Imagine having to get a doctor’s note to get your drivers license. Puts rather a damper on preparing for the big day when you can finally, finally, drive a car by yourself instead of having to bum rides from friends and family, doesn’t it? Worse yet, how would you feel if when you got to the DMV, in addition to having to pass the written and on-the-road tests, you also had to pass (and personally pay for) an assessment test conducted by an occupational therapist who would determine if you were fit to drive? How would you feel if you had to go through this every year?
For some would-be drivers in North Carolina, these are not hypothetical situations. Disability Rights North Carolina is suing on behalf of six individuals who claim they have been discriminated against while seeking their licenses by officials subjecting them to differential treatment on the grounds of stereotypes about their disabilities.
Katherine McCrory, Pam Dickens, Steven Chambers and Logan Wilson all encountered problems with trying to obtain or renew their licenses, including mandates for expensive assessments on an annual basis to determine their continued fitness to drive. Rebecca Kay was ordered to install adaptive technology in her car even though she neither needed nor wanted it, while when Natasha Wright went into the DMV to change her address, they slapped restrictions on her license forbidding her from driving more than 25 miles away from home.
As in other states, North Carolina has a mechanism for protecting drivers and the public through a program that assesses drivers deemed to be potentially unsafe. Typically, this is determined by requests from family members or doctors, and tends to affect already licensed drivers who may be losing their abilities to navigate the road safely as a result of dementia or other age-related issues. In North Carolina, this system appears to be being abused to unfairly profile disabled applicants and drivers solely on the basis of their disabilities, with DMV employees deciding on an individual and haphazard basis when they think someone should be required to provide proof of fitness.
The plaintiffs in this case have impairments like cerebral palsy, which comes in varying degrees of severity but can be very stable, with patients experiencing no significant changes in their condition over the course of decades. DMV employees are ill-informed about the specific nature of common impairments like CP, and their lack of knowledge is costing disabled drivers.
Differential treatment of this nature could potentially be considered a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, both of which forbid this kind of discriminatory profiling. Furthermore, this isn’t just a civil rights issue, but a fundamental human rights one. By denying disabled people their licenses, either directly or through the creation of so many barriers that they cannot functionally complete the application process, the DMV is also limiting mobility. Disabled people often experience social isolation, and rely on vehicles to access medical appointments, see friends, shop for groceries and engage in other activities. Without the benefit of a car, they could be forced to rely more heavily on assistance they don’t actually need, and in some cases could be forced into residential care, which in itself is a violation of Olmstead versus L.C., an important case that mandated the right to live in the community when at all feasible.
If DRNC is successful in its pursuit of the case, it will help disabled North Carolinians get back on the road — and it would send a message to other states that discriminating against disabled drivers is illegal, and will not be tolerated.
Photo credit: Gerardo Lazzari.