Key Disability Rights Cases

Key Disability Rights Cases

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On the 28th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, it seems appropriate to look back to some of the key disability rights cases that have been decided since the law was passed. If anyone tries to tell you, disabled or not, that the rights of access and equality that have been achieved for disabled people for the over the course of the last 50-60 years are locked in forever, immune to legal challenges or regulatory roll backs, don't believe them. Because it is just. not. true.

Take for example, the most recent passage of HR 620 in the US House of Representatives. Known as the 2017 ADA Education and Reform Act, its purpose is to amend the 1990 ADA law, requiring a "notice and cure" period whereby a person asserting their civil rights are being infringed would have to provide a written notice to business owners, and they would be allowed time to respond.

Pro-business (mostly) Republicans love this because they say it will cut down on "frivolous" lawsuits. Disability right activists and (mostly) Democrats contend that the ADA has been law for 28 years and there needs to be no reason or relief for business owners not to comply with the access requirements of the ADA. The bill has yet to come up for a vote in a much more closely divided Senate. My hope is that it will die on the vine.

The legislation of HR 620, regardless of the reality of it being passed into law, is a very real and recent example of how our civil rights are constantly at risk. Legislation is just a timestamp that captures the snapshot of where our society and culture is with regard of promising the freedoms of equal rights and access for disabled people. And as times change, and political winds shift, so can the laws that we thought were unchangeable. Like it or not, it is just a messy by-product of our system called representative democracy.

Enter the Supreme Court. The cases listed below became landmark decisions that ensured rights to equality and access for disabled people. They are a reminder that the rule of law can check the powers of the legislative branch, but they aren't a guarantee. Therefore it is important that the disability rights movement remain politically engaged to make sure that our civil rights are not put in jeopardy, potentially halting our progress of societal integration, freedoms and equality.

Consolidated Rail Corporation v. Darrone

After the Supreme Court ruled in the first Section 504 case in 1979 that a hearing-impaired woman’s disability made her unqualified for the nursing program at Southeastern Community College, disability rights activists realized they needed to educate the Court on the issue of disability-based discrimination. In Consolidated Rail Corp. v. Darrone, the Court ruled that firing a worker who had his hand amputated was employment discrimination prohibited by Section 504.

Tennessee v. Lane

In Tennessee v. Lane, the Supreme Court ruled that states have an obligation under Title II of the ADA to make reasonable modifications to ensure access to courts and courtrooms. George Lane, who uses a wheelchair, was unable to appear at his own trial without having to crawl up two flights of stairs or be carried.

PGA Tour v. Martin

In PGA Tour v. Martin, the Supreme Court upheld Title III of the ADA, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in places of public accommodation. Golfer Casey Martin needed to use a golf cart to compete in the PGA Tour, which had a walking-only policy. The Court ruled the PGA was denying Martin equal access to its tour on the basis of his disability.

Olmstead v. L.C. and E.W.

The Supreme Court affirmed in Olmstead v. L.C. and E.W. the right of individuals with disabilities to live in their own community under Title II of the ADA. The case involved two women in Georgia who were kept in a state psychiatric hospital long after mental health professionals had recommended their transfer to community care. The Court ruled that the ADA’s “integration mandate” requires states to place people with mental disabilities in community settings when possible.

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