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PERSPECTIVE ON HEALTH : Boutique Disabilities, and Real Ones : Those with real needs get short shrift when even the odor-challenged demand special status and funding.

January 08, 1995|BILL BOLTE | Bill Bolte of Culver City, who uses a power wheelchair, writes frequently for newspapers and disabilities magazines.

When I crawled under buses and, with thousands of other disabled people, was arrested and jailed during the 1980s for demanding access to public transportation--a struggle that brought the Americans With Disabilities Act to fruition--I did not know that an infinite line of claimants to disabled status was waiting in the shadows to push me and my fellow severely physically disabled persons aside.

The very word disabled has been broadened to the point where a shockingly high percentage of the American public can claim inclusion and many of those who can't are trying to find a way to qualify. A recent workshop at Cal State Northridge had as its purpose the instruction of professionals on how to qualify physically or emotionally battered wives for inclusion under the ADA.

We must be more discerning about who can claim benefits. I emphasize the word claim. I have in mind a burgeoning group mostly made up of people for whom, as the saying goes, it's all in their head. They are those, for example, who claim to be suffering from "multiple chemical sensitivity"--or as others put it, being allergic to the 20th Century and soon in even greater numbers to the 21st.

I am not suggesting that we throw aside our concerns about identified carcinogenic or poisonous emissions, whether it be from smokestacks, drainpipes or electromagnetic radiation from computer monitors. I am talking about mysterious emissions that usually cannot be measured, smelled, seen or felt, but supposedly are so serious that they now qualify the victim for all kinds of benefits and rights under the ADA.

Case in point: A recent Times article revealed that the feds have subsidized a Marin County housing development for people with environmental disabilities. One new resident describes the project as "a dream that turned to nightmare." Even though Ecology House, the builder, spent an extra $9,000 per apartment on special hyperallergenic building materials, half of the new residents claim that the building is making them sick. One woman says she is sleeping on the bathroom floor to get away from what might be vapors in the rest of her apartment, while others say the vapors are coming from the paint on the metal cabinets, which themselves were purchased to avoid vapors from particle-board cabinets. Another woman says something is coming out of the walls and therefore she does not spend much time at home.

So exactly where does this woman spend her time? At a restaurant? In the library or a shopping mall? Standing in the cold Marin fog? How is it that those places do not hold as much danger for her, since none was engineered for her needs? Where exactly do you find a better place than a building specially built for your supposed disability?

What if "multiple chemical sensitivity" is not a disease, as both the American Medical Assn. and the California Medical Assn. say? A former CMA committee chairman says the symptoms "are either manifestations of deep-seated depression or an inability to cope . . . sort of a contagious psychological thing." Is it wise to house those who have similar fantasies together in the same building? Won't they play off each other, creating a group hysteria?

Former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos, who is the head of the Housing and Urban Development Department's southwest division, responsible for funding much of the Marin project, responds that even if the problem is psychological, its victims are disabled and eligible for assistance. But if their problem is a different disability, it calls for a different solution--like psychotherapy or drugs rather than expensive housing at low rent where the residents can feed off one another's emotional disabilities.

Not long before this latest wave of the environmentally disabled came the millions of newly discovered "learning disabled," "attention disorder disabilities" and "attention disabled hyperactivity disorders," which now make up a majority of students in some inner-city schools (which get extra federal funding for having so many disabled students.) This took place even though recent research questioned whether the majority of those allegedly learning disabled were genuinely disabled, since most of them soon grow out of their temporary difficulties with no intervention.

These doubtful invisible disabilities are undermining the rights granted under the American With Disabilities Act, the benefits granted under federal Supplemental Security Income and even disabled parking. Being disabled is particularly beneficial for those who can claim the title when they wish and shed it when it is inconvenient.

The practical economic consideration here is the opening of the floodgate of disability even wider to everyone with an imagined disability, while those with tangible disabilities are pushed aside in funding. The severely physically disabled, the people who crawled up the Capitol steps to drive the ADA through, are still 75% unemployed. They have a deep fear that the beginnings of their achievement of physical access and equal opportunity will fall victim to a public backlash against a sea of invisible, sometimes imaginary, boutique disabilities. Then the truly disabled will suffer along with the neurotics and frauds.

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