by Paul Edwards

I have spent a good deal of time over the past few weeks thinking about how people with disabilities are perceived. My musings began with court cases that I was following and how they were handled by our judicial system. For this article, I will just talk about one of those cases.

A lady in New York who is partially sighted frequents fast-food restaurants. She filed suit against several of them because they not only did not have large print menus; they did not provide what she considered appropriate services to her when she visited. According to her, she was sometimes forced to wait until everyone in the line had been served before they would read her some of the choices on the menu. Sometimes, she alleged, people were rude to her and laughed at her. At one restaurant, she alleged she was directed to the men's room rather than the women's room on purpose when she asked for directions. She was suing because she believed that she was not getting the services from these establishments that people without disabilities were getting and that she was potentially being denied access to the goods and services that were being offered that she might have chosen because people were not prepared to read the whole menu.

Title III of the ADA does not, as it now stands, require restaurants to have either braille or large print menus. It does require that those restaurants make certain that people who are visually impaired have access to information about the goods and services that are available. Is this lawsuit an appropriate one? I think it is, but the court that initially heard the case apparently did not.

When the case was initially decided, it was dismissed on the grounds that the lady suffered no material harm. Nowhere in her documents does the plaintiff indicate that she ever left the fast-food restaurants without buying something. Since she always ate, said the court, she was not materially impacted or damaged and therefore has no case. Essentially, "no harm, no foul" was the argument used.

I am happy to say that she appealed this decision, and I am even happier to report that the New York Court of Appeals has sent the case back indicating that the grounds used to dismiss the case will not fly. Essentially, they say that the quality of the services that a person receives are important and that she was clearly not being treated in a manner that would allow us to believe that she had an equal chance to get the same goods and services that others coming to the fast-food restaurant could expect. Now we wait to see what will happen with the case when it is retried.

For me, though the initial outcome was disappointing, the issue goes beyond either the ADA or equal treatment. I found myself wondering how a person who alleged mistreatment on the basis of race or gender would have fared. Would the courts have seen fit to say "no harm, no foul" in that case? I don't think so. At the heart of discrimination, as it is understood for other protected classes, is a notion that Aretha Franklin sums up as "respect." It isn't just about whether you get access to a place or can use the products or services that are offered. It is also an intangible notion that we could perhaps call appropriate treatment. If the argument that was applied in this case were allowed to stand, could we not just as easily say that the water is just as good from a colored-only water fountain, so why fuss? Could we not just as easily say that a woman who is not promoted has not been materially harmed and therefore has no right to gripe?

Yes, I am overstating things, but only a little. I do believe that a complaint or a suit that could prove malicious behavior by employees against a person who is black or Hispanic would have been treated very differently by either the company or a court. Why did this case get tossed out summarily? Are people with disabilities seen as different? Is the standard of treatment that a disabled person should expect lower than that which other minorities can generally anticipate?

I do not pretend to be able to answer these questions. I can speculate, I suppose, and, as I have thought about this matter, I have started to do that. I truly think that people expect folks with disabilities to behave in a certain way. We are to be meek and polite and grateful. We are also supposed to understand that it is OK to tell us to wait because we have asked for something extra when we ask to know what is on the menu. Do each of us contribute our own acquiescence in stores and in restaurants? Are we partly responsible for how this case came out? How often do we accept treatment that is less than equal because it is easier to make do than it is to ask for what we should get?

I am not sure how to fix this. Perhaps more of us need to ask fast- food places to read their menus. Maybe if more of us did it, they would be more inclined to get large print and braille menus. More important, though, maybe they would begin to see us in a different way. Maybe we would be seen as folks who want to have the same choices as other people have. Maybe our demands would come to be recognized as legitimate demands by customers whose money is just as green as everybody else's. Perhaps the most important change that might come about is even more significant. Perhaps we would begin to see ourselves differently. Perhaps we would see ourselves as empowered to demand equal treatment. What a concept! Shall we try?

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