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We Need an Americans with Chronic Illnesses Act

Twenty years after the Americans with Disabilities Act, it's time for similar protection for the chronically ill.

Americans have grown used to jagged-edged politics foisted on us by political leaders who substitute nasty partisanship for any pursuit of the public good. Washington has turned toxic; state and local legislators, mean. Consider Arizona's new immigration law allowing authorities to demand I.D. papers from anyone they stop whom they suspect of being in the country illegally. Though a federal judge has blocked implementation (for now), other states are poised to follow Arizona's lead.  In so many instances, in my opinion, our democracy has changed from one that embraces the rights of each individual to something that more resembles power to the privileged.

Twenty years ago things were different. In 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a landmark bill that perhaps more than any other piece of legislation before or since truly helped protect America's most vulnerable citizens.

This was a new Civil Rights Act, a Bill of Rights, if you will, for the physically and emotionally impaired. No longer could there be discrimination by employers or landlords against the disabled. All new facilities in public places had to be handicap accessible. A new day had dawned for the disabled. The playing field was leveling for so many who did not have friends in high places.

In my opinion, a society can be judged by how we treat our weakest and most fragile. We are all better for the existence of the ADA. In an era in which so much in our national life has gone wrong, we should allow the intent of legislation so generous in spirit to set an example on other fronts.

There is work to be done. More than 137 million of us suffer from a chronic illness. Almost 80 percent of people over 65 suffer from two. Chronic illnesses touch just about every family in America, our friends and neighbors. And while the ADA does provide protections for those with such conditions, too many of us are still left struggling. For example, an employer could theoretically fire a worker for sometimes being too weak to commute—even if the worker is perfectly able to do the job from home. Maybe we need an Americans with Chronic Illnesses Act.

People with chronic conditions, which are often not apparent to others, suffer discrimination no less serious than what the clearly disabled faced decades ago. And the narrow minds show up on the same fronts: the marketplace, housing and transportation. Alzheimer's disease and diabetes are reaching epidemic proportions, and funding for medical research is not keeping pace. We should throw everything we have at them, but we do not.

The annual NIH budget, which funds so much critical research on devastating diseases, has been frozen at about $29 billion since 2005. (The president's 2011 budget does propose an increase to $30 billion—along with a new freeze.) At the same time, the U.S. government has since 2001 spent well over $1 trillion in two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And for what? I feel that we are spending a tiny fraction to save lives compared to what we are laying out to take them.

We are fighting terrorism, it is commonly said. I tell you that organisms and diseases are terrorists that enter the body in the dark of night and maim and kill innocent citizens.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was the product of good people acting on their best instincts. I am not convinced that such legislation would pass today. We are scared now, which plays to the worst in many of us. I think our resources are being spent in faraway lands and in questionable fashion. It may be time to rethink the quality of our lives and futures and wander closer to home as fast as we can.

Emmy-winning TV producer and author Richard M. Cohen was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1973. His online column is published every two weeks.

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