When we first started the lawsuits, I expected a brick through my
window, or at least comments behind my back when I walked around my
neighborhood wearing my ADAPT T-shirt.
Instead, I got stopped by wheelchair users I'd never met before:
"Thanks! Keep it up! I hate being carried into that bar!"
"How can I get involved?"
There seem to be more wheelchair users cruising the streets since
we've started this campaign. Able-bodied strangers come up to me:
"I missed the news last night. What are this month's three businesses?"
"I read about you guys in the newspaper. Love what your group is
doing in the Midtown area!"
"I hope you win them all! It's only right."
Sure beats bricks through my window.
A Plan for Success
I think our ADA enforcement effort, the "Midtown Sweep," is successful
because it was carefully planned out months ahead of time. We have
kept to that plan and are now reaping the harvest: welcome signs for
us at local businesses instead of steps that say "keep out," and broad-based
1. Pick a target area.
The first part of our plan was to pick a target area. We decided
that for our efforts to be the most effective, they should be concentrated
in one fairly small geographic area. We picked the Midtown area of
Harrisburg, PA, because many of us live there, and because it has
so many different types of small businesses in a small area. We chose
a three-block stretch in the heart of the Midtown to start with. There
is a grocery store, a hairdresser, a coffee shop, gift shops, bars
and restaurants, and even a video store. Given that the average paratransit
trip in Harrisburg is $2.70 one way, our group members who live in
the Midtown area figured we'd save a lot of money if we could just
use the stores in our own neighborhood!
2. Get the information.
After we settled on the Midtown, we set out to obtain names, addresses,
and photographs of all the inaccessible businesses in the target area.
This was the easiest part; we simply walked up one side of the street
and down the other, noting the businesses' names and addresses. My
8-year-old daughter and I did this in one hour (she used her official
"Harriet the Spy" notebook).
Later, Linda Riegel and I went back and took photos of the businesses
that had entrances with one or more steps keeping them inaccessible.
Linda is the Civil Rights Specialist at our local CIL, the Center
for Independent Living of Central PA. Our advocacy group that we formed
just for this project Accessible Communities Today (ACT), is under
the umbrella of the Center.
3. Send the ADA letter.
Next, Linda and I sent all of the inaccessible businesses the Center's
standard "ADA violation letter," informing them that they were in
violation of the ADA and that they had to become accessible.
This letter makes it clear that if the business owner calls the
Center, staff there will show them how to become accessible. It also
explains that there are tax credits available to business owners who
make their premises accessible.
But the letter also points out that if the business does NOT contact
the Center within ten business days, then we will take "further enforcement
So they've been warned.
In our case, only two businesses called the Center after they got
The Letter. These two businesses were willing to work with us. True
to our word, we are helping them become accessible -- and we have
not sued them. (The next time we send out letters, though, we will
mail them "certified mail" to cut down on the number of whiny businessmen
who when we sued them claimed that they hadn't received The Letter.)
4. Plan your timing.
We sent all the letters in late June But we didn't publicly kick
off the Midtown Sweep until July 26, when we held a press conference
announcing our lawsuits. That was the ninth anniversary of the signing
of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and a wonderfully symbolic
way to begin -- and a guarantee of publicity!
FILING THE LAWSUITS
We had originally planned to file 20 pro se lawsuits (see the "Do
It Yourself ADA Kit" in the September/October, 1998 Ragged Edge.)
the day of the press conference and announce their filing. Fortunately
for us, though, we didn't have to end up doing all the legal work
ourselves. Thomas Earle, Esq. from the Disabilities Law Project in
Philadelphia, learned about our project from someone who had faxed
him some of the letters we'd sent to businesses. Tom wanted to get
involved in the project. He views it as a "systems change" approach
to getting mom-and-pop businesses to obey the ADA, and is using our
Sweep to train a local lawyer to do ADA Title III cases, so that we
can keep our Sweep going when the first 20 are done.
Tom is also searching for other lawyers across Pennsylvania who
he can train to take these kinds of cases, so that pro se cases don't
have to be a community's only option for making sure local businesses
obey the ADA.
Tom agreed to file three lawsuits a month for us, at least until
the initial law-breaking businesses had been sued. Pro-se lawsuits
would have worked, too -- but having a lawyer do all of the paperwork
and handling dealing with the businesses owners is a wonderful luxury
we were thankful to have.
Involving your local media
We planned the publicity aspect of the Sweep as carefully as we
planned the enforcement part of it. The media is the only way our
broader communities will know what we are doing -- or why. We take
that very seriously.
The message we used with the press was simple: "This is our neighborhood.
Let us in. It's our civil right."
We also unveiled our strategy to the press, so they would see this
as a newsworthy, ongoing story. We told them at our first press conference
that we would be filing three lawsuits a month until the entire neighborhood
was in compliance with the federal law guaranteeing our civil right
to public accommodations. This also told them we'd be back, feeding
them information again and again.
The press ate it up. We were in the newspaper, on television, and
even on the radio -- again and again. I sent an op-ed article to our
local newspaper, which was printed.
Aware that what we are doing -- suing our neighbors -- is seen as
radical, I wrote the op-ed to explain our actions to the Harrisburg
community -- not to apologize for what we were doing, but to give
our community a way to understand why we believed it was necessary
to sue our neighbors. Letters to the editor supported us.
The press still covers the Midtown Sweep. They stick to our message
every time: that this is a civil rights issue, and it's about enforcing
a federal law.
The media coverage has created a lot of community support for both
our group and our actions. City council members, local progressive
groups and individual non-disabled folk who had never heard of us
before are all telling us to "keep it up!" They tell us we have as
much a right to get into those stores as they do. It's like they invented
The ongoing press coverage also intimidates inaccessible business
owners. One defendant said -- on TV! -- that he wasn't even going
to bother fighting us; that it was just cheaper to give in. I'll settle
for inaccessible business owners thinking they can't win against us!
Since the Midtown Sweep began, our local group is stronger than
ever. We've learned that although it is scary for one person to sue
one business, it's actually pretty easy to be part of a group that
is suing a bunch of businesses at the same time. "It's nothing personal,
Mr./Ms. Business Owner. You just got caught up in a Sweep!"
Each of the members of our group takes turns being named as the
plaintiff on the lawsuits, but we are all aware that we all represent
the group whenever we do anything concerning The Sweep.
We are all also aware that we are all winners. Half of the businesses
we sued have "settled." The settlement papers, once filed, have the
force of a court order. Considering that we filed our first lawsuits
less than five months ago and have already sued over twelve businesses,
that's pretty good!
Our local disability community now has higher visibility than ever
before. Our own ACT members are out on the streets more. But we're
also seeing people we've never seen before -- people using wheelchairs
I'm often stopped on the street now by wheelchair users I didn't
know before The Sweep. One asks how he can get involved in our group.
Another thanks us for suing a bar he's always wanted to roll into.
I think our campaign has let a lot of disabled people in our town
know they're not the only ones out there. The Sweep has shown that
there's a bunch of us -- and we're kicking butt.
Any community can do a "Midtown Sweep." Our whole plan is laid out
There have been times when we've wanted to complicate it -- maybe
go outside the target area; things like that. But we've stuck to our
plan like a tick on a hound dog. As a result, we're winning.
Let me say that again: We're winning. We're winning lawsuits, community
respect, higher visibility. More of our folks now know that they have
a right to their own neighborhood.
If your community wants any of those things for themselves, consider
doing a Midtown Sweep.
Keep it simple, and you, too, will win.
Here is Pasquale's new ramp.
Using Pro Se for a sweep.
If you decide to do a Sweep, you may be able to get an attorney
to file your lawsuits. Try
Your state Protection and Advocacy Agency
Your local legal services organization
A local civil rights attorney
Don't get bogged down waiting for an attorney, though. Pro-se lawsuits
("pro se" is Latin for "on behalf of oneself") to enforce simple Title
III access are uncomplicated and straightforward. For more information,
get a "Do It Yourself Pro Se" kit from the Pennsylvania Coalition
of Citizens with Disabilities by calling 717-238-0172 (238-3433 TTY).This
kit was re-printed in the September/October 1998 Ragged Edge, and
is available for downloading from our website at
Pittsburgh starts a Sweep
Disability rights activists in Pittsburgh began their Southside
Sweep, modeled on Harrisburg's Midtown Sweep, by sending letters in
late November to 22 businesses in their targeted area, the main street
of Pittsburgh's South Side, which they call an "up-and-coming post-gentrified
neighborhood." When Ragged Edge went to press, only three businesses
had responded; the activists were planning a press conference for
mid-December to announce their first lawsuits. The group is being
assisted by Pennsylvlania's Disability Law Project.
The Domino Effect.
"We live here, we work here, we want to spend our money here. Build
ramps, and we will come and give you our money," Byzek wrote in an
opinion page article in the Harrisburg Patriot News last summer. "Don't
build ramps, and we will enforce our civil rights any way we cančincluding
The Midtown Sweep is having an effect in Harrisburg far beyhond
the businesses ACT is suing, says Josie Byzek.
As Ragged Edge was going to press, Byzek and Riegel had just returned
from a second meeting convened by the Midtown Market District, a group
of Harrisburg business and government leaders. The Midtown Sweep had
made the entire city take notice of the Americans with Disabilities
A series in the Harrisburg business weekly, Mode, had complained
that businesses had had no idea they were in violation of the law.
Mode had, predictably, complained about the lawsuits. "It was a critical
series, but it made good points," said Byzek -- that nobody in the
city enforced the law, or told businesses they had to obey it.
"The city is clear that we aren't the bad guys," said Byzek. Riegel,
at the meeting, stressed that the Center would assist any group become
accessible, and would sue only those groups who refused.
As a result, the city is forming what Byzek called a "one-stop shop"
for businesses to get information on how to become accessible. Plans
are being made for the appropriate city agencies to inform businesses
of access requirements under the law, and help them obey it. Byzek
says that Harrisburg may be the only city in the nation planning such
an outreach effort to business, and a commitment to enforce the ADA.
It's only taken 9 years.
What happened after this? Read an update from the March issue's editorial
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