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Case for Inclusion--Mental and Physical--in Civic Activity

In order to be remedied, the obstacles that confront people with disabilities should be identified by them.

September 20, 1998|ART BLASER | Art Blaser is an associate professor of political science at Chapman University

Like many residents of Orange County, I often feel like a volunteer for the Chamber of Commerce. Since I moved here in 1981, I've been impressed by the oceans, sporting events and plays, by a supportive work environment at Chapman University, but mostly by the people I encounter every day. I am proud that my family lives in Orange County and would argue that the bad rap that many outsiders give the county is unjustified.

As a political scientist and simply as a citizen, I've long believed and taught that when we accept certain privileges, there are accompanying responsibilities. When I became disabled, common sense indicated that the public life of a disabled individual shouldn't be that different from the public life of a non-disabled individual.

Fortunately, that common sense was shared by many of those who organized for the adoption of an important civil rights statute, the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). President Bush, who signed the act into law, urged at the time: "Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down."

County residents have experienced exclusion in different ways. For some it can be the lack of a curb cut. Because of this, their lives may be threatened each time they go to the video store, to the supermarket or to their place of worship. Or worse, they may not go at all.

It may be a lack of signage, which leads them to believe that "you can't get there from here," when in fact you can. Or it may be a lack of accessible restroom facilities, of lowered counters accessible to people in wheelchairs or a lack of accommodations that take into account their blindness or deafness. It may be a witness, victim, attorney or even a judge looking forward to her or his "day in court."

The fact is, we do not know the nature or extent of the obstacles that confront people with disabilities because the mandated input from the disabled community never occurred. Therefore, before changes are made, I seek an opportunity for people with disabilities to indicate what changes they see as necessary.

Even though the ADA had a 1995 deadline for completing these changes, many municipalities--including Orange County--never fulfilled this legal duty. The result: Many county programs, buildings and facilities are still inaccessible to people with disabilities.

In discussing the ADA's requirements with representatives of the Center for Law in the Public Interest in Los Angeles, I recalled my experience as a potential juror. Having been summoned to the court for jury selection, I found that serving as a juror would have been impossible because of physical obstacles in the courthouse.

Many people I've talked to have the attitude that jury service is a nuisance, and I haven't tried to dissuade them. But the purpose of lunch counter sit-ins in 1960 didn't have to do with the tasty food, and the integration of the armed forces didn't require the belief that military service is intrinsically virtuous. In the same manner, my jury experience reflected only the belief that non-disabled and disabled people should be treated similarly.

I would be happy to be challenged and exempted from jury service because of my strange beliefs, but to be excluded because of my disability was frankly un-American. Based on this idea, the law center filed a lawsuit on my behalf against Orange County seeking simply what the ADA requires: that all county buildings, programs and services be made accessible to people with disabilities.

To a degree this was a case of reality imitating fiction. In John Grisham's book "The Runaway Jury," a prospective juror is told that he doesn't "have to" serve because he is blind. There the similarity ends, however. Eventually he became a member of the jury.

I was attracted to this case by its simplicity. It was not a matter of an obscure technicality. My case was starkly spelled out in the ADA. I would have liked the changes made several years ago, and if not, yesterday. Surely some people in county government would argue that I should be satisfied with a promise that "we see a problem; we'll do our best to remedy it."

I'm gratified, and am sure many county workers are as well, by indications that the county will comply with the act, and that this likely will result in an out-of-court resolution.

Many county residents cite the saying, "Our country right or wrong." They fail to add the sentiments of Carl Schurz, who in 1899 added: "When right to be kept right. When wrong to be put right." Those sentiments are also applicable to the county in which we live.

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