• September 18, 2020

TEXAS VIEW: Time to make America care again - Odessa American: Texas Opinion

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TEXAS VIEW: Time to make America care again

THE POINT: It is time to become what former President George H.W. Bush called “a kinder, gentler nation.”

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Posted: Friday, August 7, 2020 2:30 am

Early in the dispute over the wearing of face masks, supporters explained that the coverings weren’t so much about protecting the wearer as about shielding others.

Even if the masks were annoying and itchy, wasn’t that a small price to pay for protecting the vulnerable from the horrible effects of COVID-19?

The answer for many was a barefaced, spittle-flecked, “Not just no, but hell no.” They argued the rights of individuals trumped concerns of others and especially the government’s efforts to regulate private citizens.

Despite the eventual medical and scientific consensus that facial coverings are essential to containing the virus and even after 4 million Americans have been infected and 150,000 COVID-19 deaths recorded, opposition to masks has only hardened.

In a moment of great national peril, our politically polarized country seems incapable of summoning the empathy and self-sacrifice that Abraham Lincoln called in even more divisive times “the better angels of our nature.”

Our society’s current famine of compassion was brought into even sharper relief last week as we marked the anniversary of a moment when the nation’s leaders put aside their many differences and self-interests to help a smaller group forced to live as outsiders in their own country.

When President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law on July 26, 1990, he committed the nation to what even now seems like an impossible goal: changing the design, structure and purposes of buildings, streets, transportation, communications, every facet of daily life, to accommodate those whose physical and mental differences had barred them from full participation in the American dream.

It was a shared sacrifice for those who were vulnerable.

Almost one out of every four Americans lives with a disability. That is about 60 million residents today. Before the ADA, many were unable to attend college, get a job, ride a bus or even enter some buildings because of design and structural problems.

The measure drew opposition all along the political spectrum, from business interests and universities concerned about costs to others alarmed at government overreach. In an editorial titled “Blank Check for the Disabled?” the New York Times complained that “the legislation is vague” and the “costs could be monumental.”

And yet, the ADA passed with overwhelming bipartisan support: 91-6 in the Senate and 377-28 in the House.

In his comprehensive “Enabling Acts: The Hidden Story of How the Americans With Disabilities Act Gave the Largest US Minority Its Rights,” University of Illinois at Chicago professor Lennard Davis explains how the political miracle came about in part because some of the key players — Democrats and Republicans — had personal experiences with what it meant to be disabled in a world designed by and for the non-disabled.

Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, who suffered debilitating injuries to his arms and back during World War II, was the most obvious. Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy’s sister Rosemary was diagnosed with an intellectual disability and his son, Teddy, lost his leg to bone cancer. Bush often talked about his daughter who had died young of leukemia, a son with a learning disability and an uncle who had survived polio.

“I think when people think about disability they think, ‘Oh this is just a few people,’” Davis told the editorial board. “It’s kind of a ‘them’ situation. We’re all normal and then there ‘they’ are. But when you look at the numbers, the number of people with disabilities make up the largest minority in the United States.”

Davis, an internationally known specialist in disability studies, said the key is getting past the “us vs. them” mindset, something he had hoped would have happened during the pandemic. The new restrictions and impediments we face should make us more empathetic to those who live their lives wearing masks to protect their immune systems, or struggle to communicate through barriers or deal with the isolation of seating arrangements in restaurants and sports arenas. Many disabled people leave the house regularly with the uncertainty of what obstacles they will have to overcome.

“A disability is not like a Martian coming down from outer space; it’s in your house, it’s in your family,” Davis said. “You want those people to have the same accommodations and abilities that you have because one day it could be you, but it is definitely your aunt, your uncle or your grandmother.”

Davis, who was invited to the White House for the 25th anniversary celebration of the ADA in 2015, says he has talked to a lot of lawmakers who don’t think the bill would pass Congress today.

“There is a partisan divide that I think has a lot to do with regulations,” he said. “It’s ‘don’t tell us what to do’ thinking.”

It’s the same view that will only deepen and prolong the damage of the coronavirus pandemic. In a nation of great individual rights, too many Americans have lost appreciation for the things we have gained through shared sacrifice and concern for others.

It is time to become what Bush called “a kinder, gentler nation.” It is time to make America care again.

Odessa, TX

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