The Ins and Outs of Disability Advocacy

the ins and outs of disability advocacy

Sticking up for one’s rights, or the rights of a specific group of people is an important way to encourage change.  There are many ways society advocates for different things; person to person dialogue, media commentary, writing to the proper representatives, protests, campaigns, lobbying, or–as hopefully only a last resort, a lawsuit. All of these can be done in a peaceful way, but certain methods can leave a bad taste in someone’s mouth.

I am a strong supporter of advocacy. I am a woman who is physically challenged, and I live in a rural community where not everything is necessarily the most user friendly to suit my needs. Most issues I have are minor; store racks being a little too close together, uneven curb cuts, door thresholds not being easy to drive over in a power wheelchair, and my ultimate pet peeve; restaurants or bars having only the tall tables in the most accessible areas. These things I consider to be relatively minor annoyances but easily remedied or dealt with.

All it takes is to ask for a little help or talk to someone if I am having a problem, and that’s it. Usually help is given and the other party, if they own the business or building I am in, hopefully are more aware of something they may have not noticed before. These issues really aren’t worth getting in too big of a tizzy about in the grand scheme of things.

I know there are more serious situations out there–problems that make us feel unequal and are severe violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Luckily I haven’t really had to deal with many of the big ones…aside from the obvious: stairs.

Some might think of me as maybe a bit too complacent; I just think of myself a realist. There are certain things in life I choose not to dwell on because in reality, these certain things don’t have that big of an impact on my daily life and the smaller snags don’t prevent me from doing things. I can utilize that time and energy on something more fun than getting pissed off at a clothing rack that got caught on my chair tire.

Story Time

Let me preface the next bit of this post by saying I am trying to explain the following situation without being too specific about location or names. I’m not trying to call out anyone involved on the internet. This story could happen in any community. Nevertheless, the following events bother me and that is why I chose to write about it.

Recently, in the rural town I live in, the newspaper released a story about three local businesses that had lawsuits filed against them by two local residents for not being in compliance with the ADA. Keep in mind, two of the businesses are in buildings downtown, which are pretty old. I am not saying that old buildings should be exempt from being accessible due to their age, but I know some buildings are not structurally equipped to be adapted in a way that is cost effective to the owner of that building. The businesses in the older buildings downtown are a restaurant and an antique shop. The third small business is an animal supply store.

The violations consisted of barriers like blocked or inaccessible doorways and a non ADA compliant bathroom at the animal supply store. Potential penalties to these businesses include the awarding of civil penalties to the plaintiffs, payment of court costs, and injunctions to fix the alleged barriers mentioned.

The lawyer representing the plaintiffs in these civil suits has been involved in over two dozen other similar cases throughout the state, representing individuals with disabilities. The lawyer and these clients are all members of a certain nonprofit advocacy board registered under the representing attorney’s law firm.

Most of the people involved in the cases documented in that particular story couldn’t be reached for comment or declined.

There was another article in a larger newspaper which talked about a clinic owner in the metro area who had also been victim of a lawsuit by someone on the same advocacy board with the same lawyer. This article contained more details about the case against the antique store owner in my town as well.

I have to say, I am pretty disheartened at the lengths some people go in the name of being an advocate.

This shit bugs me because lawsuits should never be a first resort. Both articles make it seem as if lawsuits were simply filed without any other attempt at resolution. Did the plaintiffs talk to the business owners to bring the barriers to their attention? Was there a respectful dialogue made between parties? Did any of the owners say they absolutely could not change a damn thing? If so, what were the reasons?

Then I also wonder, is the lawyer taking advantage and pushing these clients to file lawsuits?

The owner of the antique store is a woman in her mid 80’s, a widow, and she maybe sells fifty dollars worth of merchandise a day. This is what the one article stated. Her store is part of her livelihood, and it makes me sick to think someone lacked so much compassion in this situation that they are attacking a lady who is beyond retirement age. Yes, maybe there was a barrier in the store. But to sue her over it is just wrong.

Also, do the plaintiffs receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI)? If so, don’t they know what it feels like to be strapped financially? If they work full time and earn income, great for them. However, have a little humanity and think about other people’s circumstances as well. Think about the least mentally and financially taxing solution possible that will still promote positive change.

Luckily, that particular lawsuit had a dismissal agreement. The others, I’m not sure.

I would love for everything to be completely accessible. I hope that one day other people like me with disabilities will be seen as citizens who are completely equal in society. Unfortunately, we have a long time to wait before either of those things happen. So, in the meantime we need to set an example of advocating with class.

To sue without trying other means to resolve an issue is a really crappy way to advocate for anyone or anything. It gives advocacy a bad name. Also, it reflects badly on all people with disabilities. I don’t want to go into a local store and make the business owners here feel nervous that I will be the next person trying to sue them.

Getting money from someone under the guise of fighting for civil rights isn’t a fix all. It’s not even a band-aid. Getting people to discuss things like an adult and explore solutions is the only way to begin making real progress. I only hope more “advocates” will stop, think, and find some compassion before taking the most extreme route to achieve results.

What kinds of situations have you faced in which you advocated for yourself or another person? How did you handle it?

 

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  • David Knapp-Fisher

    Great post T – we’ve certainly been in businesses that don’t totally cater to wheelchairs, or have washrooms that work for us and – much like you – we think “Oh well, not a biggie – there’s going to be one around the corner” and voila, there always is. I believe you are correct that in some cases, this lawyer is using this loophole with utter disregard or thought – from what I read here, it appears he just wants his fees and basically “ambulance chases” to get it.

    A bigger shame is on the people who bring these lawsuits – yes, they have challenges and may not be able to use one or two particular shops (you and I have both been there) but as you so correctly point out, there are many, many places that do where they could go that would suit them just fine.

    My heart goes out to the widow whose being bullied by this gang of selfish, self-centred jerks… I’m sure when she (and her husband?) started this wee business years ago these things weren’t even an issue, and therefore she didn’t know. Now you’ve got me ranting! Thanks again T, always good stuff from you. David

    • Thank you, David!
      It sucks when things aren’t that accessible, or like you mention, washrooms are an issue too. But, it’s true when you say it’s not a huge biggie because there usually will be one near that does work.

      I tried to summarize the situation the best I could, but the overtones of both stories I read made it sound as if the lawyer is definitely as you describe. I’m concerned for his clients. They may have made the decision to go forward with lawsuits on their own, but there’s always that possibility they were persuaded into it and used.

      Antique shops are known to be crowded with all different kinds of inventory. They are often difficult to maneuver in. Is the client going to find every antique shop in the state and sue the owner because of that? I love antiques too, but if there is a shop that I feel is too crowded I won’t go in. It’s not a huge deal to me. I would rather not feel like a bull in a china shop!

      I wish more people would just be logical and realistic…and considerate!

      You make a good point too. Years ago people didn’t think of accessibility issues. Having accessibility is extremely important, but it’s just not a perfect world. Accepting that sometimes, it just won’t be possible is not giving up on the end goal!

      It’s easy to rant about this! 🙂

  • nathashaalvarez

    Every business must pertain to the law. We shouldn’t have to say oh well, I will buy from this company but it’s ok if they don’t let me use their bathroom or make other legal accommodations. However, filing a lawsuit shouldn’t be the first way. And there should be a procedure set in place. Perhaps before a person can file, they should file a complaint so that the local government can take it from there.