All Men Are Created Equal

By Slade, David C. | The World and I, December 1998 | Go to article overview

All Men Are Created Equal


Slade, David C., The World and I


"We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal." So wrote Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. But does this self-evident truth mean that all people are born equal in all ways?

Some individuals are born with physical or mental disabilities, while some are born totally healthy. No, what Jefferson meant was that all individuals are equally endowed with certain unalienable rights, a concept later incorporated in the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, securing the right to all Americans of "equal protection of the laws."

Recognizing that millions of Americans are born with physical or mental disabilities, or become disabled through injury or disease, Congress has enacted several laws designed to provide equal opportunity in the nation's schools and workplaces. Three notable laws are the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA),i and the Social Security Act (SSA).

By enacting IDEA, Congress intended to ensure that children with disabilities would have the same opportunity to attend public schools as any other children. Through the ADA, Congress's goal is to eliminate "discrimination against individuals with disabilities" wherever that occurs. Under the Social Security Act, Congress made disability payments available to those who were unable to work due to any "physical or mental impairment."

As so often happens, lofty constitutional principles clash against the mundane realities of everyday life. To provide equal protection, equal access, and equal opportunity to people who are physically and mentally unequal costs money. Two cases before the Court demonstrate the clash between implementing constitutional principle while staying within a school or employer's budget.

Cedar Rapids Community School District v. Garret E (a Minor). Garret, whose last name is withheld because he is a minor, was born a healthy child. At the age of 4, however, he was critically injured in a motorcycle accident. His spinal cord was severed, causing complete paralyzation from his neck down. Now 14, Garret requires a full-time attendant while at school. He is restricted to a wheelchair and must be attached to a ventilator, catheter, and various monitors at all times. The full-time attendant must be trained to assist Garret and operate the ventilator and other equipment, but the services of a licensed physician are not needed.

It costs about $28,000 a year to provide Garret with a full-time attendant at school. From kindergarten through fourth grade, Garret's parents paid the bill. When Garret started fifth grade, his mother, invoking IDEA, requested that the school district pay for the full-time attendant. The act requires that public schools provide "special education and related services" to "all children with disabilities." With limited exceptions, it does not, however, require public schools to provide "medical services." The school district declined to pay for the full-time attendant, arguing that the attendant's services are medical services. Garret's parents appealed, winning at every level all the way up to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Eighth Circuit felt bound by a 1984 U.S. Supreme Court case that directly addressed the issue. …

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