What’s Fair? (Part 1)

Do you believe in fairness? Do you try to treat everyone equally?

I had a curious conversation recently. Seated over lunch at an event with some men I’d just met, one guy (correctly) observed that the entrance to the building was a challenge for someone in a wheelchair. Another man (I’ll call him John) noted that the owners had done a lot to make their facilities accessible. Then he added an interesting comment.

“I’m not sure they should feel bad about not catering to every possible need. Devoting so many resources to such a small minority isn’t really fair.

A couple of his friends at the table were clearly embarrassed by his brutal honesty, but I assured them I wasn’t offended. I asked John to explain.

Turns out he operates a small business. He’d recently done some remodeling of his facility, and compliance to ADA standards increased the cost of the project. None of his employees required accommodations and most of his customer contact happened in other locations. He didn’t feel that it was fair to force a private business to accommodate every potential special need.

John may have been a bit blunt, but he had a valid point: why shouldn’t he be allowed to decide whether the potential loss of business justified the additional expense?

At this point his buddies were rolling their eyes and squirming uncomfortably. One apologized. “Don’t mind John — he runs his mouth without engaging his brain.”

I just smiled, more at their discomfort than anything else. They tried to defend me by arguing the merits of the ADA. What if you or one of your employees became disabled? Do you understand how much business and good will you’re potentially losing?

When logic failed, they resorted to emotion: Are you insane for raising this issue with a guy you just met who’s in a wheelchair?

John’s mind clearly wasn’t going to be swayed, and after a few minutes they threw up their hands, apologized again, and left with John in tow.

I’ve thought a lot about John’s position. I don’t wish to defend the ADA or argue for universal accommodations. I’m grateful for them, but I am interested in one particular aspect of John’s argument.

Is it “fair” to allocate a disproportionate share of resources to those with special needs?

What do you think?

For the sake of discussion, set aside legalities and politics and whether or not it’s government’s place to dictate such things. Try to step outside your personal biases and beliefs about whether society as a whole benefits from accommodation and inclusion. Ignore the statistics that might suggest that inclusion benefits more than a “small” minority.

Whether or not it’s right, is it fair to treat people differently?

Why shouldn’t everyone be treated equally? Why should I receive special treatment just because I happen to use a wheelchair?

And, to be clear, John wasn’t advocating any “-ism’s.” Racism, sexism, favoritism. He wasn’t talking about intentionally excluding anyone. He simply raised a valid question about the nature of fairness.

Does fairness demand equal treatment, equal standards, equal allocation of resources?

What’s your take?

See this article where dig into my own response.