California Forum

“Nuisance,” or necessary? Lawsuits ensure enforcement of crucial disability laws

Pioneering disabilities rights attorney explains the ideas behind the Americans with Disabilities Act

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights commemorated the 27th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) with a report on the ADA’s history and the work that remains in August 2017.
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The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights commemorated the 27th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) with a report on the ADA’s history and the work that remains in August 2017.

Sacramento attorney Scott N. Johnson, who is known for filing lawsuits against businesses who aren’t compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), was indicted on tax fraud charges in May.

Some business owners who operated facilities that weren’t compliant with the nearly 30-year-old law took the opportunity to accuse his ADA lawsuits of being “abuse” and say that the violations that he brought to court were only “minor” and “technical.” They said these lawsuits were a “racket” made up by a man “looking for target businesses,” which did not in the end “provide meaningful access, per se.”

I’m sick of these businesses treating disabled people, and the minor modifications that make our lives easier, as nuisances.

So many people without disabilities simply don’t understand what the ADA means for the daily lives of disabled Americans. The ADA was passed so that people like me, a wheelchair user, can go to school, go to work and visit businesses without being turned away because of our disabilities.

The ADA is a broad law because the types of disabilities affecting Americans are broad. It deliberately and rightly puts the compliance onus on businesses and governments instead of disabled individuals themselves, because it simply can’t be my job as a wheelchair user to instruct every business I visit in California on how to comply with the law. Even if I wanted to do so, how could I if I can’t park or get in the front door?

Opinion

One of the business owners who called these lawsuits a “racket” was sued for failing to provide ADA parking. Does he know what it’s like to drive to the store or a restaurant only to find when you pull into the parking lot that there’s nowhere to drop a wheelchair ramp? To have to call your friends and tell them you either can’t meet up with them or that they need to pick a new place to shop and eat because, without that ADA parking, you can’t get your wheelchair out of your van? Probably not.

What about non-ADA compliant restrooms? Are those just “minor” violations? Not if you struggle to fit your wheelchair into that non-compliant bathroom stall, trying your best to transfer yourself from the wheelchair onto the toilet seat with almost no room to maneuver, and end up collapsing onto the floor. I assure you, no one who has ever had to wait for a stranger to ask them to lift you into your wheelchair from the floor of a public restroom would call those “minor” violations.

I understand many business owners are concerned with every cost, large and small. But they certainly don’t seem to understand the costs already borne every day by disabled Americans.

Adam Byers.jpg

It took months of apartment hunting before finding a landlord who would build me a small ramp into the apartment because all of the affordable apartments only had entrances with stairs. When my wife and I bought our first home, we had to hire a contractor to build a ramp to the door and install grab bars in the bathroom before we could move in.

A van that has modified steering, power hand controls, a lowered floor and fold out ramp allows me to drive now, but these custom adaptations cost our family more than $50,000 in addition to the price of the vehicle itself. Oh, and all those articles you read about expensive pharmaceuticals and health insurance companies denying benefits to patients? Those are basically about me.

So, yes, I do sincerely understand that at times it’s expensive to accommodate disabilities – and I need you to do it anyway.

The ADA has been around for 29 years, and yet it is sparsely enforced. These lawsuits are the only thing that give the ADA teeth. If there was no risk of being sued, very few businesses would be accessible. (Even the risk of being sued isn’t enough to get many business to comply with the law today.) Not being able to sue businesses for being non-compliant with the ADA would leave me and other disabled Americans basically unable to go out in public. Complaints about having to comply with the law are shameful, and I’m just plain sick of them.

For now, my own block doesn’t even have curb cuts. In order to cross the street, I have to roll off a driveway into oncoming traffic, and then up another driveway. And, despite my constant lobbying, the city has delayed installing them for the five years I’ve lived on my block – and for the 24 years before that when they were still required by the ADA to do so anyway.

I don’t know whether or not Scott N. Johnson is a likable guy, but if he needs a new case to pay off a tax bill, I might have something for him.

Adam Byers is 31 and living with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, but doesn’t let that stop him from going to the dog park, food fests or rock concerts.

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