Thirty-one years ago this month, a group of protesters with disabilities threw down their wheelchairs and crutches and went up the 78 steps of the Capitol’s West Front, demanding their rights.

Known as the Capitol Crawl, it was the culmination of a decades-long and ultimately successful effort to get Congress to pass the Americans with Disability Act. It took one protester, an 8-year-old with cerebral palsy, almost an hour to get to the top.

On Monday, it took less time for the Paris Select Board to demean the ADA and all it stands for.

Selectmen in the Oxford County town voted unanimously to pass a resolution opposing Gov. Janet Mills’ executive orders on face coverings, which they say violate the Constitution and the American with Disabilities Act, the Sun Journal reported this week.

As a practical matter, the resolution has no effect. The residents of Paris must still follow the governor’s executive orders. Both the state and federal constitutions give states the ability to protect people during a public health crisis, and courts have held up mask mandates as justified during the pandemic.

As a matter of public health, it’s harmful to have elected officials at any level spreading misinformation about masks. The Paris selectmen are not the first, either. We hope by now people will reject this nonsense and follow the facts, which clearly show that face coverings reduce the transmissibility of COVID-19, and that they are most effective when everyone wears one.

But the real problem here is how the Paris selectmen, and others making the same argument, are using people with disabilities as cover for their anti-mask politics. In doing so, they are making a mockery of the civil rights won by the work of so many.

There are legitimate reasons why someone may not be able to wear a mask. Though it’s relatively uncommon — face coverings, particularly cloth ones, do not affect breathing in a biologically harmful way — some people have breathing problems that can be made worse by a face covering. Some people with autism have sensitivities toward touch and texture that may make wearing a mask difficult.

But for those relative few, the ADA does not say they must be allowed mask-less into businesses and other public spaces — that would put others at risk.

Instead, the law says reasonable accommodations must be made; a business, for example, could offer curbside pickup and online ordering instead of in-store shopping.

What’s more, when it comes to COVID, the biggest threat to people with disabilities is not mask mandates but the disease itself. As the executive director of Disability Rights Maine told the Sun Journal, many people with disabilities fall into high-risk categories. To them, masks are not an unnecessary bother or government tyranny — they are a potential lifesaver.

Mainers with disabilities know discrimination when they see it. Three decades after the ADA was passed, full public access remains elusive. There are cluttered sidewalks, blocked ramps, and doorways where a wheelchair won’t fit.

As one letter write told the Kennebec Journal in 2017, “I see limitations every single day without really trying hard.”

That’s the reality for the people with disabilities.

Meanwhile, what the Paris Select Board is pushing is pure fantasy.


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