Disabling Disability

Disabling Disability

Disabling Disability

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
June 23 1999 7:43 AM

Disabling Disability

For the first time in months, all the majors agree on a non-Kosovo lead: the Supreme Court's hand-down of a brace of decisions concerning the rights of the disabled.

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The court ruling narrowed the meaning of "disabled" in three lawsuits alleging employment discrimination in such a way that each of the plaintiffs--a hypertensive truck mechanic, a blind-in-one-eye truck driver, and nearsighted aviator sisters--was left without standing to sue under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This was done by concluding that people are not disabled for the purposes of the ADA if their limitations or defects can be remedied by medicine or appliances to a degree allowing them to pursue the major activities of life.

The papers agree that the decision is hailed by employers and rejected by workers and their advocates. The Los Angeles Times and Washington Post point out that the Clinton administration had urged the court to endorse the plaintiffs' wider interpretation of disability. Neither the New York Times nor USA Today do, though. Although the coverage says the 7-2 decision was surprising, the LAT says the courts have been interpreting the ADA very narrowly, with the result that the law "has not helped or aided many persons who claim to have disabilities."

The correctable-defect-means-you-can't-sue decision is more than a little confusing to the lay person. Sandra Day O'Connor, writing for the majority, is quoted in the NYT saying that "an employer is free to decide that physical characteristics or medical conditions that do not rise to the level of an impairment--such as one's height, build, or singing voice--are preferable to others." You can turn down someone for a job based on build? A quote in the WP and NYT from a law professor who helped draft the ADA seems apt: The decision "create[s] the absurd result of a person being disabled enough to be fired from a job, but not disabled enough to challenge the firing." The decision's central perversity: A correctable personal feature not limiting a major life activity limits a major life activity, namely, doing one's preferred job.

The coverage notes that the Supremes also handed down a few other decisions touching on disability, the most dramatic being the ruling that absent medical reasons, putting mentally disabled people in institutions instead of, say, in group homes, violates the ADA. USAT hits this hardest, putting it high in its lead and quoting a mental health advocate saying, "This is the Brown vs. Board of Education for the disabilities movement."

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The WP off-leads President Clinton's visit to a tent city refugee camp in Macedonia, while everybody else plays the trip inside (although several papers front pictures of the trip). Accompanied by Hillary and Chelsea, he called on the Kosovar Albanians there to hold off returning to their homeland lest they fall victims to land mines. The LAT fronts the revelation that the cause of the explosion that killed two NATO ordnance experts and two civilians Monday was not, as had been widely suggested, a Serb booby trap, but an unexploded NATO cluster bomb. The paper says that unexploded allied ordnance poses a huge obstacle to making Kosovo safe for repatriation.

The Wall Street Journal dedicates a front-page feature to what it describes as "one of the more peculiar niches on the American urban landscape these days"--men who serve as drivers for strippers. One driver is quoted saying, "It's a fascinating job." The piece disproves that.

More significantly, the Journal reports that the nine-member board created nearly a year ago to make sure the IRS operates more fairly is still not in place, and that two years after getting the assignment, a congressional committee still hasn't completed its investigation of how the IRS decides which tax-exempt groups to audit.

Former president of Costa Rica and Nobel laureate Oscar Arias has a well-reasoned piece on the NYT op-ed page, which asks the excellent question, if Americans are so concerned about the loss of classified nuclear secrets to the Chinese, why aren't they outraged about the many other military secrets the U.S. gives away by selling arms overseas? Arias puts his finger on the game U.S. defense contractors play with foreign sales--by arming as many potentially hostile powers as possible, the companies not only rake in the bucks but give themselves a nice argument for the next round of sales of newer weapons to the U.S. And, Arias points out, the companies do all this with the largest government business subsidy in the budget.

The terminally un-hip WP "Style" section certifies its status with not one but two uses of "jiggy" in pieces today--one in a headline over a piece about Al Gore. The neatest trick of the week--being stiff about being cool about being stiff.

The NYT runs a piece inside reporting that last week the wife of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was caught by U.S. Customs coming back from a Paris shopping spree with $18,500 in undeclared clothes and jewelry. The piece says the episode has become "the fodder for front-page newspaper stories." Why can't the Times or Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg bear to name the paper in question that broke the story, the Miami Herald?

In another "Style" section piece, this one about the latest crop of MacArthur Fellowship winners, announced today, the reader can see why one of the winners, Sara Horowitz, the executive director of a group that promotes the interests of people with flexible work schedules, needs $275,000. Her cell phone, the copy assures, is "fuzzy."