Book Review: Make Them Go Away

Without the ADA’s public accommodations requirement, this trip of ICS members to a Mets game would never have been possible.

In Make them Go Away: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Reeve, and the Case Against Disability Rights, Mary Johnson offers an in-depth analysis of how anti-ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) sentiments have crystallized since this landmark legislation for the disability community was signed into law in 1990. It is an excellent work of investigative journalism, and important reading for anyone concerned with disability rights.

Johnson methodically dismantles the denials by conservative media and entrenched business interests that the disability rights movement is an integral part of a diverse and vibrant American society. She thoroughly examines the perspectives of the enemies of the ADA, which are vital to understand if people with disabilities are to make significant progress in asserting our fundamental right to equal access in every facet of American life.

For example, many people who adhere to the free-market anti-regulatory philosophy of reactionary conservatives like Ayn Rand are proponents of anti-ADA legislation, most recently the deceitfully named “ADA Reform and Education Act,” which passed the House of Representatives in February, but has been blocked, at least for the moment, in the Senate.

What makes this bill so pernicious is that what it would actually do is the very opposite of its title. Rather than educating the public and affirming the intent and core values of the ADA – that people with disabilities have the right to access to public accommodations – the bill stands this idea on its head, shifting the burden of proof onto any person with a disability who asserts their right by filing a lawsuit against an inaccessible public accommodation, such as a store, hospital, school or restaurant.

Make them Go Away details the campaign against disability rights embodied by acts of the judicial system, government entities, the media, and celebrities such as Clint Eastwood. Johnson outlines Clint Eastwood’s fierce fight against making his Mission Ranch Hotel and Restaurant compliant with the accessibility standards of the ADA. She describes this as a media-crazed example of how many businesses that refuse to comply with the ADA blame opportunistic lawyers for encouraging people with disabilities to file lawsuits.

The Eastwood case is noteworthy because it reflects the commonly-held belief that people with disabilities are already accommodated by “special” facilities, obviating the need for full integration into the larger community. In Johnson’s telling, the media bought Eastwood’s tenet that aggressive lawyers acting on behalf people with disabilities use the ADA’s accessibility guidelines to harm the American free enterprise system.

Johnson deconstructs the rhetoric of the Eastwood case and of those with similar viewpoints, a dominant perspective in America, who assert that they are not “against the handicapped” but, rather, against the “special” requirements of the ADA. Eastwood simply does not view disability rights as a legitimate civil rights movement. This argument has three main components:

· The disability rights movement goes against “common sense,” because circumscribed accommodations for limitations are sufficient. This view refuses to acknowledge that there is a social component in how disability is defined – a major theme of the ADA. It is based on a belief that the medical framework of disability is the sole defining reason for service provision.
· It’s okay for people with disabilities to receive the occasional “special” bathroom or bus, but they must not be able to demand to have the “normal” world modified to suit their circumscribed needs.
· People with disabilities harm business and society in general; i.e., it would be best if society could just “make them go away.”

Bear in mind that lawyers and judges all the way to the Supreme Court are generally not well- versed in the ADA, and envision the law as a benefit-type legislation akin to Social Security; that is, as means-test entitlement legislation rather than a civil rights law designed to correct inequalities at all levels of society, much like laws designed to correct racial- or gender-based inequality. This presents a huge educational challenge in defending the ADA.

The other celebrity Johnson discusses in her book is the actor Christopher Reeve. Although Reeve was a long-time activist for progressive causes prior to becoming disabled, as a paraplegic he focused his energies and used his fame to try to find a cure for spinal cord injury. In doing so, according to Johnson, he ignored the access issues that people with disabilities struggle with daily.

Johnson writes that the near-universal national reaction to Reeve’s injury reinforced strong anti-ADA sentiments. Phrases such as “how terrible it is to be paralyzed,” the sentiment that Reeve “no longer felt like a human being,” and the idea that disabilities are “a temporary setback rather than a way of life” were all taken up by the media and the public at large. This both reflected and strongly reinforced the widely held belief that having a disability makes a person less valuable and less capable.

Telethons for specific disabilities also reinforce this belief by using the “cure” mantra to elicit sympathy and money from the public, asserting that sufficient funds will generate scientific breakthroughs that will make people with disabilities “whole” – i.e., normal – another way of “making them go away.” Reeve likewise emphasized a cure as the endpoint for his rehabilitation efforts which, Johnson argues, simultaneously fostered negative attitudes about disability throughout society.

The second part of Johnson’s book is a historical overview of the disability rights movement in the United States and the key players such as Texas businessman Justin Dart, Lex Frieden, Judith Heumann, former Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, former Kansas Senator Bob Dole, James Weisman, Frieda Zames, and our very own Anna Fay, among many others. This narrative, of course, is still being written…. by us.

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