Thanks to Dan for inviting me to blog this month. I’m looking forward to it.
I’ll start with two pieces in the NY Times Sunday Magazine this week that raise interesting questions about individualization versus generalization and the struggle for equality for women and people with disabilities.
In Creature Comforts, Rebecca Skloot reports on the difficulty faced by people with disabilities seeking to use a variety of animals to assist them in day-to-day public life. In doing so, she identifies the inevitable tension between the individualized inquiry required by the ADA and the urge (and sometimes need) to generalize. The people maintaining public spaces, including those who use those spaces, want bright lines about which animals are permissible service animals, while the ADA requires that they accommodate individuals with disabilities and their individualized needs.
Similarly, in The Senator Track, Lisa Belkin comments on the difficulty that women (including Caroline Kennedy) face when they seek jobs after taking what she calls a “mom sabbatical.” Belkin claims that we need to redefine “experience” so that “what you do, and think, and produce, and change all count—even if none of your activities take place in an office, where you enjoy a title and a salary.” This call for individualized inquiry, however, butts up against the simplicity and utility of generalization; in short, working in an office with a particular title serves as a general proxy for a group of skills that Belkin would have employers examining on an individual basis (e.g., ability to run meetings, to arrive on time, to manage accounts, etc.).
The fight for individualization over generalization is a worthy one. In setting up the equality struggle in this way, however, both pieces miss an important component of the battle: longstanding and entrenched biases. In the disability context, our perceptions and judgments about the suitability of certain animals for public accommodation are undoubtedly intertwined with our biases regarding difference (and our definitions of “normalcy”). It will be much easier, I expect, to get people to accept, for example, horses as service animals for the blind than it will be to get people to accept a parrot as a service animal for a man prone to psychotic episodes. Similarly, the difficulty faced by women who take time out of the traditional work force to provide care for family members is as much one of stereotypes as it is of a more neutral inclination to generalize. I’m reminded here of research by sociologist Shelley Correll and colleagues at Cornell on the motherhood penalty (for a recent review of the research the work in this area, see Stephen Benard et al., Cognitive Bias and the Motherhood Penalty, 59 Hastings Law Journal 1359 (2008)). This research suggests that a woman seeking to reenter the traditional work market will have to overcome stereotypes that her male counterpart will not. Imagine a mother and a father who each picks up a child from your neighborhood school, Monday through Friday at 1:30 pm. You bump into each one and engage in conversation; which one do you expect will have an easier time convincing you (through subtle signals or otherwise) that he/she is engaged in workforce-related activities between 9:00 and 1:00?