A Decade with the ADA
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SPENCER MICHELS: While he was in law school, Larry Paradis became disabled from a genetic disease. As one of thousands of disabled activists, he fought 10 years ago for passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. And now he continues to fight — in court — to make that law work. He has sued companies and public entities for failing to provide access to people with disabilities. As executive director of Disability Rights Advocates he sued the San Francisco Visitors and Convention Bureau, and forced it to provide an elevator to its visitor center — an elevator that recently has been broken.
LARRY PARADIS: Why would San Francisco set up its visitors center in a plaza that has absolutely no access to people with disabilities? It’s because people with disabilities for so long have not even been considered. They’ve always been an afterthought at best, and they’ve always been second-class citizens, frankly. So the ADA was designed to say, “fix this.”
SPENCER MICHELS: Starting in the 1980s people with disabilities began to demonstrate and lobby for what they called their civil rights. In 1990 Congress responded and President George Bush signed the ADA — which is designed to break down barriers to employment, transportation, public accommodations, and public services, and to provide useable telecommunications for disabled people. The law — which is broad and which is constantly being refined through court decisions — has been used extensively. In the first decade, most of the attention was focused on removing physical barriers for disabled people. For example, the Mark Hopkins Hotel, a San Francisco landmark, was forced to put in a wheelchair ramp after it was sued. Public transportation agencies like the Bay Area Rapid Transit district — BART — were sued in class actions under the ADA for failing to accommodate the disabled.
LARRY PARADIS: BART was not built with the idea of being accessible in the beginning. It required years of pressure to get them to include elevators and then they just ignored them. It required years of pressure to get fare machines that are accessible.
SPENCER MICHELS: The suit was settled, and BART said at the time many of the improvements agreed upon were already underway. Paradis and his firm also sued Macy’s department store for not making its aisles wide enough for wheelchairs.
LARRY PARADIS: Disability Rights Advocates are not asking small mom and pop stores to bust the budget to fix things and make everything accessible; but this is an industry giant that had done absolutely nothing. And the trial judge held that Macy’s had deliberately violated the ADA by doing nothing.
SPENCER MICHELS: Macy’s said that at the time the judge made the ruling, the store was already under renovation and addressing disability problems. For building owners and managers, complying with the ADA hasn’t always simple or cheap according to Richard Baier — president of the Building Owners and Managers Association International.
RICHARD BAIER: Currently, there’s variance in the guidelines at the federal, the state and the local level. We want clarity, so that when we do renovate a building to meet the ADA guidelines, we know we’ve met all the needs at local, state and federal levels.
SPENCER MICHELS: For local governments, meeting all the ADA’s requirements can be a matter of priorities. In Sacramento, California, 10 disabled plaintiffs are currently suing the city. They want curb cuts so the disabled can safely cross streets, and they want of strips of tactile bumps installed so the blind can tell where the sidewalk ends. Jeff Thom — a state-employed attorney who has been blind since birth — is a plaintiff in that lawsuit, filed in federal court last year.
JEFF THOM: If I’m walking right down the street I have often walked right out into the middle of the street and almost been hit because of the lack of any way of detecting when the street begins.
SPENCER MICHELS: Thom says Sacramento has dragged its feet, in fixing curbs for wheelchair users and the blind, even after the suit was filed.
JEFF THOM: They didn’t even begin this process — other than a few locations — until after we had sued them. It should never require a lawsuit in order to have a city do what it’s supposed to do under the law.
SPENCER MICHELS: Last year, Sacramento hired an ADA coordinator — Michael Whipple — who had been active in the disabled community. He became a paraplegic in 1977, the result of a motorcycle accident.
MICHAEL WHIPPLE: We have a lot of people within the disabled community that are very happy with what the city’s doing. There’s a lot of people that think we should be going at a much faster rate.
SPENCER MICHELS: Whipple says the city appropriated $4.5 million this year for reconstructing curb ramps, and is planning to renovate 1500 curbs a year. Each cut costs an average of $3,000. Sacramento’s City Manager Robert Thomas says the city is moving as fast as it can, and won’t be tied to a 10-year timetable, as proposed by the plaintiffs.
ROBERT THOMAS: We started the survey work and the ADA compliance way before the lawsuit. Certainly the lawsuit has brought more to the community’s attention. But the lawsuit is not going to change the reality. The reality is it took 150 years to build this city, and it’s going to take some time to change the infrastructure, and we’re going to do it as quickly as we can, but we’ve got to do a balanced program of servicing all these other people in terms of the services they need.
SPENCER MICHELS: The Sacramento case appears to be headed for a trial. The extensive use of lawsuits by those seeking redress under the ADA has drawn complaints from small business owners and the attention of Congress. This spring actor Clint Eastwood testified to his frustration with attorneys for the disabled. He owns a hotel in Carmel, California, and he was sued because it allegedly is not in compliance with the ADA.
CLINT EASTWOOD: Once they file a suit on you they keep adding everything. Every time they come back, they keep upping the ante, adding many more problems to be solved, which they can collect fees on. What happens is these lawyers, they come along and they end up driving off in a big Mercedes and the disabled person ends up riding off in a wheelchair. And that goes on in the sense that they’ve collected all the money.
SID WOLINSKY: I think Clint Eastwood is off the wall on this one.
SPENCER MICHELS: Attorney Sid Wolinsky is a co-founder of Disability Rights Advocates.
SID WOLINSKY: Almost a decade after the ADA, there is widespread non-compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. There’s an important role for lawsuits, as there is in all civil rights movements; but the kind of fake “lawyers are trying to get rich” kind of comments by the likes of Clint Eastwood are just wrong.
SPENCER MICHELS: Nevertheless, Congressman Mark Foley of Florida, is sponsoring an amendment to the ADA along lines Clint Eastwood has suggested. It would give business owners more time — 90 days — to correct deficiencies, before being sued.
MARK FOLEY: We’re not saying that a business owner doesn’t have the responsibility. What we’re saying is most of them don’t know that they have a violation. If told in a proper format, they will correct, and the disabled will benefit. But under the current system it’s nothing more than harassment; the disabled are getting a negative connotation because of these trial lawyers; and I think it’s regrettable.
SPENCER MICHELS: Activists like attorney Wolinsky say its now time for the ADA to address new problem areas.
SID WOLINSKY: Unfortunately the areas where it hasn’t worked are more extensive then where it has worked. Transportation systems are still massively inaccessible around the country. The ADA does not apply to airlines, and so people who use, who are disabled and use the airlines are subject to massive discrimination and frustration.
SPENCER MICHELS: Wolinsky says another area where the ADA is still unproven is employment discrimination. Some companies, like Wells Fargo Bank, have made great efforts to accommodate the disabled. But some disabled people claim they have a hard time getting jobs, holding them, and getting promoted. The courts have sided with employers in more than 90 percent of 120,000 disability cases filed. Disability Rights Advocates has filed a class action suit on behalf of these two deaf clients and others — against United Parcel Service, for allegedly discriminating against them and failing to promote them.
BERT ENOS, Former UPS Worker: (voice of interpreter) My situation with UPS is that they did not provide me with interpreters for the two years while I worked there. They had no teletype device for the deaf, for phone operation, there were no flashing lights to signal me when there was an emergency.
BABARANTI OLOYEDE: UPS will give the job to the people who can hear; they let them be the drivers, and I ask them, “why can’t I be a driver? I can drive,” but they say, “you can’t you’re deaf, you have to be able to talk.” And then I ask for promotional opportunities, and I, I asked them why, and I feel it’s discrimination.
SPENCER MICHELS: UPS says it stands by its policy not to let hearing impaired persons drive its trucks, even though they have driver’s licenses. The company says it hires and promotes people with a variety of disabilities, and accommodates their needs, including special phones and sign language interpreters. The dispute is headed for federal court. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has a major ADA case to decide next term: It is considering whether disabled state employees have the right to sue their state for discrimination under the federal ADA.