What’s Fair? (Part 1)

by Rich Dixon on October 28, 2010

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.

Tomorrow I want to dig into my own response, but first I’d like to hear your thoughts.

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

What’s your take?


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Mark StephensonNo Gravatar October 28, 2010 at 12:10 pm

A potent question for business, and also for families and for churches. Is it fair for parents to spend $5000 on one child who needs orthodontics and none for braces for the child who doesn’t need them? Is it fair for parents to devote more emotional energy and time on the child who has mental illness than the child who does not? The answer is yes, because fairness is not determined by equal distribution of all resources, but by loving and wise distribution of resources. In churches, is it fair to devote five times as many resources for the education of children and youth than for the education of adults, especially considering that adults outnumber children by four to one. Is it fair for a pastor to devote an hour and a half each week for several months to a family whose wife and mother is dying of cancer? Is it fair for a church to spend 100’s of thousands of dollars on building accessibility improvements when only one member uses a wheelchair and four strong men can carry her up the steps every Sunday morning? Again, yes, because fairness is not determined by equal distribution of all resources, but by loving and wise distribution of resources.


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