The Rights Stuff Forum: Backlash

Backlash and Disability

Margot Imdieke Cross, Accessibility Specialist, Minnesota State Council on Disability

Margot Imdieke CrossThe more people with disabilities exercise their rights, the more likely they are to encounter backlash from those who resent what they see as special privileges granted to the disabled, observes Margot Imdieke Cross, an Accessibility Specialist for Minnesota State Council on Disability. The result is that some people with disabilities are reluctant speak up, or ask for an accommodation to which them may be legally entitled, fearing the reaction of coworkers, employers and others who are unsympathetic or uninformed about disability issues. Cross talked about the backlash and its effect in an interview.

Comments from Margot Imdieke Cross

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Question: To what extent has the disability community experienced backlash from those who believe society has gone too far in protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities?

Martot Imdieke Cross: It's always part of the equation, in just about every employment call I get. People will call me and want to know, should I request a reasonable accommodation? Should I complain about my coworker who is wearing too much perfume? Should I complain that there is not adequate disability parking? They are always afraid that there is going to be retaliation or backlash. I will get a lot of people in small towns, who will call me and say, "you can't identify me — I can't even give you my name. I'm so fearful the word is going to get out that I complained, because I don't want people to ostracize me."

I think that as our society becomes increasingly self-centered, that feeling, that anger is out there. Often when I call to advocate on somebody's behalf, what I'm told is, is that if I do it (provide an accommodation) for this disabled person, I'm going to have to do it for everyone. And when that doesn't happen — when you provide an accommodation just for the disabled person because it's required by law — then you have people saying, "how come they get this accommodation?" That is part of this whole double edged sword that we call America: as we increase or exercise our individual rights, people get angry if they are not equally applied to everyone. And sometimes they can't be.

Are you hearing more concerns about backlash against disabled people and disability rights than you heard a few years ago?

I think back 15 years ago the hostility was actually a lot greater because the law (the Americans with Disabilities Act) was new, and people truly didn't understand. I think now people understand disability and reasonable accommodation — but that doesn't mean that they like it. I remember once I was waiting for a friend who was making a phone call. It was at Hennepin County Government Center, and the only phones that were available were these wheelchair accessible phones. And this very tall gentleman walked up to a phone, and he exclaimed to a friend, something to the effect: "What the hell — are they building things for midgets now?" He was just kind of pissed off about the whole thing. And then he turned around and he saw my friend and I, both in wheelchairs, — he was so embarrassed, because he didn't see us when he said this. And then it dawned on him that, of course the phones are lower, because they are for people in chairs. It didn't mean that he liked it. So I don't think people necessarily like all of the changes (required under the ADA) and I don't know how to address that. How do you explain to people that they can't have something that someone else is getting — like disability parking — because they don't have a disability?

Do you often hear complaints about accessible parking from those who are unhappy that they can't have those accessible spots?

Definitely. We've always had requirements for disability parking, but with the passage of ADA, they were taken a lot more seriously, and people really started pushing for it because they had this federal law. And I think that the more we push, the more there is going to be a push back. People still say today, why should they (individuals with disabilities) get all the good parking?

What I've noticed is, as long as we get the less desirable stuff, people are okay with it. For instance, in a lot of sports facilities, disability seating is really not the best. If you go to a sports facility, or to a theater or any number of places, the disability seating is in the back row, or it's in the back of the theater — it's crap seating. And as long as what we are getting is mediocre at best, then everybody else seems okay with it. But the minute we start getting the better seating at the theaters and sports facilities, or the better tables at the restaurant, then I think that there might be a bit of envy. And as our laws become more sophisticated and as what we are trying to achieve becomes more desirable, then people start to say, "well how come the people in the wheelchairs are in the better seating?"

Are disabled individuals often confronted by those who feel upset that someone else is getting some special accommodation?

Absolutely. It happens all the time, especially if they don't look like what they're "supposed" to look like if they are disabled. If somebody doesn't have a visible disability, especially if they are using disability parking, it happens all the time . I try to impress upon folks that the vast majority of people who use disability parking don't have a visible disability. If people are feeling a little bit vigilante, they need to step back and take a deep breath.

And it happens with service animals. I got a call from a woman the other day, who is a general manager for a bank in a small town. One of their patrons brought in a little dog, that she carries around and she calls it her companion. It's a companion animal, but probably technically not a service animal. And I said why are you calling me, did somebody complain? She said yes, a woman standing in a line over from her, another patron, saw the little animal and started complaining.

Does this backlash or vigilante-ism toward individuals with disabilities seem to be increasing?

Is it happening more often now? I don't know. There has always been some of it. But I think one thing that has changed is that people are becoming a lot more comfortable talking about it. In the past, there has been a lot of shame associated with disability, but as our society ages, the percentage of people with disabilities seems to be increasing, and it becomes more commonplace. I think in the past they (people with disabilities) might have been more inclined to not talk about it, be ashamed of it. But now they're willing to talk about it and say, "hey, you wouldn't believe what just happened to me.…"

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