Taking government at its jumbled word

Another of our occasional tales about federal bureaucrats and what your tax dollars are paying for:

Some time ago, a young man applied to the law school at the University of Michigan, was not admitted, then filed a complaint with the government that he had been discriminated against because he had a physical handicap.

The case was investigated by the Civil Rights Office of the Department of Education.

After a while, the university received a letter. It began pleasantly enough, saying that the investigation had found no evidence of discrimination.

But then the letter took a bizarre twist. Several, in fact. I won’t quote the letter in full because you would have to be an expert in bureaucratic gibberish to understand it.

Instead, here is an interpretation, as offered by a professor of law at the university who happened to see the letter.

“OK, in the first paragraph of the letter, they use the word ‘handicap.’ And a little later in the letter, they use the word ‘handicap‘ again.

“But then they say that when they reviewed our literature describing our non-discrimination policy, they saw that we used the words ‘physical disability,’ and that’s a no-no.

“Their review also showed that we changed from ‘physical disability’ in our literature and replaced it with the word ‘handicap,’ and that was fine because ‘handicap’ was now a federally approved word.

“But then it goes on to say that the rules have been changed again. The word ‘handicap’ is out. They have replaced it with the word ‘disability’.

“So they’re saying that we don’t have to totally change all our literature again—from ‘disability’ to ‘handicap’ to ‘disability’ or whatever the heck it is they want— but when we print new brochures, we should use the word ‘disability.’

“But in that very same letter, what word did the bureaucrat use to describe somebody with a disability? He used the word ‘handicap.’ Not once but twice.

“I think it is horrendous. Changing the words around—that does nothing. It’s such a waste of time and energy. One should be concerned about treating people in a humane fashion, not juggling words.

“This government thought control is kind of Orwellian when every so often an edict comes down that rewrites the language.

“There must be a lot of bureaucrats with time on their hands if they can devote so much energy to insisting we change from word A to word B and back to word A, even though they keep using word B while telling us to use word A.”

It was kind of a weird letter. And a call to the Chicago office of the United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights Region V, brought an equally weird set of conversations.

First, the bureaucrat who answered the phone said she would transfer us to the people who speak to the press, but she said she would not provide their names.

When the bureaucrat who talks to the press came on, he said he would discuss the matter, but only “on background”.

What does that mean—”On background”?

“Well, you don’t put my name in. You know, just say a ‘spokesman’.”

OK. This wasn’t exactly Watergate or the S&L scandal, but if he wanted to be a poor man’s Keep Throat, we would play along.

The bureaucrat then spoke in a confident tone: “Let me walk you through the genesis of this case. On Oct. 18, 1991, the school was found to be out of compliance in their policy because it wasn’t posted.”

But that’s not what the letter was about.

“Oh, do I have the wrong letter?”

It appears so.

The bureaucrat finally tracked down the right letter and said: “The language in the law read ‘handicapped,’ but it was later changed to ‘disability.’ Congress did it. I’m not sure what happened. I think somebody absolutely screwed this one up. I think this was just a badly written letter. There is some confusion here.

“Wow, this is incredible. I have such a bad cold today, I am usually able to avoid situations like this.”

It wasn’t clear whether he meant he avoided bad colds or taking calls about screwed up letters. Maybe both. Or possibly he wanted us to know that he was at his desk and working, despite the torment of a bad cold. I knew how he felt, as my sinuses were acting up.

Later, he called back and put a high-ranking bureaucrat on the phone.

This person said: “All this letter did was alert them of the word change from ‘handicap’ to ‘disability,’ but the major point of the letter was that they’ve done everything they agreed to do. It might not be clear in the letter. I’m sorry if it did seem confusing. It’s really a minor matter. They really complied fully. We will not bother them again.”

That’s nice, but please don’t send them another letter saying that. They might panic.

A native Chicagoan, Mike Royko attended Wright Junior College, the University of Illinois and Northwestern University. The home base of his syndicated column is the Chicago Tribune media services.