Supreme Court threatens the disabled

Posted: Monday, October 09, 2000

Once again, the state of Alabama is in the spotlight as a symbol of discrimination and as a die-hard defender of states' rights. But this time the battle is over the civil rights of people with disabilities.

On Wednesday the Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case of Alabama vs. Garrett. Patricia Garrett was a nurse at the University of Alabama hospital who underwent breast cancer treatments and was involuntarily transferred to another position. She sued the state for job discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor says Congress overstepped its constitutional bounds in applying the ADA to state governments because the 11th Amendment prohibits citizens from suing their own states in federal courts.

If the court agrees, it could be a disaster. The history of civil-rights violations by state governments against people with disabilities is deep and persistent. We have been denied access to public schools and universities, to polling places and hospitals. We have been institutionalized and sterilized.

Today, in every state there are thousands of people with disabilities in nursing homes and institutions who don't want or need to be there. But state budget priorities give them little choice.

Even Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman disagrees with Pryor on this case. Attorneys general from 14 states have submitted a brief to the Supreme Court opposing the stance of their colleague Pryor.

Congress thoroughly documented this sad history in setting the stage for the introduction of the ADA. In the 1980s, a congressional ADA task force held forums in every state and collected thousands of examples of disability civil-rights abuses.

The dire need for the ADA is clear. It was well-crafted and has brought about a lot of justice.

Mike Ervin is a Chicago-based writer and activist for the disabled.

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