Electric EDGE
Web Edition of
The Ragged Edge
March/April 1998

Electric Edge

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About that doorway

By Mary Johnson

I read the story about Mike Laswell's death while drinking my coffee that Monday morning. Coffee from Heine Bros. That doorway threshold which caused Mike Laswell death is one I have crossed many times myself. Heine Bros. Coffee is a store I frequent almost daily.

Since I moved into the neighborhood I have been commenting on that doorway, that threshold.

"Look at that lip down there," I muttered to my husband the first time we entered the store over three years ago. "Look at that!" I said. "That's illegal."

"But nobody complains," I added, almost as quickly. I felt resigned to it. Nobody complained about barriers, it seemed, in Louisville. It wasn't my place, I felt, a nondisabled woman, to do the complaining for others. Now I wonder.

The doorway is slightly ramped. Perhaps "sloped" is a better word. It's not an entrance that appears to have been ramped intentionally; it's just sloped slightly. The entrance would be completely flat, completely accessible, were it not for the lip, the threshold, the metallic raised strip that abuts the door when closed.

That strip is well over an inch high. I know; I've eyeballed it many times. An inch high barrier cost a man his life. "I'm sure that's not legal under the ADA," I have groused, more than once, as I step over it on my way to coffee.

I've heard not word in all of Louisville about the death of Mike Laswell. But maybe I'm just out of the loop. Maybe there has been a lot of talk. Maybe Laswell's friends are taking to attorneys now about suing. Maybe his parents will sue. Under the ADA. Maybe they know that there's a law that could have prevented Laswell's death.

It seems no one complains. But perhaps we're wrong. Perhaps he and hundreds of other wheelchair users have been quietly filing complaints with the U.S. Department of Justice about the illegal barriers all over this city. Perhaps they've been talking to attorneys about lawsuits, even. Perhaps one day they'll tell us and the other media what they've been doing.

Perhaps the local disability organizations are talking among themselves about Mike Laswell's death by barrier. Perhaps they're getting ready to speak out against illegal barriers, take legal action. Perhaps they're planning a press conference.

After two months of silence, though, perhaps it's a safer bet to assume that nobody's seen this as any kind of an issue.

The story began with that "tragic end to amazing life" tone many of us are all too familiar with. "All his 26 years Mike Laswell lived with a hereditary bone disease ... But that didn't stop him from graduating from public school ... from the university . . ."

This is how the story should have begun:

"A store which has retained illegal barriers years after passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act granted disabled people access to public accommodations has caused the death of a man. The man died when his wheelchair tipped over while trying in vain to cross an illegally-high threshold. Under law, the threshold should have been removed years ago.

"Advocates charge the store with the murder of Mike Laswell. They say had the store been in compliance, the death would never have occurred."

So we are writing this, now. We are putting words into advocates' mouths, hoping they will find the courage to speak them. We are calling for this tragedy to be seen for what it is, and for the store, and all other stores, to be held accountable for the barriers they illegally retain seven years after a federal law requiring their removal. We call for justice for disabled people under the law. No more, no less.



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