Texas GOP candidate disappoints disability advocates

Despite being a paraplegic, Greg Abbott has argued the Americans with Disabilities Act is unconstitutional

If elected governor of Texas, Greg Abbott would become the state's first executive in a wheelchair.
Pat Sullivan/AP

AUSTIN, Texas -- If he wins his bid to become governor, state Attorney General Greg Abbott would become Texas' first chief executive in a wheelchair and the nation's highest-ranking government official with a disability.

In 1984, Abbott was a 26-year-old law student jogging in Houston when a falling oak tree crushed his spine, leaving him a paraplegic for the rest of his life. His story of overcoming adversity to become a successful attorney and public servant is an inspiration to many.

So why are some disability activists in Texas conflicted about or adamantly opposed to his candidacy?

Abbott, the leading Republican candidate for governor in the November 2014 election, has argued the state of Texas should be granted "sovereign immunity" from the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) -- landmark legislation signed into law by another Texan, President George H.W. Bush, which outlawed discrimination against people with disabilities.

He has been supportive of various tort-reform measures in the state, including capping awards and imposing stricter standards on lawsuits. This, despite the fact that by the end of 2013, Abbott will have collected $5.8 million from the lawsuit he filed against the homeowner whose tree fell on him and the company that inspected the oak, according to documents obtained by the Texas Tribune.

Bob Kafka is an activist with ADAPT of Texas, an offshoot of a national grassroots disability-advocacy organization, who has lived in Austin for 32 years and seen the city and state dramatically transform after the ADA passed. Disabled people can now easily use public transportation, all kinds of public and private facilities are more accessible, and services that cater to the disabled have improved.  

"To be quite fair, there is a positive aspect that a person in a wheelchair with a disability running for governor in one of the largest states. One has to just have pride in the fact that we have come this far," Kafka said. "But that doesn't give you a pass just because he's a guy in a wheelchair."

His colleague Stephanie Thomas is less generous.

"He's totally two-faced on this disability stuff," she said, noting that Abbott can freely move around in many buildings in the state capital now because of challenges brought forward by the ADA.

Abbott's campaign did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but Abbott, a former Texas Supreme Court justice, has said he is supportive and appreciative of the ADA as a whole.

Nonetheless, in 2003, when defending the state of Texas against a lawsuit filed by disability advocates, his office argued that Title II, the section that prohibits public entities from discriminating against people with disabilities, is unconstitutional under the 10th Amendment, which reserves certain rights for the states.

The state's-rights argument is one that falls in line with conservative orthodoxy and plays especially well with voters who are suspicious of any action by the federal government.  

Dennis Borel, executive director of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, said the ADA is one of the most significant pieces of civil rights legislation of the 20th century -- akin to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars discrimination based on race, religion and sex. While some are puzzled by Abbott's positions because of his experiences with disability, Borel said his qualms with Abbott are solely because of his record.

"My concerns with Greg Abbott have to do with his actions in the office, and his actions have been to basically go to court and claim sovereign immunity from the Americans with Disability Act," Borel said. "I believe that that"s wrong. I believe that's wrong even if he were a totally able-bodied person."

Still, Abbott has his defenders within the disability community.

Lex Frieden, who was the chief architect of the ADA and is now a professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, said the "sovereign immunity" argument was one taken up by the office of Texas Gov. Rick Perry when Abbott happened to be attorney general, and that he was only doing his job as the state's top lawyer.

"In my judgment, Mr. Abbott's actions relate to the principles of state sovereignty and not to the question of whether people should have access, and nondiscrimination,” Frieden told Al Jazeera, adding that Texas already had protections and regulations in place in line with the ADA.

Asked what recourse people with disabilities should have if they felt they were being discriminated against by the state of Texas, Frieden said he didn't know.

"I should certainly be able to file a complaint and go through a regulatory process," he said. "I'm not sure what other redress would be available to me."

During his decades in public office, Abbott has also expressed support for numerous reforms that have put limits on the rewards plaintiffs can claim in lawsuits and imposed higher standards for proving wrongdoing, another position widely advocated by Texas Republicans. It's become especially difficult to claim compensation based on noneconomic losses, or those that come from mental pain and anguish.

In 1995, the state legislature capped those damages at $750,000. In 2003 the state further capped punitive damages specifically in medical-malpractice cases at $250,000. Proponents of those moves say they have prevented frivolous lawsuits and attracted high-quality doctors to Texas, who had been fleeing the state because of the high cost of malpractice lawsuits.

It is difficult to say with certainty whether Abbott would, under present-day Texas statutes, have received the kind of award he did in 1985 when his lawsuit was settled. But Charles M. Silver, a law professor at the University of Texas who has done extensive research on the issue, said the climate has gotten much more difficult for plaintiffs who go to trial.

"I can say that the recovery Greg Abbott got for his case -- that would be a very, very good recovery back then," Silver said, "and it would be very difficult to get now."

But if his record has disappointed some in the disability community, others believe he is not -- and shouldn't be -- beholden to any particular group or subset of the population.   

"I don’t think he should be any more of a disability advocate than he should be an advocate for the people of Texas," Frieden said. "Why should he prioritize certain issues over others?"

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