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  • Auston Stamm

Why People With Disabilities Might Not Be Libertarian

Updated: Jul 5, 2021

Three different images. People protesting during an independent living demonstration. Russel Brand interviewing Ben Shapiro. Dave Rubin on the Joe Rogan Experience.

I was watching Russel Brand interview Ben Shapiro and I was struck by Shapiro's comments justifying discrimination. He argued for a libertarian platform that includes freedom of association. Shapiro argues that freedom of association should include being able to discriminate against a group of people. It is important to know that Ben Shapiro is Jewish when reading his comments. Shapiro said, "I am fully libertarian on this to the point that if someone doesn't want to have Jews in their business, I think their a bad person but I think they should be free to do that because frankly I don't want any overacting authority telling people who they must and can associate with, that seems to me more dangerous."

When I heard this I immediately thought of the civil rights movement. The United States needed an "overacting authority," the federal government to end segregation in the south. Otherwise, most likely there would be states today where segregation and discrimination would continue to be legal. The Civil Rights Act Of 1964 strives to stop discrimination against someone because of their race, color, religion, sex or national origin. My point is that sometimes an "overacting authority" can be needed to implement policy changes that foster inclusion, when there are strong opponents to change.

I recently wrote a paper on the Marrakesh Treaty with Dr. Hsu, which is a treaty that changes a country's copyright laws to allow people with disabilities to access published works. Publishers were very comfortable using inaccessible formats that excluded people with a variety of disabilities before the Marrakesh Treaty. A lot of countries had stringent copyright laws that favored the publishers and prevented the reproduction of published works into an accessible format. The Marrakesh Treaty was created by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), which represents the interests of the publishers. In essence, the major publishers have been discriminating against people with disabilities for a long time. The situation had gotten so bad that many critics were using the term, "global book famine" to describe the level of inequity prevalent in the published works sector. People who have vision loss, dyslexia or other reading disabilities may not be able to access published works if they live in a developing country where reproducing works into an accessible format is not permitted.

The Marrakesh Treaty permits ratifying countries' governmental, educational and non-profit organizations to reproduce published works into an accessible format. The idea is that these organizations are able to provide accessible books to people with disabilities and alleviate the global shortage of accessible books. However, it does not mandate that publishers create accessible works. This means that publishers are allowed to continue to ignore people with disabilities and publish books that fail to meet accessibility standards. Hopefully, in the future a "overacting authority" will force publishers to make their works accessible so that people with disabilities will have a marketplace to buy books. For example, the European Accessibility Act should start being enforced later this decade and will require large publishers to provide accessible copies of their books for purchase. This is an example of big government working to support people with disabilities.

Another conservative pundit is Dave Rubin and he expressed his libertarian views on the Joe Rogan show a couple of years ago. In the interview Rubin says, "Everything you're building here right now, right? Do you want the government to have to tell you how to do all these things? All the regulation like you have to your electric things this far from this." Joe Rogan responds that "regulations like that for construction are important though." Rubin's rebuttal is that, "I'd put most of that on the builders though. They want to build things that are good." Dave Rubin was roasted for his comments because many people have had experiences where builders cut corners to save money. However, people in the disability community are familiar with buildings being inaccessible. Disability advocates like Ed Roberts helped start the Independent Living Movement, which led to the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The federal government or "overacting authority" established accessibility requirements for buildings to ensure access for the widest range of people possible.

The new frontier is the Internet, which includes websites and mobile applications. Should developers be permitted to exclude people from disabilities from accessing their website or application as Ben Shapiro suggests? Are the majority of these developers looking to build a good website or application that is accessible to the widest audience possible as Dave Rubin postulates? Well one way to determine the accessibility of the Internet is to look at the top websites and to scan for accessibility errors. The WebAIM Million study uses this method each year and currently found that 97.4% of the top sites have at least one accessibility error on their homepage. Accessibility has continued to be a major issue for social media apps as well. For example, the new popular social media platform Clubhouse launched without providing any live captioning for people with hearing loss. Dominos refused to modify their mobile application that was inaccessible for people with vision loss and who use screen reading software. Luckily the court ruled against Dominos and the Supreme Court declined to hear Domino's case for why the ruling should be overturned.

The proliferation of inaccessible websites and mobile apps has people within the disability community clamoring for future accessibility regulations. The ADA was written in the 1990s before the explosion of the Internet. Unfortunately, the ADA has not been expanded and the conservative Supreme Court has yet to rule on any online accessibility lawsuits. As a person with a disability I'm rooting for the "overacting authority" to expand the ADA and mandate compliance with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) standards. This will ensure that most websites and mobile applications are accessible. I do not trust individuals and private companies to create accessible platforms or to police themselves on accessibility issues.

I am interested in hearing your opinion on this issue. How might libertarianism and disability advocacy align? What are some other ways of creating lasting positive changes to accessibility that do not require an "overacting authority?" Please let me know your thoughts.


I highly recommend watching When Billy Broke His Head ...and Other Tales of Wonder, which includes an interview with Ed Roberts and captures some of the activism of the Independent Living Movement.

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