The Right To Refuse Help

by Ted Young

Copyright © 1995, 2010
National Federation of the Blind

          From the Associate Editor: Ted Young is the President of the National Federation of the Blind of Pennsylvania. The following article appeared in the Fall, 1991, edition of The Blind Activist, the publication of the NFB of Pennsylvania. It reminds us again how important it is to stand up and be counted. The hearing officer who presided at the arbitration hearing in the case Mr. Young discusses ruled against the blind woman, so with the help of the National Federation of the Blind she is going into court to seek justice. As happens so often, when blindness becomes a factor in a situation, most people check their common sense at the door. Here is what happened:

          An arbitration case in which I recently testified gave new meaning to the concept of reasonable accommodation and the right to refuse help. Of course, blind people deal with the issue every day, and I have often heard the matter discussed in various terms. For example, I have heard blind people argue about how polite one is required to be when help is being forced upon rather than offered to him or her.

          Early in the morning, when I am not at my best, I have often pondered this question while being asked whether I was waiting for a subway when the subway was the only transportation available four flights of steps below the street. Most times I tried to remember that other blind people might some day need help, an offer of which might depend upon my current politeness, that even at 7:00 in the morning I had a social duty to be courteous; but on certain days it was really an effort. More recently I have faced the all too familiar attempts to get me to ride in those siren-wailing airport carts, and the rather impolite responses to my courteous "No thank you."

          Then, in the late 1980s came the question of the Americans with Disabilities Act. To the best of my knowledge, the National Federation of the Blind was the only group that did not immediately fawn over it, but regarded it practically and remembered that even a good thing can be misused. It was the National Federation of the Blind which single-handedly insisted upon and obtained section (d) to Section 501 of the ADA. That section states: "(d) ACCOMMODATIONS AND SERVICES--Nothing in this Act shall be construed to require an individual with a disability to accept an accommodation, aid, service, opportunity, or benefit which such individual chooses not to accept."

          There were those who felt that this was an unnecessary clause, inserted by a group of radical blind people who refused to recognize that other blind people need help. However, we stood by our convictions, stating that we would go so far as to oppose the bill unless our section was included. We knew that, although blind people should have help when needed, imposed help can be and is one of the most degrading parts of the discrimination we suffer as a group.

          But to return to the arbitration case that triggered this meditation. A woman was invited to a party at an agency for the blind which always provided guides to help blind people move anywhere they chose to go, including entering and exiting the building and going to the bathroom. The agency was doing what it thought best for the blind. It hosted monthly recreational meetings and, in this case, a Christmas party at which it dispensed lunch and presents to the blind guests. As it pointed out in the hearing, it always provided guides for the blind. In fact, the only agency witness at the hearing testified that she had never seen blind people going in and out of the building without assistance. I am convinced that she truly believed a blind person could not go to the bathroom or leave the building independently.

          Then came the fateful day of the 1988 Christmas party. A group of blind people were driven to the agency and, according to their testimony, walked in independently. They participated in the evening's events without guides, and, when it came time to leave the building, they left independently. But one of them tripped on the way down the stairs and fell to the sidewalk, causing some internal bruising and nerve damage. She sued the agency, claiming that there should have been a stair railing for her to grab to stop her fall. The agency responded that she should not have been exiting independently since assistance was provided, and a reasonable blind person would have waited for a guide. There were two legal issues in this case: did the absence of a stair railing on a facility to which the public was invited constitute negligence on the part of the agency, and did the blind person contribute to the accident by not behaving like most blind people and waiting for a guide. The second issue became important because, even if it were found that the agency should have had a railing there for blind and sighted persons alike, if the blind person contributed to the accident by acting abnormally and exiting on her own, the agency's negligence would have been reduced or even offset.

          What a discouraging morning! What an interesting and depressing case! There are so many issues tied up in this one case that it would take a book to cover them all. Do we as blind people feed the traditional attitudes about blindness when we participate in agency-organized social events for the blind? Isn't it interesting that, despite all of the blind people that have come to that facility over the years, the agency witness had never seen one of us entering or exiting the building independently. Was this because the agency discouraged independence with such force that even blind people who could do so submitted, or was it confirmation of the fact that people are likely to see only what they are prepared to believe. In either case, how sad!

          Probably some reading this article wonder whether a blind person should have sued at all. "After all," they might suggest, "we as blind people should graciously accept efforts made to help us rather than biting the hand that feeds us." Others would suggest that if a sighted person could and would sue in our litigious society, the blind person should have equal right to do so. What about the fact that a railing would benefit a sighted person who reached for it when falling? What about the perception that guides are better than canes for blind people?

          At the heart of this case is the definition of the term "a reasonable blind person." Whether we like it or not, that definition is inevitably based on the public's perception of what a majority of us, that is, the average blind person, can or will do. If the "reasonable blind person" would not refuse a special accommodation, any accommodation, and another blind person refuses it because it is unnecessary, should the facility with the special accommodation be exempt from legitimate negligence claims? Could such arguments extend to a blind person's walking the streets alone and being involved in an accident clearly caused by another pedestrian, municipal negligence, careless drivers, etc.?

          How often we see the well-conceived and debated resolutions and actions of the Federation translated into real world concerns. Any blind person involved in an accident caused by the negligence of another will be affected by the foresight of our movement. How sad it is that many of those who will benefit from our efforts refuse to join us and help guarantee to others some of what they have gained through the National Federation of the Blind. Surely this case and all of the issues it raises demonstrate how far we still have to go to gain full equality in our society.

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