Disability and the American Way

This article originally appeared in Capital Commentary, a weekly current affairs publication by the Center for Public Justice. To read more, visit http://www.capitalcommentary.org. 

On July 26, 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed into law the most comprehensive civil rights bill in decades: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

Hailed by Congress as a bipartisan triumph and celebrated by disability activists across the country, the ADA initiated a sweeping reform of governmental policy, seeking to extend protection for persons with disabilities to all areas (private and public) of American society. Its ambitions were simple and noble: to “provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination” and “assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency” for persons with disabilities.

In the more than 20 years since its enactment, the ADA has reshaped the lives of persons with disabilities, providing a blueprint for their further inclusion in society and “clear, strong, consistent, enforceable standards addressing [their] discrimination.” The central provisions of the act prohibit discrimination in the workplace, require businesses and public transit systems to be handicap-accessible, ensure access to government programs and services, and offer protection under the law to any individuals who wish to assert their rights under the ADA.

Despite conflicting reports of its overall efficacy and evident struggles with enforcement procedures, the ADA, at the very least, marks a decisive shift in governmental policy and reflects the general consensus in American society that all persons, regardless of ability, are deserving of rights and equal opportunity under the law. To properly understand the ADA, however, one must consider its historical and ideological context; when set against the backdrop of America’s tragic and oft-forgotten history regarding its treatment of persons with disabilities, the magnitude of its victory is even more apparent. 

Unless a fundamental shift occurs in American thought...persons with disabilities will never be able to truly flourish in society.

Ironically, liberalism, the central political doctrine of modern liberal democracy, is primarily to blame for the atrocities of the past, and it is this same doctrine that upholds the values and intentions of the ADA today. It seems that the objective of the ADA is not only to eliminate the discrimination of persons with disabilities and provide them with fair and equal treatment (noble and just causes, to be sure), but in doing so to make them “normal” and bring them closer to the liberal ideal with which they stand fundamentally incongruous.

Thus, without understating the significance of this landmark federal law and its importance to all members of society, unless a fundamental shift occurs in American thought—one that moves to a place where people are attributed worth not by production value, mental aptitude or by achieving some subjective level of “normalcy,” but rather by their intrinsic worth as beloved children of God, reflectors of the imago dei—persons with disabilities will never be able to truly flourish in society.

Liberalism, while not easily captured in a brief overview, can be distilled to a few essential points: individualism, the social contract, the elevation of choice as the highest good, a high view of reason, self-reliance, self-sovereignty and an emphasis on a personal autonomy. For the liberal, man is (and must be) autonomous and rational, sovereign, with self-evident rights, destined to progress. As Kenneth Grasso argues, this naïve yet ubiquitous image of the human person is hardly coincidental: “The anthropology of the sovereign self and the conception of the human good and political morality that issues from it are the inevitable consequences of the liberal model’s own inner dynamic, of liberalism’s own inner dialogue.” 

The disabled figure troubles this illusory archetype. “Disability’s indisputably random and unpredictable character translates as appalling disorder and persistent menace in a self-order predicated on self-government,” writes Rosemarie Garland Thomson. In a modern liberal society built on participatory democracy and self-sovereignty, there is no place for those with disabilities. They are too often relegated to the sidelines; the creation of government-run institutions for the “feeble-minded” at the same time as Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and the Industrial Revolution provide evidence to this capitalistic fervor and its priorities.

Without a vigilant transcendence of this liberal ideal, the triumph of the ADA will prove to be little more than a subtle capitulation to the ideological tradition that led to its necessity. We need a genuine cultural shift, which must be initiated by people daring enough to judge their brothers and sisters not by their standing against the liberal ideal but by their inherent beauty and worth as bearers of the imago dei. Humans, regardless of ability, are “the only creature[s] on earth which God made for its own sake.” When rational capacity no longer defines what it is to be human and production value ceases to be the litmus test for a person’s worth, only then will America start to see the fruits of a disability rights movement trying to make up for lost time.

—Holland Stewart was previously an assistant at the L'Arche Noah Sealth community in Seattle, Washington. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in history from Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.