States and Disabilities

The reach of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is again up for grabs in a case before the Supreme Court. As it has in recent cases, the court may decide that states' rights outweigh a federal interest in helping persons with disabilities.

An important (and often expensive) provision of the 1990 act requires that public buildings provide "reasonable accommodation" to all. The latest case involves a paraplegic who had to appear in a Tennessee courtroom but was forced to go up two flights of stairs to get there.

At the time, in 1996, the courthouse had no elevator. The man sued the state for $100,000 in damages under the act, while lawyers for Tennessee argued that the Constitution's 11th Amendment and previous court decisions means states cannot be sued by their own citizens under a federal lawsuit.

Three years ago, the high court said states could not be sued by state employees for failing to comply with the ADA's guarantee against discrimination in the workplace. But the plaintiffs in this new case argue that Tennessee's inaction in helping the disabled more severely threatens other Constitutional guarantees, such as free speech, the right to confront accusers at a trial, due process, and equal protection.

Congress passed the ADA precisely because many states were not providing more opportunities for the disabled to live normal lives, from access to the voting booth to access to society at large. Many were (and still are) institutionalized. Some still have difficulty obtaining an education in the least restrictive environment possible. Further, states still have a patchwork of laws relating to persons with disabilities. Some don't even cover basic elements of the ADA law.

The court's decision is likely to open up new legal ground on the balance of power between states and the federal government. State legislatures by now should have at least absorbed the federal act's basic wisdom of meeting the needs of this minority group of Americans, who number 50 million.

Whether the disabled have a federal constitutional right to access is a key issue for the court to decide. But human decency calls for the states to measure up to the federal standards set in the ADA.

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