Disability Civil Rights and the Promise of Technology

Disability civil rights are founded on principles established in the civil rights movements of racial minorities and women. This foundation and association has been important in the transition from the medical model to the civil rights model in development of public policy. However, disability rights leaders recognized early on that the traditional interpretation of equality as meaning equal treatment in the race and sex contexts would not provide meaningful opportunity for people with disabilities.

Because the traditional interpretation of equal treatment was not sufficient to assure equal opportunity, the concepts of reasonable accommodation, barrier removal and auxiliary aids and services were developed to fill the gap. For example, an invitation to ride a bus would not be meaningful to a person using a wheelchair if the bus was not equipped with a lift or ramp. The obligation of public and private entities to provide whatever it takes to assure access has never been absolute, however. Some formulation of reasonableness is operative in legal terms that create exemptions such as undue burden, fundamental alteration, and readily achievable barrier removal.

What makes disability civil rights different in a legal context is also what ties disability civil rights directly to the development of technology. What is possible and what is reasonable will depend on the availability of broadly-defined barrier removal solutions. Conversely, the need for solutions to access can stimulate technological innovation and growth. Finally, new technologies created for diverse applications have the secondary benefit of creating new opportunities for people with disabilities. In time, these new technologies will be required by entities covered by disability rights laws to ensure equality of opportunity and civil rights for people with disabilities.

Examples range from lifts and ramps on buses, to epi-pens for allergic reactions, to voice-over-Internet capability that can aid communication. Authors of the ADA agreed that transportation should be accessible, including long distance bus transportation. But at the time, lift technology for over-the-road vehicles such as those used by the Greyhound Company was in its infancy. The right to ride depended on the technology being available and, ultimately, the right also created a viable market for the technology. The same can be said of height-adjustable medical exam tables and accessible mammogram machines, software that can convert digital image files (PDF) to accessible, readable, alternative formats, and accessible automatic teller machines.

In recent years, “medical” services have been transformed into independent living services because of change in technologies. For example, advances in blood glucose monitors, and insulin pumps and pens have made it possible for a fifth-grader to manage her own diabetes care. Yet, there is still a cultural gap between ease of treatment and the notion that such tasks are “medical.” The disability civil rights laws have provided a tool to challenge archaic views of “medical” and hence convert services that schools thought could not be delivered in the educational setting to mandated civil rights protections.

The interaction between advances in technology and advances in civil rights is uncharted territory. We need to study and compile innovative technology across a broad spectrum of fields. Lawyers and policy makers should discuss these issues and work to review and amend public policy though this lens.

Arlene B. Mayerson
Directing Attorney
Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund

© Feb 2008 DREDF