© 1995 Karen Selick
 The Ramp to Hell
An edited version of this article first appeared in the September, 1995 issue of Canadian Lawyer.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.


 The Ramp to Hell

Perhaps the people who first dreamed up Ontario's Human Rights Code had good intentions, but as the old saying goes, that's what the road to hell is paved with.  A recent decision of a Board of Inquiry shows just how far we've travelled down that road.

The case involved a disabled woman who uses a wheelchair.  She made an appointment with a chiropractor whose office was not accessible by wheelchair.  He offered her three alternatives:  two doctors would carry her up the stairs, or he would treat her at her home, or he would borrow accessible premises from another chiropractor and treat her there. 

Not good enough, said the lady, and lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Commission.  Almost seven years later, the decision has come down: the chiropractor is guilty of discrimination.  He has to pay the lady $500 in damages and install a ramp in his building at a cost of almost $20,000.

Reading this decision reminds me of the Emperor's New Clothes: everyone seems either too embarrassed, too fearful or too politically correct to say what was so pathetically obvious.

For example, one recurrent theme is that the disabled are "seen both by themselves and by society as not the same as everyone else."  Okay, I'll be the kid in the crowd who blurts out what everyone already knows: installing wheelchair ramps won't change this.  People in wheelchairs will still be unmistakably different--they'll be the ones rolling up the ramps while other people will be walking.  To make their differences genuinely unobservable, we'd have to pass a law compelling everyone to use wheelchairs.

A second theme in the judgment is that the disabled don't want charity or pity; they don't want to be dependent upon others.  That's understandable--who does?  But to pretend that this decision--or indeed, any application of the Human Rights Code--makes the disabled any less the recipients of charity or any more independent requires a prodigious feat of self-delusion.  They may not be dependent on someone else to carry them up the stairs, but they are still dependent on someone else to build them a ramp. 

If the complainant had wanted to demonstrate true independence, she would have gone to the other chiropractor's office where someone had already installed wheelchair access voluntarily, instead of burdening a stranger with a $20,000 expense.  Or she could have offered to pay for the ramp herself, rather than forcing an unwilling victim to provide it to her.  The route she chose, of using the coercive power of a state agency to appropriate someone else's assets for her benefit, underscores the very dependency she is attempting to deny.

A third theme of the decision is dignity.  We're told that the alternatives offered by the chiropractor offended the woman's dignity.  One wonders what she and the Board of Inquiry expected him to do when initially confronted with the situation.  Was he supposed to say, "Okay, just wait a few weeks while I get a zoning variance from the city, arrange a new mortgage, and spend $20,000 installing a ramp so that we can see whether you really want me as your chiropractor?" 

Most people who need chiropractic services need them now, not a few weeks from now.  It made far more sense for the doctor to offer quick expedients than to offer to install a ramp.  Even if he had proposed a ramp, the woman might well have sought treatment elsewhere in the meantime and might either have had her problem completely remedied or might have been so satisfied with the second chiropractor that she would never have come back to the first one.

In my view, the complainant's own behaviour robbed her of dignity.  A dignified response would have been for her to realize that the doctor was trying to accommodate her and to have met him halfway.  Instead, she insisted that everything be done entirely her way.  That's not dignified--that's bullying.

The Human Rights Code says its purpose is to enhance the dignity of "every person," not just disabled people, but the decision--indeed, the whole proceeding--overlooks any consideration of the chiropractor's dignity.  The judgment reveals details of his assets, his debts and his earnings over several years.  There it all is, in black and white, for his colleagues, his patients, his neighbours, or any other nosy stranger to read.  I'm sure he finds that very dignified. 

Even worse, his judgment as a businessman regarding the appropriate financial conduct of his business has been completely overridden.  No doubt he would willingly have installed a ramp, in order to expand his potential client base, if he had perceived a reasonable prospect that the extra traffic would justify the expense.  His opinion was that it wouldn't.  The Board of Inquiry couldn't care less.  He is the child, it is the parent, and he has to do what it says, regardless of how foolish its decision may be from a business point of view.  I'm sure he finds that very dignified too.

One witness, quoted approvingly by the Board, described the proceedings this way: "It really is...about persons with disabilities taking control of their own lives."  Not at all.  It's really about the Human Rights Commission, in the name of a few legally privileged groups, taking control of other people's lives.  More about this next month.   ("Calling a Slave a Slave")

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June 11, 2000