Rights For All

Daniel Davis is vice president of advocacy of the Disabled Students' Union. Respond at [email protected]

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This week the U.S. Supreme Court will be hearing oral arguments on several cases that do not appear to have any bearing on our lives as UC Berkeley students. One of these cases, however, University of Alabama vs. Garrett, which will be heard Thursday, hits close to home for many UC Berkeley students.

The Garrett case is a challenge to the constitutionality of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Civil rights, granted by the act, that have guaranteed them the right to attend and even, in some cases, thrive in the UC system are now in danger of being ruled unconstitutional on the basis of state sovereignty under the 11th Amendment.

Since 1990, the law has empowered people with disabilities by giving them civil rights and legal recourse in employment, education and other aspects of life. By holding employers and educators accountable for accommodating the limitations of people with disabilities and removing barriers to their participation, the law has given them a better chance to demonstrate the full extent of their capacities.

To disabled students, the act is, in effect, our version of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Back then, civil rights for African Americans did not come without a backlash. Attempts to integrate public schools after Brown vs. Board of Education were met with white-supremacist governors barring the school doors and invoking states' rights. These challenges were only overcome with difficulty, and our society still bears the scars of the trauma.

Now, persons with disabilities are bearing the brunt of the backlash against the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Garrett case involves a nurse at a state university hospital, who was threatened and demoted because she needed to take medical leave to get treatment for her breast cancer. Alabama claims that her case is invalid not because discrimination did not occur, but rather because the attorney general of Alabama believes that under the 11th Amendment his state should not be held accountable under federal anti-discrimination law.

Why should you care? Here's why - this case is not just about the millions of disabled students who may not be able to pursue higher education, leaving them on public assistance and unable to create careers for themselves. It is about the federal government being able to intercede with necessary civil rights legislation. Imagine a United States without the 1964 Civil Rights Act. A setback in civil rights for disabled students would be extremely costly. Now is a time when the law for disabled citizens should be strengthened, not weakened.

Even with an Americans with Disabilities Act, a well-respected Disabled Students' Program and admirable commitments by UC President Richard Atkinson helping people with disabilities bridge the digital divide, the picture is far from perfect. Due to changes in the way student services are funded that were implemented under former Gov. Pete Wilson in the mid-1990s, the 1987 Donohoe Act's promise of full funding of disabled student services has not been fulfilled over the past several years. Currently, the Disabled Students' Program is running a $225,000 deficit per year.

Last month, a group of students traveled to UCSF to explain to the Regents the impact of the underfunding of disabled student services. One student testified that he needed testing to document his learning disability and visual problems, but he was having difficulty affording the $500 to $1,000 it would cost. This used to be paid by the program, but now it is the individual student's responsibility. At the same meeting, a wheelchair-bound student spoke of an experience in which she needed recharging for her power chair, but could not get that help on campus. There used to be a wheelchair repair shop available on campus to address these concerns, but not anymore.

Although states' rights advocates contend that state laws will remain to protect persons with disabilities even if the court sides with Alabama, their assurances are unsupported. Although the California Civil Rights Act contains many good features, attorney Guy Wallace notes that it does not allow persons with disabilities to sue state agencies. If the Regents are considered a state agency, then the only right that people with disabilities in the UC system might have under state law would be the right to file an administrative grievance with the responsible funding agency - a weak remedy indeed!

The states' backlash against federal civil rights acts is only a recent trend, thankfully. However, it is a trend that must be stopped now. Abraham Lincoln once defined government as something "whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men - to lift artificial weights from all shoulders - to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all - to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance in the race of life."

The Supreme Court has already ruled unconstitutional the Violence Against Women Act and the Age Discrimination Employment Act, each relying heavily on state sovereignty. If the Americans with Disabilities Act is declared unconstitutional, it will be the biggest domino yet to fall amid what some experts are calling a "states' rights revolution." Some even predict that the laws protecting the civil rights of women and minorities will be severely challenged if the trend does not stop.

Students should not let the domino effect take place. This November, we should send a message to candidates for elective office that the federal government must be allowed to intercede with civil rights legislation that is crucial to the continuing fight against discrimination on the grounds of gender, race, sexual orientation or disability. We all deserve a fair chance in the race of life.


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