Disabilities and Justice

No law passed in recent years has had greater impact on the lives of average citizens than the Americans with Disabilities Act. The law has been accurately described as a civil rights landmark. It has, without question, broadened horizons for countless people dealing with physical or mental impairment.

But the ADA, since its inception, has also regularly sparked controversy. The Supreme Court is now weighing cases that may clear up some areas of debate. Its rulings won't come until June, but their thrust, we hope, will be to reaffirm the spirit of equity that underlies the law.

The leading case before the court involves a suit against Georgia by two individuals who had been confined in a state hospital. Health-care professionals determined the two would be best cared for in a community setting away from the institution. But few such facilities were available, and the waiting list was long.

Should the state be required to provide community-based care for disabled people who would clearly benefit from it? A lower federal court said yes, and tied its ruling to the original intention of the ADA. The law has long been interpreted by the Justice Department as mandating the integration of people into mainstream society whenever appropriate.

The lower-court ruling, if upheld, will renew pressure on state and local governments to provide alternatives to institutionalization. Such community-based care, adequately funded and monitored, should be more widely available. For many, it offers the possibility of more productive lives. But it may not be right for every mentally disabled person. Attention to individual needs is key.

The other cases before the high court explore what constitutes a "disability." Specifically, the justices will ponder whether an impairment that can be neutralized by medical means still qualifies as a disability under the ADA. One case, for example, involves two sisters who wanted to become commercial pilots. Their weak eyesight was corrected by lenses, but an airline still refused them jobs on the basis of that condition. The lower court ruled that since their disability could, in effect, be removed, they had no standing to sue under the antidiscrimination provisions of the law.

Clearly, this needs sorting out. To be turned down for a job, or fired, because of a disability judged to have no legal existence leaves people in limbo.

As these cases show, the thinking behind the ADA - that the disabled, like all Americans, have a right to participate in life as fully as possible - is still being assimilated. The broad goal is to help people surmount limitation. That's done through a range of means. The love, prayers, and support of family and friends are fundamental. But also basic is the aid of a society that does what it can to remove barriers.

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