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Standing Up for Accessibility: The Supreme Court and the Americans with Disabilities Act

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Katie Leigh Robinson
September 29, 2020

With the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as with the passing of all justices, we take time to reflect on the highest court and its landmark decisions. We ruminate on a great love for and service to the United States, and we are grateful for the service of these great justices. In our world of partisanship and vitriol, it is hard to remember that most cases decided by the Supreme Court are not divided by party lines. In fact, the justices primarily agree on the interpretation and upholding of the laws. A dissention is typically only partial and relating to small aspects of the court decision. We see this especially well in the court’s decisions on Americans with Disabilities Act cases.

It took about eight years for the first ADA case to make it to the Supreme Court. In 1998, Randon Bragdon, Petitioner v. Sidney Abbott, et al. was heard. Before a dental appointment, Sidney Abbott disclosed that she was asymptomatic HIV positive. Her dentist, Randon Bragdon, refused to fill a cavity in his office, insisting that Abbott pay hospital facility fees so that he could fill the cavity using, “Extra precautions.” Abbott sued Bragdon based on the ADA, since she had a substantial limitation related to reproductive ability. The Court ruled that reproduction does, in fact, qualify as a major life activity and that HIV in any form would allow Abbott to claim protection under ADA. Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion, joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer. Stevens filed a concurring opinion, in which Breyer joined, and Ginsburg filed her own concurring opinion. Chief Justice Rehnquist filed a partial concurrence with a partial dissent. Justices Scalia, Thomas and O’Connor joined. Justice O’Connor filed her own partial concurrence with partial dissent. The fact that all the justices agreed on at least part of the decision shows that the bipartisan nature of the Court is intact and that the Court can ultimately be trusted to uphold the law. In fact, the dissents only argued that the Court ruling was not specific enough and contained language that would have to be clarified in future cases. These dissents, then, are not against the conclusions of the Court, but against the ambiguity of the language.

Even recently cases regarding the ADA have been finding their way to the Supreme Court. In 2017, Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools was heard in the Supreme Court. Ehlena Fry was born with quadriplegic cerebral palsy and was prescribed a service dog by her pediatrician. The family was able to purchase a service dog named Wonder for Ehlena. Wonder would help open doors, turn on lights, remove Ehlena’s coat, and even help her balance while she transferred from her walker onto the toilet. Additionally, Wonder provided comfort and confidence. When Ehlena went to Kindergarten, the elementary school refused to allow her to bring Wonder to school, arguing that human aide could provide all the help that Ehlena needed. The Fry family argued that Wonder helped Ehlena with her independence and was allowed under ADA. The Supreme Court ruled that Wonder should be allowed to attend school with Ehlena and that this right is protected under ADA. They also ruled that students with disabilities can bring lawsuits directly without requesting an administrative hearing under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) if the claim is not related to the adequacy of the student’s education. Justice Kagan wrote the opinion and was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer and Sotomayor. Justice Alito filed an opinion concurring and was joined by Justice Thomas.

There have been many other cases heard by the Supreme Court that relate to ADA. These include cases that clarify employment laws (Wright v. Universal Maritime Service Corp., Cleveland v. Policy Management Systems Corp., Raytheon Co. v. Hernandez, Board of Trustees of University of Alabama v. Garrett), cases that confirm or expand the definition of “disability” or “substantial limitation” (Murphy v. United Parcel Service, Inc., Sutton v. United Airlines, Inc., Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky Inc. v. Williams), and even a case determining that the jurisdiction of ADA applies to foreign cruise ships in American waters (Spector v. Norwegian Cruise Line Ltd.). Of all these cases, the only dissents were based on ambiguity of the wording of the ruling, and none of the dissents—save one—disagreed with the ultimate ruling. Even this dissenting opinion by Justice Scalia agreed that the spirit of the decision was correct, even if he felt that the original law needed to have been more specific for the Court to deliver the finding it did. (Spector v. Norwegian Cruise Line Ltd.)

It is clear from these cases that disability is a bipartisan issue. It transcends gender, economics, partisanship and even religion and calls for all Americans to appreciate policy that provides access to people who may need just a little more help. I, for one, look forward to more bipartisan cooperation in regard to disability policy.


Author: Katie Leigh Robinson is a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas at Dallas. She studies accessibility policy, education policy and social equity in the policy process.

Twitter Handle: @batbrarian

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