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Opinion

Opinion | North Carolina must stop criminalizing people with disabilities

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by Virginia Knowlton Marcus, NC Newsline
January 17, 2024

At Disability Rights North Carolina, we witness injustice and discrimination against people with disabilities daily. Still, we were shocked and appalled to learn that Bishop William Barber II was not only denied his legal right to a basic disability-related accommodation at AMC Theater in Greenville, NC, but that theater managers took the step of calling the police to have him, a paying customer with an obvious physical disability, removed from the premises simply because he must sit in his own chair as an accommodation.

It is ironic that managers took this step when they, not Bishop Barber, were violating the law. Their decision was not only misguided and wrong, but it was also potentially dangerous. Disabled people are harmed and killed in unnecessary, inappropriate police encounters at alarming rates. Bishop Barber is adept at non-violent resistance. Had it involved someone without these skills, the outcome could have been far worse.

We are reminded of Ethan Saylor, a young man with an apparent intellectual disability killed by police who were called in to remove him from a Frederick, Maryland movie theater simply because Ethan remained seated at the movie’s end, hoping to see it again, before his aide was able to assist him to leave on his own accord. Ethan died eleven years ago. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been the law of the land nearly 34 years. What have we learned in the intervening years?

Clearly not enough. Consider these experiences of disabled people we are aware of in NC:

William Oliva, a blind man, entered a retail store, Jimmy Jazz, while shopping at Hanes Mall in Winston Salem with his guide dog, Forte. Upon seeing the guide dog, the store manager called the police to have Mr. Oliva removed from the premises. Even though the store manager was violating the law, the police arrived and threatened to arrest Mr. Oliva if he did not immediately leave the store.Steven Hardy-Braz, a frequent wheelchair user, was peacefully waiting at a bus stop in Greenville, NC. A police officer intervened, and he was charged, jailed, and prosecuted for being in the street and obstructing traffic, even though there was no sidewalk for him to safely wait for the bus.Michael Nelson, a blind veteran, was a passenger in a car while his wife drove. A police officer approached them in a parking lot and demanded their identifications. Mr. Nelson told the officer he did not drive and had no identification on him. He was charged, jailed, and is currently being prosecuted by Rockingham County for refusing to provide his identification and obstructing justice. Once in jail, he was placed in isolation and his prescribed dark sunglasses and cap were removed, causing him debilitating migraines due to the bright lights.Alexis Ratcliff is paralyzed and requires a ventilator to live. State officials have struggled to locate a residential placement to accommodate her use of a ventilator and hospitalized her at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist for the past four years. As soon as Alexis turned eighteen, the hospital sought to have her sent out of state to another facility. When they were stopped from shipping her out of state against her will, the hospital brought trespass charges against her, even though State officials have no home yet for her to stay in North Carolina.

Throughout North Carolina the words “trespass, refusing, and obstruction” are regularly used to criminalize people for having a disability and to cloak garden-variety discrimination.

More than 50 years ago, 20 years before the ADA was even enacted, the “Mother of the Disability Rights Movement,” Judy Heumann, successfully challenged the New York Board of Education’s denial of her teaching license simply because she used a wheelchair, using the excuse that it presented a “fire hazard.” To hear this worn-out, invalid excuse still being trotted out by AMC staff as an attempt to mask unlawful, discriminatory conduct is absurd, and must stop. Bishop Barber is correct that AMC Theaters must address this problem systemically, at a minimum through policy guidance, implementation, and ongoing training. Other businesses should also take note. In the Bishop’s words: “Wrong is wrong, nobody can dismiss our humanity.” 

NC Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. NC Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Rob Schofield for questions: info@ncnewsline.com. Follow NC Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.