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January/
February
2000

Here is Pasquale's restaurant with no ramp -- before the Sweep.
Cover Story

Do a Sweep!
Bring Access to Your Neighborhood
--the Midtown Way

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By Josie Byzek

Josie Byzek tells how you, too, can get your neighborhood businesses to finally obey the Americans with Disabilities Act -- 9 years after it became the law of the land.

Josie Byzek is a member of Accessible Communities Today. She writes frequently about disability issues.


Using Pro Se for a sweep
Pittsburgh Starts a Sweep
Final report: The Domino Effect

I can talk tough, but it's an act. Actually, I hate conflict. I hate confrontation. And I hate causing trouble of any kind. People who know me will raise their eyebrows when they read this, but it's the truth. I don't like trouble. It makes my stomach hurt. Yet I'm part of a group that is systematically suing most of the shops in my neighborhood, three inaccessible "mom-and-pop" businesses a month.

Talk about confrontation! But you know what? It hasn't been that bad. In fact, it's actually been pretty easy.

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 community support.


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 measures."

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.


Getting results

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 idea.

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 and scooters.

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 here.

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 www.raggededgemagazine.com/archive/pro-se.htm


    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 lawsuits."

    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 Act.

    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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