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The high cost of equality: our freedom


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 19, 1999

In Harrison Bergeron, a short story set in 2081, Kurt Vonnegut spins out the logical extreme of a society where equality is its highest value.

Strong men and ballerinas are forced by the "Handicapper General" to walk with debilitating weights to counteract their strength and grace; the smart are made to wear a mental handicap radio that makes piercing sounds to interrupt their thinking; and the beautiful don hideous masks. Vonnegut was illustrating the rigid control necessary for absolute equality to exist. It is a tension between equality and freedom that is not just some figment of a fiction writer's imagination but that is played out in American society every day.

Whether justified or not, our body of civil rights laws enforces equality to the detriment of freedom in a myriad of ways.

States and counties decree that a proportion of construction contracts be given exclusively to minorities and women in order to "equalize" the distribution of government work. Colleges with federally funded sports programs must provide equal resources to male and female athletics, regardless of the actual demand. And the federal Department of Education suggests that relying on standardized test scores such as the SAT for college admissions may be discriminatory, because certain minority groups don't do as well as others.

But nowhere does government-mandated equality flash closer to Harrison Bergeron's world than in the application of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The law, passed in 1990, was initially thought of as a measure to give those in wheelchairs a way into office buildings. But like the Chia pet of law, it soon grew in absurd ways.

Today, the ADA is used by everyone from college students with cognitive problems who demand extra time for assignments and tests to athletes who say the competitive rules have to bend to accommodate their physical problems. Under the law, the freedom of social institutions to set standards of excellence loses out to artificially-induced equality.

In the Aug. 6, 1999, issue of theChronicle of Higher Education, two Cornell University professors bemoaned this trend and how they had to give a handful of "learning disabled" students up to 21/2 times as long on a final exam to compensate for their disability. As opposed to providing mechanical assistance such as ramps for wheelchairs and readers for the blind, the authors expressed concern over the squishiness of offering extra time for the learning disabled when it's impossible to know if the accommodation is compensatory or advantageous. More to the point is that these are students at an Ivy League institution claiming they're too slow to meet the requirements of the course. Yet, rather than being told to try another course or college, the law forces the standards downward to meet these students' abilities.

The law school admissions test, the LSAT, and, believe it or not, the medical college admissions test, the MCAT, also offer learning disabled students up to double time and more to compensate for their problems in reading and comprehension.

When asked about what happens to these "learning disabled" doctors when they confront a medical emergency where there is no mandatory extra time, Dr. Ellen Julian, director of the MCAT, says, "We wonder that as well." She notes with resignation that the law gives her no choice but to offer the accommodations: "It is not an area that we may apply our own reasoning. We follow the letter of the law; otherwise there are stiff consequences."

Our own Handicapper General at work.

In sports competition, where physical prowess is the very thing being measured, the ADA has forced changes in game rules to make it easier for physically disabled athletes to participate. Casey Martin, who suffers from a crippling circulatory disorder in his right leg, has successfully used the ADA to force the PGA to allow him to use a cart during tournament play rather than walk the course as the rules require.

In the name of equality, we no longer have the freedom in this country to design a sport, make the rules and open the field of play only to those who can compete on those terms.

As Vonnegut's story makes starkly clear, all of us are born with some kind of disability. Whether in intelligence, looks, musical or artistic talent, or athleticism, we are not all equal, and society has to be free to set up systems to filter out those who excel in particular areas. It may be inherently unfair that someone born with a learning disability will not be able to become a surgeon, but that unfairness was caused by the genetic roll of the dice and not by society's irrational prejudice. It is not something the law can correct.

At the end of Harrison Bergeron, the title character defies the Handicapper General by casting off his weights and is shot dead. No freedom is allowed to survive when equality is the goal.

It looks like 2081 is closer than we think.

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