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Monday, June 22, 2009

B.S. Indeed

I watched the first season of “Penn & Teller: Bull**** on DVD and found it interesting. The quirky Vegas magicians turn an illusionist’s eye on those who endeavor to dupe people for profit. (TV psychics, for instance.) Easy targets, yes, but entertaining nonetheless.

Later, I found out that “Bull****” had done an episode on The Americans with Disabilities Act., entitled “Handicapped Parking”.

The first interview subject is Marianne Catrall, whose daughter is blind and has autism. She has taken it upon herself to photograph drivers who misuse disabled parking spaces. Penn argues that it is “way easy” to obtain a parking permit because all you have to do is get “some doctor” to sign it. To buttress this oh-so astute argument, Penn says that the ADA’s definition of disability is very broad, noting that the criteria includes those who have trouble keeping track of money and those who have trouble using the telephone. (Does he mean the mentally disabled, who just so happen to use that accounting assistance to maintain a level of independence?) Actually, there is a little bit of the titular substance in whom the ADA classifies as disabled: Substance-Abusers, a fact completely unaddressed by Penn and Teller.

Penn asks whether police officers “have better things to do” than enforcing “thoughtfulness.” Well, yes, that is precisely why the bulk of enforcement falls to deputized civilians. But, you can hardly argue the need for the space in the first place, can you?

Unfortunately, Penn does.

When an interviewee compares fight for accessibility to the civil rights movement, Penn denounces that as B.S. making the argument that Jim Crow Laws prevented black people from getting on the bus, whereas disabled people cannot board due to the Laws of Physics. Now, I have read how other people have dismissed this as the nonsense as it is, but I think we can learn something from following it to its logical conclusion, (if we can stomach it.)

So, in Penn’s view, the wrongness of segregation did not lie in the discrimination against someone on the basis of the color of their skin, but rather that such behavior was sanctioned by The Big Bad Government. As such, if a business-owner chose to, he could post a Whites-Only sign in his window. Imagine the outcry if Showtime had aired an episode arguing that.

The above illustrates one of the biggest problems we face as disabled citizens: It is still OK to treat us as concepts-as problems to be solved- rather than human beings with needs. They used to solve the “problem” of disabled people by shoving us out of sight. We were warehoused in terrible institutions. It is because of the ADA and earlier legislation that we are granted access to our communities. Wasn’t access the crux of the civil rights movement? Black people wanted access to the segregated schools, access to lunch counters, access to voting booths. Now we are not hidden away, but we fight against apathy and indifference, and those things do not lend themselves to being held up for public scorn. We must use the power of law because we have seen that only under threat of litigation do the changes get made.

Penn believes that business owners would make accommodations on their own because it is good for business, but sadly this is not the case. Take as a small example that a movie theater I attend is wonderfully accessible on the inside, but ask them for a door-opener and all you get is a polite nod. Businesses will only do what is required of them and nothing more.

In the course of the episode Penn manages to argue against handicapped parking, building/street accessibility, and adaptive public transit, citing cost concerns. What’s left? Well, the episode begins with Penn in a wheelchair, navigating the obstacles around the set, and he remarks, “Man, if I had to do this everyday, I’d never leave my one-story house.” This sounds like Penn’s advice to those of us that do….

“Handicapped Parking” appears on the 5th season DVD of Bull****

Side-note: I recently went on a trip to Vegas and because of this episode I boycotted Penn and Teller and chose David Copperfield instead. While searching for a seating chart, I Googled the venue and “wheelchair” It turns out that the MGM Grand had settled with the government over a claim that it was not in compliance with the ADA, during Janet Reno’s tenure. I can tell you that the seating is now excellent and I can thank the ADA for improving my experience.


  1. Excellent write up. It sounds like one episode that Teller was wise to keep his mouth shut.

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  3. I haven't seen the episode yet. Clearly, Penn is voicing the conservative side of the argument witout any personal knowledge of the difficulties. But I'm not sure you're reading his argument correctly. I think he is pointing out a disanalogy between discrimination based on race and discrimination based on disability (which he discredits). In the case of Jim Crow Laws, black persons (who were otherwise perfectly capable) were prevented access from various aspects of civil life. He's arguing that it's different for the disabled. There are no laws "preventing" people with disabilities from entering an establishment. They just physically cannot do it without accommodations.

    The real question, which Penn misses, is the point of civil rights legislation. The idea is to provide protections and assurances that people can engage in civil and political life. For persons of minority races, this doesn't just mean eliminating hateful legislation. It means (in many cases) trying to be proactive in promoting the interests of minorities inside the educational, professional, and political arena where they have long been absent and silenced. In this country, persons with disabilities cannot engage in that life without accommodations. So, we have enacted legislation to try and ensure those accommodations are made (even on a minimal level).

    Hence, there are two sides to civil rights legislation: eliminating discriminatory practices and laws and also promoting access for minorities and those with disabilities. It's the latter aspect that draws the most criticism because it involves things like renovating buildings and transit systems at a high cost to the taxpayer and complicated affirmative action efforts. Just look at the recent fire fighter case before the Supreme Court.

    Penn is certainly right on some points. The renovation and building is expensive and there is rampant abuse of the system. But I think that he's just bass-ackwards to argue against the principle and goal of the legislation. Everyone should be "for" greater access for more individuals — including those with disabilities. Maybe we can wrangle over costs and such. But to argue the principle? What a bigot.