Time for a Truth Team

On the heels of Sacramento Bee columnist Marjie Lundstrom's Thursday article, Litigious crusaders for disabled strike at mom-and-pop shops (see my blog entry here) comes Saturday's Lundstrom column, Balancing act: Enforce disabilities law, prevent serial lawsuits.

Here's the bottom line: Do we in California really think the best way to enforce the federal Americans with Disabilities Act - and it must be enforced - is to let a handful of individuals and lawyers make lucrative livings by filing thousands of lawsuits?

On Friday afternoon, disability activists held a press conference to announce opposition to the anti-access-suit initiative being readied for voters. The press conference made news only on Sacramento's ABC TV affiliate. The report it aired seemed to be nothing so much as an opportunity for the reporter to get in lots of quotes from the business community about how awful crip lawsuits are, and how something must be done about them: in other words, it gave attention to the initiative more than to opposition to it.

This is how the news report begins (note that all of this is about the initiative and the good it will do, not about the problems the initiative's passage will cause disabled people):

The Opportunity to Repair Act of 2006, which is being backed by California homebuilders and restaurant owners, would give developers and business owners
greater opportunity to fix building defects that don't comply with federal and state disability access laws before lawsuits could be filed against them. Advocates of the measure said it's time for businesses and homebuilders to fight back against those manipulating the Americans with Disabilities Act. They said many small business owners receive threatening letters demanding they pay thousands of dollars or face lawsuits that are costly to defend.

Backers of the initiative say the threats are little more than extortion. They claim their proposed law would ensure fair treatment of businesses, while still achieving accessibility for the disabled.

Finally, near the end of the news report, we hear about the activists opposing it:

Disability rights proponents argue the initiative only helps ensure that builders and business owners won't be held accountable for safe housing and civil rights violations.

Not much, eh?

Well, they did air a quote from Californians for Disability Rights' Laura Williams:

"This initiative jeopardizes the proud history of California disability civil rights," Laura Williams with Californians For Disabled Rights said. "It would be heartbreaking if there were no laws protecting us. There are laws that require [buildings] be accessible and they have no right to continue to be thescofflaws that they are."

Besides not getting the name of CDR correct -- it's Californians for Disability (not Disabled) Rights -- it doesn't seem this quote has much substance about the problem with the initiative. Especially not after the start of the news report which detailed all the problems with crips filing suits.

You can read the full news report here.

On the heels of that news report came Lundstrom's Saturday column. It has all the by-now-familiar stuff:

What makes California so attractive to serial suers is that the state is one of only three in the nation that allow plaintiffs to collect monetary damages as well as attorneys' fees in ADA cases. As I described Thursday, California's fiscal "incentive" has opened the door to a cadre of professional plaintiffs, who haunt courthouse halls and go on hunting expeditions for businesses with even the slightest ADA infractions - some of which don't even involve access.

Whenever I read sentences like these -- and it seems I read them every time I'm sent a news article about access in California -- I wonder: why aren't the crips getting to these reporters and showing them that the disability rights side of the issue is the correct one?

Would it be all that complicated to do? Access activists could form a Truth Team -- you'd only need 6 or 8 activists to do this -- who would monitor the news and immediately contact the reporter by email or phone when a story appeared. They could have a "talking points" sheet that would deal with each issue that comes up over and over again.

Lundstrom writes that "serial suers" who "haunt courthouse halls and go on hunting expeditions for businesses with even the slightest ADA infractions - some of which don't even involve access."

This point -- that some "infractions" "don't even involve access" -- is one that crops up again and again.

Activists could refute it with a list, a breakdown of the kinds of "ADA infractions" that have prompted lawsuits -- and a clear explanation as to why these "infractions" are serious matters; why they actually do prevent access, and keep people away from that business altogether.

Most activists can rattle off the real facts: That a toilet with a door 1 inch too narrow means no toilet access at all. That a two-inch lip at an entrance ("minor," say opponents of access suits) can prevent a wheelchair user entering altogether -- unless they have "help".

Activists, tell those stories ! Explain what the measurements mean. Use examples. A business with a 2-inch lip at the entrance means a wheelchair user cannot get in -- not that she "has trouble" getting in, or "needs help" getting in -- no; it is truly a barrier. California and federal laws were passed specifically to remove these kinds of barriers. That point should be made, over and over.

Break it down. Open it up. Use examples. Search through the anti-access stories to find the common misconceptions, and list them, and then explain why they are, indeed, misconceptions -- that is, false.

Create a "talking points" sheet explaining exactly why a 2-inch step is in fact a real and serious access barrier. Explain that a door too narrow by an inch or two can completely block a wheelchair user's entry to a restroom. Show that a door one inch too narrow might as well be 10 inches too narrow -- that "can't get through" means just that. Explain just how a missing curb cut means no access.

Another often-repeated line is that only a few "disgruntled" wheelchair users file suits ("serial suers.") The Truth Team should tackle this head-on: The Team can talk among themselves about why it is that so few crips file suits (causing the few who are brave enough to sue to be labeled "serial suers"). Once the Team has made a list of clear reasons about why more disabled people don't sue, they can explain these reasons to reporters. They can talk about the emotional difficulties with suing, the embarrassment, the worries, the fears.

And -- I really hesitate to suggest this, but it can work if done correctly -- Team members can get a particularly difficult reporter to spend a day in a wheelchair and travel with the reporter to stores in places like Julian, CA. Ask the reporter what she/he would do when confronted with a door too narrow to pass through -- by an inch or two. Remember what Mary Burrell learned: any unbiased reporter will learn it as well.

For yes, even biased reporters can be educated. But the work has to be done.

The damage reporters do can be defused with facts.

Truth Team members have good place to start: Marjie Lundstrom.

Saturday's Lundstrom column in the Bee was aimed at educating the public about California Assemblyman Tim Leslie's bill. Ragged Edge has written about Tim Leslie's efforts before. Leslie seems to be one of the main folks behind the push to derail California's access law damages provision.

Lundstrom gives Leslie his quote -- modified a bit this year, it seems:

"The ADA should be implemented fully, but it should not be used by unscrupulous lawyers as a method to rip off small businesses over little technicalities," said Leslie.

A few paragraphs down, Lundstrom explains Leslie's latest plans, going on to show how the disability community has thwarted earlier efforts:

His new bill, AB 1847, would substantially increase tax credits for access-related business expenses. His more aggressive measures in years past, including one that would have precluded the awarding of damages where access wasn't significantly impeded, all went nowhere. The politics have been emotional and bruising for both sides, with disabled rights advocates appearing en masse in wheelchairs to protest measures they perceive would water down the ADA. Sen. Charles Poochigian, R-Fresno, took a pounding last year over his bill that would have allowed business owners time to fix alleged violations before being sued for damages. Poochigian said this week he still considers ADA abuse a "serious problem" and is weighing whether to return with another bill.

I continue to believe that part of the disability community's problem is that crips don't talk to reporters, don't work with them, don't try to educate them, showing them all the ins and outs of access -- and showing them, too, the real problems the lack of access causes in the lives of real people. I think the disability community is either too angry -- or maybe too afraid -- to do the work with reporters that is really necessary to turn the tide. Or maybe too lazy. But I don't think that's it. I really don't know what it is.

As for reporters and editors, I think it simply doesn't occur to them that a whole lot of people suffer from the lack of access. I don't believe they hear from enough articulate disabled people, and few have had the kind of experience yet that editor Mary Burrell had down in Seminole, FL.

Leslie and Sen. Charles Poochigian (R-Fresno) and their minions, on the other hand, seem to spend a great deal of time courting the press. It's no wonder news coverage is the way it is -- given the circumstances it could hardly be different.

Those of you who understand why people like Theodore Pinnock file suit should write to Lundstrom and explain it -- not to yell at her but to try to convince her of the issue. Those of you reading this you who can articulate why so many wheelchair users are afraid to sue -- meaning that the few who do sue are seen as vultures -- would do the disability community a great service by emailing Lundstrom with stories she can use.

Marjie Lundstrom's email is mlundstrom@sacbee.com .

January 16, 2006 | Email this story


Comments (newest comments at bottom)

Wow! What great ideas! Your "truth team" stuff is great! Here in Cambridge folks fear losing favour, or "favours" so are reluctant to speak up, much less file a complaint.

I will follow your suggestion to develop a "talking points" document. I will let you know what results I get.

Posted by: kathypodgers on April 1, 2006 02:44 PM

Post a comment

(your email address will not appear publicly)

Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)

Recommend this story to a friend

To (email address):

Your email address:

Message (optional):