Aid Versus Care

Several days ago I was eating with my family in one of our favorite little restaurants, when I noticed from our table by the window a man in an electric wheelchair rolling slowly toward the entrance. After several seconds I realized that he had not come through the door. It occurred to me that he might be having trouble; this restaurant has two successive single doors at its entrance, creating a small sealed foyer to keep the temperature inside consistent. True to the form of many small family eateries, it has no handicapped access.

I got up and went to the door, and sure enough, this fellow was stopped just outside. He barely had movement in the hand he used to control the wheelchair’s joystick, and no apparent movement in the other hand. His head sat to one side, as if he didn’t have the strength to hold it up. I went through the outer door and held it open for him. He slurred “thank you” to me twice, and slowly cruised into the foyer. A young lady eating in the restaurant had noticed the action, and she was already at the inner door, holding it open for him. He slurred more thank you’s, and made his way into the restaurant.

The problem at this point was that this restaurant has a very narrow row, like a cattle stall which turns back on itself, leading up to the single cash register. (Trust me, the food is really good.) There was no way this fellow was going to get his wheelchair to that register. He didn’t even try; instead he slowly positioned himself in front of a small side table. A moment later, one of the employees emerged from the kitchen and came over to him.

“Here comes trouble,” the employee said to him, amiably. The fellow in the wheelchair grunted happily in reply. They spent the next couple of minutes , which was a difficult affair, about what he wanted. Finally the employee went back to the kitchen, and emerged a couple of minutes later with the man’s order on a tray. He placed it on the table in front of the man, and told him the price. The man handed over a little change purse, and the employee counted out four ones and some change (this is Kansas), and then placed the purse back in the man’s shirt pocket.

“Thank you, Paul,” he said, patted the man on the back, and went back to work. The man in the wheelchair proceeded to eat his lunch — slowly, precariously, happily.

This is the kind of place a trial attorney well-versed in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) would love to get his claws into. It appears to be highly profitable, and almost always full. Everyone in town who isn’t a food snob (mercifully few of these in Kansas) knows about it and loves it, which means the attorney would have the added pleasure of sticking it to someplace newsworthy.

This is precisely why I won’t tell you the name of the restaurant. While enlightened “progressives” view this vignette as an example of why we need the ADA, I see a much better alternative — people in the community helping out, albeit in just a small way, their neighbor. To be sure, if this man had no access to care facilities or transportation, one might convincingly argue that such things are worthwhile public expenditures. The ADA, of course, frequently mandates that private businesses and homeowners take on such expenses — all the better to conceal from citizens the true cost of such a law — and ignores the existence of private aid.

The ADA, like many attempts to legislate hardship out of existence, extends itself deep into our private lives, and pretends that people are neither interested in nor capable of caring for one another. Perhaps, if Al Gore’s embarrassingly low charitable giving is any indication, this is an accurate reflection of the left-wing worldview; leftists view society as filled with selfish narcissists because they themselves are selfish narcissists. (Many conservatives and many more libertarians are just as selfish and narcissistic, of course, they just don’t feel guilty about it.)

The ADA, or welfare, or public housing, or government-funded abortion, all serve therefore as cheap penance, enabling us to pursue our self-satisfaction while pretending that we are helping the less fortunate without going about the dirty, frustrating work of actually helping them.

And what a paltry alternative such laws are. Rather than bring hurting souls into contact with caring humans, they deliberately remove them: instead of receiving a smile from the stranger who opens the door, the man in a wheelchair pushes a button and goes in alone; instead of receiving counsel and a home-cooked meal from a neighbor, the single mother drags her child from her dangerous, segregated public housing to a local store and buys a can of soup. If she lives in the right state and can take a hint, she helps herself to a Medicaid-funded abortion and relieves the rest of us from the burden altogether. The authors of these laws think themselves humanitarians, but in reality they are authors of dehumanization. They are busy about the work of destroying the foundations of civil society by removing the need for neighbors to take care of one another.

As a result, most of us don’t know how to care for a neighbor in need. Opening a door is simple enough, but I’m talking about personal involvement — providing food, counsel, spiritual support, or just attention. I know I’m not very good at this, and I suspect most of you aren’t either. A few of us are fortunate enough to find ourselves in a good church or civic organization where we can learn these skills, but most of us never do. We pay our taxes, give to the United Way, and pat ourselves on the back for helping our fellow man.

But at least in this small thing, on this day, in this restaurant, a few people proved that they don’t need a faceless federal bureaucrat to tell them what simple human decency requires. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone could learn how to do this again, so that politicians proclaiming the need for some new government benefit are met with laughter from the intended beneficiaries themselves? Keep your program, G-Man. My neighbors take care of me just fine.


  1. Steve

    I couldn’t agree more. The terrible thing about the ADA is it takes the “Pauls” of the world and turns them into labels. And once they are labels, we no longer feel the need to see them or treat them as brothers and sisters.

    I also suspect the benefit of the smile extended to the wheelchair-bound neighbor is returned many-fold to the amateur bellman with a righteous heart whose muscles act when he sees a need.

    Thank you for the challenge.

  2. MarcV

    Thank you for your excellent take on the debacle known as ADA. When laws like this are passed, you wonder if there is any debate on the negative impact to communities, or if our elected representatives just get warm fuzzies thinking they are helping.
    I posted on my site yesterday about helping. At the center of helping someone is the personal relationship. The G-Man has tried to take that away from us and replace it with agencies and laws spelled out in letters. I hope we can teach our children the value of helping by giving a part of ourselves, rather than just a donation.

  3. Dave Trowbridge

    Wonderful post. The erosion of civil society engendered by such legislation is cause for much concern (more here), but for me, there is an even more terrifying, and personal, consequence, for I don’t think that any amount of legislation will suffice as an answer to this accusation:

    …for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

  4. The Dodd

    Your story reminds me of one my dad learned when he was working in a program to train the disabled to use computers. A local company (to remain unnamed also) had decided they wanted to hire a wheelchair bound guy for a desk job. This was before the ADA became law, so they did a study and determined that it would cost US$1 million to refit their building to allow him easy access. So some bright fellow asked him what he wanted. He told them he wanted a doorbell on the front door (so someone could let him in in the morning) and four bricks (to raise up his desk high enough for his wheelchair to get underneath).

    And, I presume, his dignity. Great story.

  5. jim


    We had a similar situation here in my neighborhood about 10 years ago. A guy who lived in a nearby assisted-living complex would ride his electric wheelchair over to the local watering hole from time to time. A young guy with some degenerative condition. The restaurant had wheelchair access, but getting the guy to the bar required helpful people moving chairs, tables, and their own bodies. People were invariably helpful; the guy in the wheelchair was invariably grateful.

    The guy would get drunk and occasionally nasty, but even this was tolerated. Most people figured that a 20-something guy confined to a wheelchair had a reason to drink and a reason to be angry. We were even more concerned about his safety and well-being, and various people often escorted him on the trip home.

    I got to know the guy like this: I was approaching the restaurant in my car one night and he was crossing the road in his chair. He got stuck in a pothole and I had to get out of the car to extricate him.

    Now, if this guy had sued the restaurant, claiming that under ADA he had the right to an unobstructed path to the bar, he would likely have lost the kindly disposition of those who were more than willing to help him. His assertion of legal right would be regarded as a slap in the face.

    The social engineers don’t believe in the kindness of strangers. They believe that designated victims need to be walking (or riding) around with statute books and court orders in their back pocket, perpetually armed for legal battle. As you pointed out so eloquently, this government “solution” encourages us to become less caring human beings.

  6. Denny Wilson

    As a disabled person myself (not handicapable or differently abled), I have never asked for special treatment. I really get pissed off at what I call professional cripples who want the entire world to bend over backwards to accommodate them. The ADA has given so many people excuses to not work or it has been used (abused) to force businesses to spend money on so many ridiculous things to make buildings more disabled friendly. One of the county buildings where I used to live had printed signs over offices at a height of seven feet. They were also in braille. I’m sure this was an ADA mandate.

  7. Toren

    In San Francisco a multi-million dollar bond issue passed after the ’89 quake to upgrade fire stations to meet higher seismic standards (a common problem was the stations got tweaked just enough to jam the huge garage doors shut) ended up being frittered away instead retrofitting them all for handicapped access, including bathrooms, due to a complaint brought against the city under the ADA.
    This is the sort of thing that makes otherwise compassionate people cranky.

  8. Dori

    There would never be a law if there wasn’t a need. It’s nice to be willing to be kind and open a door once in a while. For the person in the chair it is every door every day. I do not enjoy being in a position to have to except charity. I am grateful when I must receive it. To give a person with disabilities access to a public life without having to depend on others for every movement everyday is an appropriate civic responsibility. If the law is negative it may be poorly written.

  9. Tony

    I don’t agree that a law is ipso facto proof of a concomitant need. The history of the state is replete with laws passed to increase the power of individuals, usually those in control of the state.

    But assuming for the sake of argument that you are correct, I can understand your dislike for needing the help of strangers. I think you are mistaken, however, to distinguish between the direct, voluntary help of individuals, and the indirect, coerced help of individuals. In either case you have to depend on others. It is often easier on people to accept anonymous help than to confront our helplessness and need for assistance from others. My suspicion, however, is that we are better off to confront this truth, not pretend that ramps and automatic doors and subsidized busing are all free goods.

    Ultimately, the vision I have of a society where people accept and help one another is very different from the world we live in. Perhaps in many places it is better to simply provide these things through a tax; perhaps we have lost the civic impulse, such that anything other than coerced, anonymous charity is simply cruel.

  10. John "Akatsukami" Braue

    Ah, Tony, you do not understand. If someone opens a door for me as I fumble with my cane, that is charity, which only engenders resentment in me. But if I can compel him with the law, then is my right.

    The other person’s resentment? Who cares; he’s obviously an ableist, and needs to be sent to a re-education center (iodized division) to learn how he’s interfering with my sense of self-esteem.

    (NOTE: The foregoing comment may contain sarcasm.)

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