A death in a doorway
Mike Laswell's life "came to a tragic end Sunday when he died from injuries suffered four days earlier when his wheelchair tipped over backward while he was entering the Heine Bros. Coffee shop on Frankfort Avenue. "Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson was holding the door open for Laswell on New Year's Eve morning when the motorized wheelchair became stuck at the threshold and tipped over ..."
The facts in the January 6 Louisville Courier Journal read quickly. A terrible tragedy. Horrible incident. Poor man! Poor family! Poor mayor of Louisville, being there like that, nothing he could do to help!
The doorway Laswell tried to enter through was not accessible. The threshold blocking easy access was illegal under the Americans with Disabilities Act. It should have been removed years ago.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, a law passed seven years ago, requires public accommodations to remove barriers. Not just new buildings, but all buildings, if they house "public accommodations" - and if the barrier removal is "readily achievable" - which the rules spell out as meaning "without too much difficulty or expense."
Technical specifications enforcing the law require flat entrances. If there's a threshold at all, it can't be over a half inch high. That's the law. Heine Bros. Coffee is a booming Louisville business, with at least three locations. The threshold that caused Laswell's death looks as though it might take an hour or two to pry up with a crowbar and cart off. But nobody's bothered to do it.
Hasn't anyone ever complained? Did Mike Laswell ever breathe a word of the problem to his friend the store manager?
There's been not a word out of the organized disability community in Louisville. There's been not a word out of the media in Louisville.
The mayor's office has been silent. "Abramson said he didn't want to discuss what happened," a City Hall spokesperson told the C-J reporter for his Jan. 6 story.
Like most things that happen to disabled people, this death seems to be accepted as a personal misfortune, tragic but accidental. There's been no coverage at all of the issue.
Mike Laswell would not have been killed in this way had the store not been violating the law.
There's no evidence Laswell had ever complained about such violations of his civil rights. Laswell had removed his "wheelie bars" (safety bars manufacturers install on the back of wheelchairs to prevent just the kind of tipping that caused his death), said the article, because with them on the chair, it couldn't be tipped back enough to get him over yet another threshold at another store he frequented - another inaccessible store. There are thousands of inaccesible buildings in Louisville.
"A tragic end," the Courier Journal reporter called it in the one article to appear, on Jan. 6.
"The unfortunate accident involving Mike Laswell is not a mayoral or City Hall issue," said the mayor in a statement. "I don't feel comfortable talking about the details." No one, to our knowledge, has done any complaining. No one, to our knowledge, has seen it as an issue at all.
On the following pages, Ragged Edge reports on an investigation into enforcement of the ADA carried out by Mouth magazine.
What we learned makes the Laswell tragedy seem all too inevitable.
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