local economies. According to David Warren Peters, CEO and general counsel of Lawyers Against Lawsuit Abuse", the state most affected is California. The "problem" Peters maintains is that California has higher standards than the Federal ASA mandates". Imagine that, higher standards for the ADA, a law that from my view is routinely and often blatantly ignored.

I do not know the men nor the law firms who represent them that are severely criticized in the Time and Los Angles Times articles. Is it possible that Mr. Molski singled out by Time is out for monetary gain? In a word, yes. Is it possible Thomas Mundy singled out in the Los Angeles Times is out for monetary gain? Again, yes, this is possible. It is also possible law firms are seeking monetary gain. These possible abuses are not as interesting to me as the way such ADA abuse is portrayed in the media. The articles in question are quite ordinary and far from unusual. Intended or not, the result is that they undermine the ADA by using language that is sure to incite the reader, especially those unfamiliar with the myriad of problems people with disabilities routinely encounter. Here are a few gems from the two articles:

Paralyzed "Thomas Mundy is trolling for barriers"

A "burgeoning army of crusaders for disabled access " exists.

"Suing for ADA noncompliance has become a cottage industry" in California.

"Disabled Californians" have "taken on the role of freelance enforcers".

"Serial litigants have cut a swath across the state, targeting family-run restaurants, boutiques, bowling alleys and wineries".

ADA lawsuits are "an old Chicago style shakedown".

"Opportunists see this [the ADA] as a great way to make $12,000 a day or more just by eating out".

People who sue under the ADA "appear to be motivated by a sincere desire for access".

"Easy money" has attracted "opportunists", and a "surprisingly large number of suits are filed by individuals with significant prior criminal history".

A plaintiff is described as "divorced and jobless except for self-assigned ADA work".

If roving bands of disabled people seeking to destroy not just the economy but small businesses exist as is implied above I have not seen them. What the articles fail to acknowledge is that 20 years after the ADA was passed significant social and architectural barriers remain common place. Based on my experience, the ADA has been successful in that it has empowered a narrow number of disabled people willing to assert their civil rights. The "problem" as I perceive it is not a lack of curb cuts, elevators, and parking spaces, a troika that is often discussed at length in newspaper articles. Instead, the real issue is twofold: first, those unfamiliar with the ADA think the law solved all the problems disabled people encounter long ago. Second, the vast majority of Americans do not equate the ADA with civil rights legislation and this is exactly what the ADA is--civil rights legislation.

When I read the Time and Los Angeles Times articles my mind went immediately conjured up of all the routine barriers I encounter. For instance how many stores have aisles 36 inches wide as is mandated by the ADA? Not many. The worst violators are toy stores, delis, restaurants, and gas station mini-marts. National brand stores such as the GAP and CVS are no better. GAP accessible changing rooms and bathrooms are routinely locked as are rear entrance doors. Good luck finding the key or manager. CVS is required to have a lower counter at the pharmacy so a person such as myself that uses a wheelchair can see a pharmacist when getting a prescription. Every CVS I have been to stocks extra merchandise displays at this counter. I could provide dozens of example but the point I am trying to get across is that I could be exactly like Thomas Mundy and Jarek Molski. I could file hundreds if not thousands of ADA violations in any given month. Such violations are the norm and when I complain nothing ever changes. The GAP I shop at always locks the accessible changing room in spite of my complaints. The local gas station where I fill up my car routinely blocks the only ramp with cases of windshield wiper fluid. And so the list can go on and on and on...

This is what I want to read someday: an article in Time or the Los Angeles Times about the ADA and what is the most violated aspect of the law. This would make interesting reading. In fact, I would love to hear from readers about what they think is the most violated part of the ADA. My vote goes to fuel pumps. At every gas station in NY a sign is posted that self service stations must provide assistance to disabled drivers when filling up. In brief, the sign states disabled patrons are supposed to honk their horn twice and an attendant will come out and pump the gas. I have been driving for 30+ years and not once has this ever worked. So bring it on, let me know about ADA violations that are the norm.