“Helping” the Disabled?


Sometimes the best of intentions get sidetracked and undermined, not necessarily due to bad motivations, in fact, often for benign reasons. But the fact is that human beings often pervert what starts out as a great idea into a cudgel to be used against others.

I recently learned that one of the great architectural works of the twentieth century, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House in Los Feliz—on the short list to be among the US’s first nominations of modern architecture to the UNESCO World Heritage List—-has become a weapon in the political correctness wars.

The house was recently re-opened to much fanfare after years of painstaking restoration. As the Los Angeles Times described the reopening last month,

It took as long as 3-1/2 hours to make it to the front of the line, where they [visitors] put on paper booties to tour the National Historic Landmark, built between 1919 and 1921, which has been closed to the public since 2010.

For 24 hours straight, starting 4 p.m. on Friday, visitors were welcomed for free at the home built for oil heiress Aline Barnsdall. They could show up anytime they liked to take a self-guided tour, and they were free to take photos inside — which won't be allowed ordinarily.

It was a party that thousands of people in the city participated in and folks have just kept coming.

Unfortunately, visitors don’t see all of the Hollyhock House, just parts of the ground floor that are completely flat. No one can visit any room in which there is a step that a wheelchair can't surmount,  the second floor with its two bedrooms and bath is completely “no go.” Visitors can’t visit not because it’s unsafe, nor because it’s uninteresting, nor because it’s not worth a look. People can’t visit because when Frank Lloyd Wright (and his son Lloyd Wright, with the help of the renowned Rudolph Schindler) designed the house in 1919 they didn’t think of handicapped access (it was a private residence) and there are varying levels on the ground floor and no way to the second floor besides the sole staircase.

As one commentator on Trip Advisor wrote,

The latest restoration of Hollyhock house is magnificent, but the visiting experience is less than satisfying. Instead of docent-led walking tours through the ground floor, upstairs and downstairs rooms and the garden/patio areas, the visitor is (in contrast to dozens of other Wright houses around the country) restricted to standing in the foyer and looking a ground-floor rooms from behind rope barriers (albeit aided by some very nice, enthusiastic and knowledgeable docents).

In the 95 years since the house was designed we have passed a library full of laws, one of them, the American with Disabilities Act rightfully requires that public buildings offer access to persons with disabilities to their facilities—be it ramps, elevators, widened hallways, broad restrooms, etc. Both the government and an array of litigious attorneys ensure that buildings comply with the ADA (having a bathroom counter that’s an inch too high or a store aisle that’s an inch too narrow can, and often does, result in an unwelcomed lawsuit).

That statutes, such as the ADA, will be exploited by eager attorneys, bureaucrats and aggressive advocates with an eye towards minutiae and exceptions rather than public policy and the law’s intent is not a surprise. As far back as the mid-1970s the Washington D.C. subway’s opening was delayed because handicapped elevators were not ready in all the terminals, though escalators and other forms of access were. Despite the fact that the Metro authorities offered taxi vouchers to all handicapped riders who might need them because some stations were inaccessible, disabled activists declined—the subway would remain inaccessible to everyone everywhere until the handicapped could use it, no matter that transportation was available at no charge.

The Hollyhock House is, apparently, the DC subway all over again. Despite the fact that the Americans with Disability Act (Title II) specifically allows an exemption for historic buildings where structural alterations would not be possible so long as “program accessibility” is provided, no one can climb the stairs to view the second floor or walk through the rooms with a rise on the ground floor.

As the Los Angeles City Department of Cultural Affairs now appears to interpret the statute (it’s brochure on the Hollyhock House proudly proclaims that it does not “discriminate on the basis of disability and, upon request, will provide reasonable accommodation to ensure equal access to its programs, services, and activities”) equal access now means no access for anyone—at least to the second floor and much of the first floor of the Hollyhock House.

It is a strange calculus that assumes that disadvantaging everyone results in a benefit to some (psychic or otherwise); presumably, the thinking is that “if you get pleasure, I am hurt.” It is hard to imagine how the disabled are harmed because able bodied folks are able to walk up a step or a flight of stairs that the disabled can’t and that, were it altered to accommodate them, would be irreparably harmed.  

Whatever the rationale of the Department of Cultural Affairs is (perhaps simply avoiding a lawsuit) it doesn’t make much sense. Were its logic to apply to the Department of Parks and Recreation, we might have to close down Mt. Hollywood, the trails in Griffith Park and other natural spots that some can more fully enjoy and access than others for a whole host of reasons. The absurdity of the reasoning seems obvious in one circumstance, yet it prevails at Hollyhock.

The logic is reminiscent of the famous Kurt Vonnegut short story, Harrison Bergeron, who wrote of the US in 2081 when there will be a United States Handicapper General to insure that everyone was “equal every which way….nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else.” Graceful folks had to carry sandbags, people who stood out were handicapped to the mean so no one would feel bad or unequal.

Life is not a zero sum game, benefits to some are not necessarily disadvantages to others. Society would be much better off were we all to realize that helping the disadvantaged should involve truly providing a benefit—not disadvantaging others

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