Old Geezers Out to Lunch

Old Geezers Out to Lunch
The Geezers Emeritus through history: The Mathematician™, Dr. Golf™, The Professor™, and Mercurious™

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Is Equality Really What We Want?

Last week I ran across an article in which one of the experts made the following observation:  "Studies have shown that high school students with disabilities of any kind are are less likely participate in high-school sports than able-bodied students."

Well, yes.  And students of middling intelligence are less likely to go on and become nuclear physicists. And boys who stutter badly are less likely to have careers as stage actors. This struck me as one of those studies that cost somebody a whole lot of money to tell us what anybody with a tiny amount of common sense already knows.

The quote came in the context of a a recent court ruling that requires schools to provide reasonable accommodations to student athletes who would like to compete but are hindered by a school's refusal to make adjustments to their special needs. So this was referring to things like a deaf track runner having a bright strobe light  in addition to the starters gun to help him or her get off the blocks; or a blind wrestler having modest refereeing accommodations to allow him to compete.

I have no problem with these kinds of common sense solutions. But it did make me think a bit about some of the inadvertent problems wrought by the well-intentioned Americans with Disabilities Act and other such pieces of legislations and public policy. As I compare American approaches to these issues with European, for example, I wonder if we're doing ourselves some disservice by this far-reaching effort to level the playing field for virtually everyone.

I've been in federally funded wildnerness parks, for example, where miles upon miles of nature trails have been paved over with asphalt so as to make it possible for wheel-chair bound visitors to enjoy. That's well and good, but usually what you see on these trails are not wheelchairs, but motorized scooters piloted by people who, frankly, aren't so much disabled as just too corpulent to walk comfortably. Is it really logical to ruin the experience for the many so that the few can enjoy the experience of nature?  The presence of this paving over a wilderness trail I'd once enjoyed certainly compromised the enjoyment for myself and likely for every other able-bodied hiker who appreciates natural wildness. Why are our rights less important?

In historic locations along the eastern seaboard, you seem many classic tourist sites with their architectures ruined because handicap accessible elevators or ramps have been added in accordance with laws. Is this really better than the European model, where historic sites remain historic, and disabled visitors must compromise a little on their access? But, America is the land of equality, where everyone must be the same. You can rest assured that if Mr. Everest was in the US, we'd be looking for ways to make it accessible to all.

In public schools, the policy is to mainstream students of all abilities in the same classrooms, with the result that bright, overachieving youngsters have their progress slowed down as teachers and aids accommodate behaviorally challenged or physically limited students. In the typical classroom today, a misbehaving student with emotional problems gets far more attention than the best and brightest. Is this really better than the situation back in the early days for us geezers, when schools had special education classes where kids with unusual needs were addressed by teachers who had been specially trained in meeting those needs? But, we're told, that policy makes those children feel DIFFERENT, whereas we want them to feel they are exactly the same.  And we're quite willing to bring the best and the brightest down, and disable them educationally, in order to achieve this egalitarian idea.

In public transit, virtually all buses and trains are now equipped with hydraulic lifts and special seats to allow disabled people to use them.  This inevitably costs lots and lots of money, reduces the space for able-bodied passengers, and of course compromises the speed of the commute for almost everyone. Is it really better to do it this way, rather than the method once used—which was to designate vehicles for the service of disabled riders; if you were wheelchair bound and needed a ride, an equipped van would come and pick you up and deliver you to your destination.  I'm told that the hydraulic lifts installed on all Minneapolis public buses cos a bout $17,000 each. On a typical month of commuter riding, I might see the lift used once, and on some months not at all. That money would  buy a lot of individualize shuttle rides. But the point, of course, is that in America, we believe that everybody MUST be equal, and a disabled commuter who had to take a taxi, well, he would fee DIFFERENT, and we can't have that.

I have the advantage of course, of being relatively able-bodied, and neither of my kids dealt with serious limitations of any kind while they were in school. And while I was recovering from a bad knee injury a couple of years ago, it was nice that the bus I rode could extend a metal tongue and hoist me into the bus, allowing me to bypass the steps. But  think I would have been equally fine on specially designated vehicle that did the same thing and did not put the other commuters at such an inconvenience. Taking a taxi would have been fine, too, especially if the cost was subsidized for my situation.

I'm quite sure if I, or a close family member or friend, had a serious disability that I'd furiously want every and all accommodations to my situation. But at a macro level it seems to me that we've now reached a point where the needs of the very few often overrides the needs of the many. The goal of democracy is to protect the rights of the minority, I know, but I don't remember that this meant that minority rights trumped those of the majority.

An unpopular  stance for a liberal geezer to take, I know. I can hear my more strident liberal friends take me to task already. And I'm certainly not arguing that simple, practical, cost effective accommodations shouldn't be made for our citizens with disabilities. When a new public building is constructed, it makes sense to put in ramps and elevators. A school district who can't arrange for a bright strobe light so that a deaf sprinter can complete should be ashamed of itself.  But the practical mind says that there's a limit to what I can expect my society to do for me. I am short and would like to play basketball. Should I expect legislation mandating that the basket be set  to a height of 7 ft?

I remember a short story by Kurt Vonnegut, in which the social effort to make everybody equal reached such an absurd degree that pretty people were forced to wear ugly masks in order not to make homely people feel bad about themselves; and strong, athletic people had to carry heavy lead weights so as to make them more like the physically weak. I can't help but think about this when I see a pristine wilderness trail paved over with asphalt.

—this viewpoint comes to you courtesy of Mercurious—