The ADA and “The Man in the High Castle”

On November 20th, Amazon released the first season of a new show called The Man in the High Castle. The show takes place in an alternate reality in which the Axis Powers won World War 2. It is now 1962, and Japan and Nazi Germany have conquered most of the United States.

In the eastern United States, under Nazi control in this alternate universe, Jews, minorities, and people with disabilities are persecuted and killed. An early episode shows a disturbing scene of ash raining down from the sky. A police officer explains to one of the protagonists that the local hospital burns “cripples” on a weekly basis.

This is shocking, but not as upsetting on a personal level as a subplot that develops later in the season. John Smith (Rufus Sewell) is a high-ranking officer in the Nazi-controlled American army. When his teenaged son Thomas (Quinn Lord) is injured in a wrestling match, a doctor (Kevin McNulty) diagnoses him with facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHMD), a disorder that weakens muscles over time.

The doctor speaks to the boy’s father in private to deliver the news, so Thomas is unaware of his own diagnosis. The doctor gives Smith a syringe and vial of poison with which to kill his son, then offers to show him how to use them. Smith is obviously devastated and unwilling to do this, but the doctor makes it clear that the state will kill Thomas with or without Smith’s cooperation. The doctor is willing to keep Thomas’ file out of the system to keep the matter private, but it is clear he will not do so indefinitely.

Up until this point, Smith has been a Nazi loyalist and subscribed to the genocidal “philosophy” of his government. He is unable to deal with the situation, and chooses to do nothing, keeping the diagnosis to himself. Still unaware of his condition, Thomas is baffled as he begins to show early signs of FSHMD. Smith’s denial is so deep that his response is to tell Thomas to exercise more vigorously.

It is soon revealed that Smith’s brother, Edmond, also had FSHMD. As Smith looks at a photo album with his wife (Chelah Horsdal), she sees a picture of Edmond in a wheelchair. “At least now,” she says, “when someone is terribly ill, they’re not allowed to suffer.”

As a person with a different form of muscular dystrophy, this hit very close to home. I was struck by how lucky I am that our country, in reality, is a place where people with disabilities have civil rights and can live happy, productive lives. Surely, that is something we should never take for granted.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was not something that just conveniently appeared out of nowhere. It was the result of decades of advocacy by people like Ed Roberts, Judy Heumann, Justin Dart and countless others. As we near the end of the ADA’s 25th anniversary year, let’s remember that we did not get our rights by chance. We earned the ADA. It was not simply given to us.

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