Sunday, April 30, 2006

That Anti-Civil Rights Editorial

The following editorial appeared in the New York Sun on April 20, 2006:

The Anti-Disabled Act
New York Sun Editorial
April 20, 2006

Guess which piece of liberal-do-gooding may be at fault for bringing to an end the free steak dinners a famed Washington D.C. eatery was giving each week for wounded war veterans. That's right, the Americans with Disabilities Act. The restaurant is Fran O'Brien's Steakhouse, which has been making this wonderful

gesture for wounded GIs, many of them amputees, from Walter Reed army hospital every week for some two and a half years. But Hilton is refusing to renew

the restaurant's lease and given Fran's, a Washington institution for decades, until May 1 to leave.

The hotel is tightlipped about the reasons for the decision - a spokeswoman did not return our call for comment - but some are starting to suspect the Hilton has been scared off by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The restaurant sits in the basement of the hotel and is accessed via either of two staircases.

If neither of these is feasible for a patron in a wheelchair, the only alternative is the hotel's supply elevator, accessed via a locked coatroom at the lobby level and a long L-shaped hallway in the basement.

Veterans attending the free dinners have never actually complained about the accessibility problems, a co-owner of Fran's, Hal Koster, told us when we stopped by recently. But as part of an on-again, off-again lease negotiation, the restaurant eventually asked the hotel to make the facility ADA-compliant. At about that time, negotiations seem to have ended. The hotel and the restaurant exchanged letters about the conditions under which each party would be willing to renew (the hotel wanted a new carpet and a refinished bar, for example), most of which the restaurant was willing to fulfill. The only bone of contention, apart from handicap access, appears to have been whether to upgrade or replace the wonderful booths once enjoyed over the years by the likes of President Nixon.

The thinking among some of the restaurant's supporters seems to be that the landlord, given the potential burden of a suit under the ADA (although as far as anyone knows, no one has threatened such a suit at this point), figures it would be cheaper to evict a famous steakhouse and let prime commercial space in the heart of Washington lie fallow. The last any of the parties knew, Hilton has budgeted money in 2007 to install a lift, after which it will likely re-lease the space, although Fran's may be installed in a new home by then.

We're sympathetic to the restaurateurs, not to mention the vets, in their desire for an accessible restaurant, but there's got to be a better way than the ADA to accomplish that. Instead, the ADA makes it financially safer for the hotel to evict the restaurant and leave its location empty than to allow Fran's to operate in the interim. Another local hotel has agreed to host the veterans' dinners, and although they're grateful to their new hosts, the guests will miss the sports bar feel of Fran's. If it turns out that it was the ADA that put an end to Fran's great tradition, it's one of the most ironical results in the history of do-gooding.

I am not sure whether I am more appalled by the ignorance of author, or the fact that such uninformed blasphemy was allowed to make it to print. However, there is obviously a major problem of understanding when it comes to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). I do not know if this misunderstanding results from institutional and societal perpetuation of myths about people with disabilities or whether it stems from the inability of the disability community to communicate our position in society. I believe it is probably a combination of both, which is why I am taking the time today to remedy the latter.

First, it must be understood that the ADA was not a "piece of liberal do-gooding" legislation. The ADA was signed into law by Republican President George HW Bush in 1990 after receiving wide bi-partisan support by Congress. If the author meant "liberal" in the sense that it was a progressive piece of legislation that dared to override the status quo then he is surely correct. But he is incorrect in his labeling the act as "do-gooding" as the ADA was not about doing good or random acts of kindness, it was about doing right; about giving full civil rights, equality, and empowerment to people with disabilities.

Second, as a person with a disability who uses a wheelchair and who has had to endure a loss of dignity by being forced to ride in freight elevators and seriously bereft, shaky, forgotten elevators; being led on deleterious detours by kitchens. dumpsters, and Timbuktu; and forced to be segregated from peers in order to dine at a restaurant, watch my government in action, access businesses, participate in community events, watch shows (which I paid for), and generally participate fully and independently in all that America has to offer - I know first-hand the importance of the ADA. The ADA is a civil rights law and it was made law in order to give people with disabilities full freedom, choice, and access to residency, employment, education, and society without discrimination. It is pathetic that after 15 1/2 years of being law, only a minority of the public understands the purpose and intent of the ADA. Yet, if this author had called the Civil Rights act of 1964, Women's Suffrage, or the 14th Amendment a "piece of liberal do-gooding" and wrote that these important civil rights laws were ironically anti-rights there would surely be an uproar by women, blacks, minorities, and the population at large. So I ask, why is there not an equal uproar over slanderous rhetoric aimed at an equally important civil rights law!

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