Deaf Nudists, Rights, and the Responsibilities of Business

Here’s another “tempest in a teapot” story with much larger implications.

By Daniel Wiessner, for Reuters: Deaf man complains nudists would not provide interpreter

A deaf man has accused a nudist park in upstate New York of violating federal law by refusing to provide him with a sign-language interpreter at an annual festival.

Tom Willard, 53, of Rochester, filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department claiming Empire Haven Nudist Park violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by refusing his requests for an interpreter.

“I am fed up with being turned away every time I try to do something, by idiots who somehow feel the ADA does not apply to them,” Willard wrote in the complaint….

Now it’s true that the ADA‘s “Public Accommodations” does require businesses and nonprofits to take reasonable steps to reduce barriers for the disabled. But according to this page explaining the application of the ADA, Willard is probably out of luck, legally speaking:

Q. Will a bookstore be required to maintain a sign language interpreter on its staff in order to communicate with deaf customers?

A. No, not if employees communicate by pen and notepad when necessary.

In other words, a business doesn’t have to provide a customer’s chosen accommodation, as long as they do something to achieve a fair outcome. (If someone reading this understands the application of the ADA better, please comment!) At a bookstore, you don’t need a translator as long as you’ve got a pen and paper. The same would pretty clearly apply at a nudist park.

Now all that is about the law, not about ethics per se. Ethics and the law are two different things, and that goes for the legal and ethical responsibilities of business, too. But that doesn’t mean that legal issues are “merely” legal issues. The legislation with regard to how businesses need to accomodate disabilities is right there, in black and white. But such legislation is must be interpreted, and interpretation inevitably involves the application of ethical principles, and the relevant ethical principles here include not just the principle that we ought to do more to lower barriers, but also a principle of reasonableness that says that the needs of the disabled have to be balanced against the legitimate interests of businesses and other organizations (and of their other stakeholders). Judges and juries end up having to apply such principles, among others, when discrimination cases reach court. In the 99.999% of cases that never end up near a courtroom, it’s up to businesses — and the people who work for them — to do their best to apply those principles too.

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