The statement above is an accurate description of the notion of attempting to apply Civil Rights to individuals with disabilities in the same manner as ethnic minorities. The nature of both the discrimination itself and the corresponding legislation for each category is markedly different. These differences are clearly illustrated in the case law and legislation passed that addresses both issues.
One major difference between the two legislative and judicial approaches is the fact that ethnic minority rights legislation is designed to redress active legislation and practice designed for the purpose of discrimination. In contrast, legislation and judicial review of discrimination against the handicapped is predicated on redressing omissions in access and consideration that are not institutional or intentional.
To illustrate, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, passed in 2004 was designed to address deficiencies in education in dealing with children with disabilities. (IDEA) Prior to this act, these facilities and resources did not exist. Through judicial decisions, such as Cedar Rapids Community School District v. Garret F., the courts expanded and defined the extent of public responsibility necessary for compliance with existing equal opportunity legislation. It would be difficult to argue that the institutions governed by this legislation intentionally or maliciously excluded children with special needs from their education programs. In contrast, race-based civil rights activity was a proactive reaction to active exclusion and discrimination.
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka I is a case where the Supreme Court reversed an earlier decision which permitted segregation of public facilities on the basis of race. In the case of race civil rights, the legislation and court decisions were geared toward changing a perception of inferiority that led to routinized discriminatory behavior. In the case of disability civil rights, the courts and congress take official notice of the status and needs of individuals whose circumstances were hitherto ignored.
As a result of this difference, civil rights law for race discrimination developed in a manner that would be ill-suited for redressing disability discrimination. Race civil rights law developed a gradual recognition of the existence of rights of a certain subset of citizens, which developed over time from a condition where the individuals were not even considered citizens. Such is not the evolution of civil rights for the disabled. This group was never systematically denied citizenship, and in fact, was not even classified as a group worthy of special judicial and legal attention until relatively recently.
An attempt to combine these two civil rights initiatives was made with the Equal Education Opportunities Act of 1974, which prohibited segregation and discrimination on any basis in schools. This initiative failed because the nature of disabilities may, in fact require segregation banned by the act, whereas racial segregation is in no way beneficial. The case of Honig v. Doe illustrates the folly of attempting to treat the disabled as if they were a suspect class in the same legal manner as racial minorities. The case evolved from the fact that there is no exception to the rule in the Education of the Handicapped Act which states that students will remain in their present educational environment pending evaluation of their status.
The school, in this case, was asking for an exception in the instant of a handicapped student who may pose a danger to other students in this environment. The court’s failure in this case to grant the exception was both inappropriate and dangerous as it enjoined a school from acting in the best interests of its entire student population, while giving no real benefit to the student whose special needs will continue not to be met pending review of the circumstances. If such a situation were predicated on racial differences, the school could not identify a danger to either the student or his or her peers to justify a desegregation exemption.
The case of Daniel F. further illustrates the differences in circumstances between racial and disability civil rights. In this case, the court ruled in favor of a school segregating a mentally disabled child from the “regular” classes on the basis of his disability. One would be hard-pressed to produce a similar ruling allowing the segregation of a racial minority as “in their own best interest.”
It is clear that race-related civil rights and disability-based civil rights are two entirely different categories. It is equally clear that when the courts try to apply the same inflexible standards to disabilities and race, complications arise. Thus, the notion that to attempt to do so is “fitting a square peg into a round hole” is a valid argument.