Wednesday, October 6, 2010

City of Bell's problems highlight problems defining disability

By Professor Michael Waterstone

Recently, there was a new twist in the sad saga of the city of Bell. At the same time he was being hired as Bell's police chief, Randy Adams agreed with Bell city officials that he was disabled. He claims he has knee, back and neck problems and was deserving of a medical pension; skeptics suggest this was a fraudulent move to shield retirement benefits from taxes.

As the case goes forward, we will likely figure out where the truth lies. But this story raises a larger issue. In our legal system, we have conflicting definitions and understandings of disability.

On one hand, disability is viewed as a medical issue. An individual is evaluated by a doctor who determines how severe his impairments may be. If the cumulative impacts of that person's impairments reach a certain level - typically, whether or not the person can work - they are considered "disabled." This label provides the gateway to different types of government benefits and services.

This medical-based view of disability had its roots in the Civil War veterans' pension system. Veterans who were completely unable to work got $8 a month; those who were missing a finger got $2 a month. This basic framework is still in effect in various types of government social benefit programs, including Social Security Disability benefits, access to state Medicare programs, and the current Veterans Administration. In all these cases, a doctor's evaluation as to how "disabled" a person is determines whether or not they get benefits.

The situation in Bell illustrates the driving force behind having doctors serve as gatekeepers to benefits: fear of fraud. But starting in the 1960s, another more empowering view of disability began to emerge. Fed up with medical professionals exerting control over their lives, people with disabilities urged a new and different view of disability.

Under this view, it is not entirely an individual's impairments (meaning what is different within their body or mind from a "norm") that create a disabling condition; rather, it is society's response to those impairments. To use a simple example, if an individual who uses a wheelchair approaches a building that only has stairs to the entrance, is the individual "disabled" because they are in a wheelchair, or because a building has been built without a ramp? Many disability rights advocates would urge the latter understanding.

If we focus on society's response to impairments, then it becomes important to try to change societal norms, often with civil rights laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under these laws, individuals with disabilities can work, as long as we eliminate discriminatory attitudes toward disability ("this person is in a wheelchair, there is no way they can do the job!") and proper accommodations, including things like accessible workspaces and modified break schedules, are made.

Rather than forcing someone to prove to a medical professional that they cannot work, public policy should work on ways to get that individual into the work force. In that way, the individual with a disability is empowered and does not have to depend as heavily on social support programs like Social Security or Medicaid.

This is not to say that people do not try to game the system, like Adams may have been doing. But it does demonstrate that being "disabled" does not mean that an individual cannot work. And we should focus on ways to support people with disabilities as they try to do so.

Michael Waterstone is an associate dean and professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles. He teaches and writes in disability and civil rights law. This op-ed originally appeared in the
Los Angeles Daily News.

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