Sunday, January 18, 2004

Tenn. case threatens disability rights law

Alive and well

Debra Kendrick

A group of disability rights activists crawled up the Supreme Court steps Tuesday in an attempt to draw attention to the potentially mean-spirited case being heard there. Pitiful perhaps, but not nearly so pitiful as the possibility that our Supreme Court justices might just decide that if you have a disability, you might not be able to enter our courthouses, and that's OK.

The case is Lane v. Tennessee, and the gist of it goes like this: George Lane, a Tennessee man who became paraplegic in an auto accident, had occasion to appear in the Polk County courthouse for a misdemeanor. There was no elevator - and no understanding: The judge told him to get upstairs. Lane crawled up the steps, a feat which he said scored higher than 10 on a 1 to 10 pain scale - to the amusement of courthouse employees who watched. When his hearing was delayed and a lunch break announced, Lane crawled back down. Energy and dignity spent, the defendant refused to make the crawl again that afternoon. He was thus arrested and put in jail.

Beverly Jones, a Tennessee court reporter who uses a wheelchair, has lost numerous job opportunities due to Tennessee courthouses with no elevators.

Lane, Jones, and others filed suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act, arguing that the state is violating their civil rights. What might have once been a no-brainer has gone to the Supreme Court - and Tennessee has a chance to win.

Federal vs. state

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, it is unlawful for public facilities to deny access to people with disabilities. According to the state of Tennessee, that's a federal law and the state is not obliged to honor it. In other words, if you are a lawyer, a reporter, a plaintiff, defendant or citizen called to jury duty AND you happen to have a disability, Tennessee says it's OK to ignore you or make you crawl up the stairs.

Fifty years ago, the Supreme Court delivered a decision in another case, a decision that marks in the minds of many the launch of civil rights victories for black Americans. Specifically, the Brown vs. Board of Education outcome dictated that all schools be integrated, accepting both black and white students. More generally, however, the Court was saying that every United States citizen is entitled to the rights guaranteed by federal law and cannot be stripped of those rights by his or her individual state.

In 1990, the largest of our marginalized minorities finally saw passage of a law that would bring them into equality with all other Americans. The ADA made it, finally, illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities in every venue of life.

Increased challenges

Frighteningly, those rights have been challenged - and sometimes jeopardized - in Supreme Court cases in the last few years. For the Court to settle this case in favor of Tennessee would, essentially, put citizens with disabilities right back where citizens of color were in 1954.

We are arrogant, we Americans, about the freedom our citizens enjoy, and scornful of those less enlightened countries who humiliate women or children or the elderly or those of another ethnic or religious heritage. We were the first to pass such sweeping comprehensive legislation as the Americans with Disabilities Act, and now, somehow, we can allow a case as embarrassing as this one to get to the highest court in the land?

It is ironic that, at about the same time we are taking pause to celebrate the life of one man who dreamed and won freedom for one minority, that we are actually teetering on the possibility of robbing freedom from another.

If the Supreme Court justices have any shame regarding our historic maltreatment of Americans because they were of the "wrong" gender or color or heritage or ability, certainly they will grant George Lane and Beverly Jones assurances that they are, with or without their wheelchairs, protected and valued as citizens of America.

Contact Deborah Kendrick by phone: 673-4474; fax: 321-6430; e-mail:

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