January 30, 2006

And The War Is On!

by HolLynn D'Lil. Photos by Jamie Watson.

EDITOR'S UPDATE: the initiative has been withdrawn. See http://www.raggededgemagazine.com/departments/news/000808.html.

Disability civil rights activists in California staged a Sacramento street-theater protest as their first response to a proposed November 2006 ballot initiative that they say will destroy the ability to enforce California civil rights laws protecting the architectural accessibility rights of disabled Californians. (See earlier coverage of the Initiative at CA Activists to Battle Business Community Over Access, Ragged Edge Online, Jan. 10, 2006.)

attorney Amy Vandeveld yells at villian.
View protest photos.

Sponsored by the California Building Industry Association (CBIA) and the California Restaurant Association, the proposed initiative, misleadingly labeled "The Opportunity To Repair Act of 2006." was submitted to the California Attorney General in late December.

Though the initiative will not be released to the public for the gathering of signatures until mid-February, California disability rights activists staged their first action in front of CBIA offices in Sacramento only two and a half weeks after the initiative's filing. Actors in black hats labeled "CBIA" and "CA Restaurants" (and wearing black capes and mustaches to signify villains) wielded plastic bats and chains against the disabled protestors, providing the street theater that drew camera crews from television channels 3, 10 and 13, and Capital Public Radio in Sacramento. (See photos.)

Activists intended to send a clear message to proponents of the initiative that "the disability community will not be easily overtaken." After the event, participants immediately went into an organizing session to plan the next protest -- which plans call for staging in front of California Restaurant Association headquarters in February.

Disability activists say they plan to keep the media heat on the initiative proponents while disability civil rights attorneys plan other strategies.

A lawsuit was filed Jan. 23 against both the state and CBIA over the "constitutionality" issue. The suit argues that state and Federal laws intended to protect the rights of a minority cannot be "abrogated" by a ballot initiative, and attorneys working with the group say that if the initiative passes next November, it will immediately be challenged both in state and Federal court.

The broad scope of the proposed initiative is creating allies of diverse groups. Initiative protest planners say they'll reach out to homeowners' organizations, disabled veterans' organizations, senior organizations and organizations representing the rights of other minorities. Because the initiative as now written combines two unrelated issues -- residential construction defects and commercial building accessibility violations -- and guts current California law allowing both homeowners and disabled people to sue and collect damages for both problems, it in fact links California homeowners with the disability and elderly communities. All of these groups are targets of the initiative, for it proposes to take away their ability to get attorneys' fees paid in suits over defective housing construction.

Seventy initiatives have been approved for circulation for the ballot this November or are awaiting clearance by the Attorney General's Office. Read story from the Jan. 29 San Diego Union Tribune.


IT IS TEMPTING TO SAY that the initiative is awakening the sleeping giant. However, the largely politically untapped disability population of California has not been sleeping so much as it has been splintered into factions. With this initiative, though, it appears that those factions are putting aside differences and forming new bonds to defeat a common enemy. So the proposed "Opportunity To Repair Act of 2006" ballot initiative may be one of the best things that has happened to the disability community in California since the Section 504 protest that led to the takeover of the Federal Building in the San Francisco for three and a half weeks in 1977.

The so-called "Opportunity To Repair Act of 2006" is doing just that: It is giving the disability community an opportunity to repair its divisions and splits, and forge the kinds of alliances with other minority groups that the protestors for the 504 regulations achieved. This is turn will train and mobilize a new generation of activists who will be sorely needed in the times to come.

Given the possibility of a solid 5-to-4 U.S. Supreme Court votes against all minority rights for years to come (with an Alito confirmation), Californians with disabilities need all the experience in fighting prejudice and injustice that they can get.

HolLynn D'Lil is a California disability rights activist. Read her one-act play, Hello Goodbye Ada Who?

Freelance photographer Jamie Watson is a Systems Change Coordinator for CALIF (Communities Actively Living Independent and Free) in Los Angeles.

Posted on January 30, 2006