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

Electric Edge

 Cover story Cover story Cover story

Mouth magazine investigates U. S. Department of Justice's Disability Rights Section
Mouthing off
about injustice

"Any new law that you have, if you don't start enforcement hard and heavy right off the bat, people will assume that you're not really going to do anything."

- source quoted in Mouth

The U. S. Department of Justice's Disability Rights Section is well funded and well staffed. It has a budget of nearly $10 million a year. Yet its attorneys do not, for the most part, have disability rights backgrounds or experience. Few of them have disabilities. Charged with enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act and other disability rights statutes, it has filed few lawsuits, focusing instead on mediation and negotiated settlements. And its own offices are ridden with architectural and communications barriers significant enough to themselves engender an ADA lawsuit. These are the findings that emerged from the investigative report, "Justice Undone,"in the current isse of Mouth magazine.

Mouth''s report was based on interviews with a number of named and unnamed sources within the Department, including former disability rights section investigator and longtime disability rights activist Sharon Mistler, now retired, and former Department attorney Sara Kaltenborn. Mouth's report follows that magazine's emphasis on the interview: Interviews with Kaltenborn, Mistler, Section Chief John Wodatch, Department liaison Liz Savage and disability rights attorney Steve Gold.

Sources inside and outside the Department of Justice who complained to Mouth were angriest that the federal agency simply failed to enforce disability rights laws. Not just the Americans with Disabilities Act, but Section 504 of the Rehab Act and the 1980 Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA.)

"The ADA and CRIPA and the Rehab Act are as real as any other laws on the nation's books," wrote Lucy Gwin, editor of Mouth. "Congress gave responsibility for enforcing those laws . . . primarily to the U.S. Department of Justice. The Department is the big gun in our battle for liberty, equality, justice. But this big gun is, for the most part, silent."

Enforcement wimps
"When historians look at the disability movement from 1973 to 2003, the most shocking thing will be how the federal government totally abdicated its responsibility," attorney Steve Gold told Mouth. Gold is considered by disability activists to be one of the premiere disability rights lawyers in the U.S. He has filed lawsuits for ADAPT; he filed the brief with Not Dead Yet and ADAPT quoted in last June's Supreme Court decision against assisted suicide. In his Helen L. case, the court ruled that under the ADA, a person could not be kept against her will in a nursing home; she must be offered services in the community - a case activists consider a landmark in the struggle to get attendant services.

"The Department should be bringing landmark disability rights cases," Kaltenborn told Mouth. "It doesn't use its big guns." Indeed. In the 7 years following the ADA, the Department of Justice has filed, on its own initiative, exactly three lawsuits:

U.S. v. Illinois, filed in December, 1993 concerned "firefighters and police officers with disabilities denied admission to pension funds." A consent decree was entered in August, 1995.

U.S. v. Mordant, filed Oct. 4, 1993, concerned a dentist who refused to treat persons who were HIV positive. The court denied a motion to dismiss; the two whom the dentist had refused to treat ultimately received $60,000 each in damages.

U.S. V. Ellerbe Becket, filed just last fall, suing the firm "for designs of sports facilities without providing wheelchair seating locations with lines of sight over standing spectators."

"Most of what has happened has been settlements," Disability Rights Section Chief John Wodatch conceded in an interview with Ragged Edge. The Department had no choice, he insisted: an Executive Order required them "to try to get voluntary compliance, to negotiate, before we go to court."

Executive Order 12778, issued by Bush in 1991, and Executive Order 12988, issued by Clinton in 1996, "applies to everything the Department of Justice does: race, color, national origin, sex," said Wodatch. "We can't go into court until we've made every effort to settle something voluntarily."

The reason there are more lawsuits under other civil rights laws, he said, was that "in the race area right now, people don't settle.

"In our area, people are - well, I have a variety of explanations, some good, some bad ," he said. "We show up and people say, 'Oh, that's what this law means! We didn't understand! We'll do what you tell us!' when the truth is that they knew what it meant; they just didn't think they'd get caught. Once they get caught, they settle.

"That's not always the case," he went on, "and we have had some litigation. We've brought, since we've been in existence, probably about 100 cases."

Yes, but. As it turns out, all but three were cases which someone else filed first - the Department of Justice entered as an "amicus" or ""intervenor," after someone else had initiated the suit.

The Justice Department can bring lawsuits on their own. Why they file so few under the ADA remains somewhat of a mystery.

A number of sources Ragged Edge talked to said that the Department had to be pressed hard to enter some cases at all. The Minneapolis- based architectural firm Ellerbe Becket - one of the three cases in which the Department initiated a lawsuit - was sued first by the Paralyzed Veterans of America for failing to build sports stadiums with seating so people in wheelchairs could see the action on the field. Shortly thereafter, the Department filed its own suit against the firm.

Kaltenborn told Mouth she thought that the reason the Department didn't push things was "fear." "I think the [Department's] enforcement policy on disability rights is this: You make a damn nuisance of yourself, bothering little people who have no real power to fight back and no real interest in violating the law. And that generates statistics for your Status Reports [quarterly publications issued by the Department]. You don't want to antagonize anybody who has any power. . . . Anybody who's really blatantly violating the law is not going to cave in. Therefore you can't go up against them."



The problem with no damages

The ADA came about not after a vocal, visible, angry struggle for civil rights. It came about because an elite group thought it should be passed - paternalistically, in other words. Consequently, there was not equal power in the passage.
    Steve Gold

"The ADA won't even pay for monetary damages for the injury done when civil rights are violated. That's a humongously big compromise," Steve Gold told Mouth.

One of the things disabled people (who did not have "equal power") had to give up was something called "damages." "Damages" in this legal sense means monetary awards granted to the plaintiff to compensate for the "pain and suffering" endured by the loss of civil rights.

Civil rights law protecting racial minorities and women provide for monetary damages to be awarded to the victim of discrimination. There is no other civil rights statute "where the minority whose civil rights are violated cannot get damages for that injury," Gold told Mouth.

Under other civil rights laws, if, for example, the court finds that a business has discriminated against a black person, that black person can be awarded "damages" - money to compensate for the "pain and suffering" of indignities. And, not insignificantly, to pay attorneys.

"If people with disabilities could get compensatory damages when they sue under the ADA - even if those amounts were minimal, that would make it worthwhile [for an attorney] to bring the suit," said Gold.

"Then, too, if the defendants knew they would have to pay - not just to make their store accessible but also to pay damages - they would, on their own, make their businesses accessible.

"It's as if the ADA is saying, 'If you break the law, the penalty is that you'll have to obey it.'

"That's not a big penalty."

"If I had to point to one of the flaws in the ADA," Disability Rights Section Chief John Wodatch said, "it's that it's very hard for people to get lawyers to take their Title III cases, because of the lack of compensatory damages. That was a big battle toward the end of the ADA fight in Congress. In order to get the bill, that was given up.

"Early on, groups had a strategy that they were going to go back to Congress and ask to amend the ADA to get these compensatory damages in there, but with Congress now, no one wants to get the law amended, because they're afraid we'll lose what we've got.

"And I do share that view," said Wodatch. "I want to keep any ADA amendment out of Congress. Because I think every member is up there with their knives out."

Only part of the problem can be blamed on the law, though. When the Department brings an ADA suit, it can exact damages for clients, Gold told Mouth. In U.S. v. Mordant, the two plantiffs each received $60,000 in damages. But the Department "files a very limited number of suits," said Gold.

Wodatch confirmed that the Department did indeed hear threats from firms like Ellerbe Becket. And those threats, he said, had to be considered. First the firm had arrogantly argued that architects weren't covered by the ADA, and filed a motion to simply dismiss the case. (The motion was denied and the case is proceeding.)

Though Wodatch was at pains to point out that "we can't be too afraid to enforce the law because then you don't have the law" and that "We have to make the most of the time we have," he added that this "doesn't mean you have to be foolish."


"There are very few disabled people who have the money to go out and hire a lawyer," Mistler told Mouth. "No cost - that's the biggest reason people file [complaints] with Justice."

One of the accusations repeatedly leveled at the Section by disability advocates is that there's a huge backlog of formal ADA complaints - "boxes and boxes of them," as one source put it. While Wodatch insisted that this was no longer the case, he did stress that "We have been just inundated with complaints.

"We didn't have very good procedures before. We have better procedures now," he said. Complaints would now be dealt with, said Wodatch, within 12 weeks.

A 1970 lawsuit settlement (Adams v. Richardson), Kaltenborn told Mouth, required the Office of Civil rights at HEW (the Department Disability Rights Section's predecessor) to either resolve a complaint or issue a "letter of findings" within 180 days of receipt. Ironically, this effort to force accountability has proved a stumbling block to enforcement . It created "an enormous workload of little, piddly cases," said Kaltenborn. And "the attitude developed that 'if you don't have a complaint, you can't do anything about it.'"

According to Kaltenborn, the Disability Rights Section has that same mindset.

"You'd read an article in the paper [about some disability rights violation] and say, 'this is a great case. We ought to go after this.' And the answer would be, 'No, we can't. We haven't got a complaint."

In fact, the Section does not have to receive a complaint first in order to pursue wrongdoing. It can initiate a "compliance review" on its own, said Wodatch. And this can lead to a lawsuit. But, he said, do too many of these, and people will complain that the Section isn't handling enough complaints.

We got 6,000 pieces of mail last year that we had to go through and decide whether they were complaints or not." The figure Wodatch gave, was, no doubt, supposed to show the burden of an excessive number of complaints. In fact, this breaks down to fewer than 30 pieces of mail a day. When one considers that there are easily thousands of access illegalities in any major city today, thirty complaints a day is hardly a drop in the bucket.

In fact, most disabled people do not file complaints. And sending a complaint to the Department does not mean that the Department will file suit - or even investigate.


 A reluctance to get involved?
When asked by Mouth to provide "examples of successful ADA settlements in which the DOJ was involved," Liz Savage cited one involving Mike Auberger, a national organizer for ADAPT, who had a complaint against the Barrolo Grill.

When Mouth contacted Auberger, he told them that at first it seemed DOJ wasn't interested in pursuing the matter. "We twisted a lot of arms [at DOJ] - they weren't open initially, but they did it. I suspect they knew that there was a potential for us biting them if they didn't take the case," he added.

The case, said Auberger, "went on for about 2 years." The restaurant owner ended up settling, Auberger said. But DOJ "pushed him hard," Auberger told Mouth. "They made him make everything accessible."

Since that case, though, it seems DOJ has been decidedly cool to Auberger. He told Mouth, "Since then it's been hard to get the DOJ to take anything on. We've filed over 100 complaints with them since then. They haven't done anything on any of them."

Kaltenborn told Mouth that "While people may want to have their complaints processed, I'm sure they would prefer more effective enforcement tactics."

An important reason for the Department of Justice to file lawsuits, Mistler told Mouth, was "to show pattern and practice." "For instance, if somebody filed a complaint against a hotel in North Carolina, there may be other complaints against that hotel chain in other parts of the United States," Mistler explained. "It's more significant if you can go to that chain and say, 'we've had x number of complaints against you.' "

The Department, with its access to numerous complaints about access violations all across the country, is in a prime position to do this very thing. "And the government has really beefed up the staffing at Justice," says Mistler. "You have plenty of lawyers who can do that.

"But they don't," said Mistler. "For the most part, they don't."

According to figures furnished by the Department of Justice, Mouth reported, the Disability Rights Section funding of ADA enforcement doubled - from $2.2 million in 1991 to $4.6 million in 1992; then nearly doubled again in 1993, to $8 million. In 1997, the budget was $9,253,000.

"It hasn't increased in the past two years, but I think it's close to around $10 million a year. That's pretty good, given the budget climate we have," Wodatch agreed. Though Congress hasn't approved budget increases the past 2 years, Wodatch said theirs was "one of the biggest sections in the Civil Rights Division now, in terms of personnel and budget both." There are 85 people in the Section, Wodatch said; of those, 24 were staff attorneys. And in January Clinton once again proposed more funds for enforcement.

The Republican takeover of Congress changed things, even in the disability community.
      Disability Rights Section
      Chief John Wodatch
"People were afraid of a "backlash," Wodatch said. "There's a constant worry that someone's going to try to repeal part of the ADA. I hope that's unrealistic, that fear. I think the coalition of local grassroots disability rights groups that got the law there can keep it there. But it takes work to do that; and I think people are worried about that."
The Office on the Americans with Disabilities Act in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice was formed in 1992, combining work that had been done in various other sections of the Department, and incorporating previous offices doing work on Section 504. John Wodatch headed this office. In 1993, it became the Public Access Section; in 1995 that name was changed to its current name, the Disability Rights Section. John Wodatch is Chief of that Section. Wodatch, a Georgetown law graduate, had worked for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on 504. He now oversees an office of over 80 - one of the biggest Sections at the Department.
Mouth reports, "What you have to understand about [John] Wodatch is that he was the man on Section 504 from the beginning." Section 504 was the first civil rights provision for disabled people, part of the 1973 Rehab Act.
Wodatch, a former Department of Justice employee told Mouth, "has always been the primary guy on 504." As Mouth pointed out, Wodatch was the attorney for the U.S. Department of Heath, Education and Welfare back in the mid-70s who took HEW's side when Jim Cherry sued to get the regulations promulgated on the ADA. Cherry v. Matthews is an important part of disability rights history. Matthews was the head of HEW, and Wodatch, Mouth points out, was the HEW attorney. "Wodatch, then, fought the implementation of 504. When he lost that fight, he was given responsibility for implementing it."
"To this day," said Mouth, Wodatch "is the one who must approve all 504 regulations and enforce them for the Department."
"If he'd spent the last 20 years actually seeing that 504 was enforced," said the source, "courthouses and colleges and social services and prisons and hospitals and public schools - anybody getting federal money - would be accessible today. Think about it. Twenty years.
In 1980, the Department of Justice took over 504 enforcement and Wodatch moved with it. "If you ask me," the informant told Mouth, "that's the future of the ADA. If it's in John's hands, it doesn't have a prayer."

They just don't get it
But most of the staff is non-disabled. Mouth reported one source at the Department as saying, "you watch a 15-person management team meeting breaking up, and one of the people coming out of that door has a [visible] disability." Wodatch, who said he was "aware of the concern," said that in the seven management positions "there's one person with a disability."

The Department, Mouth reported, had done "no outreach to get disabled people on the enforcement staff." Lawyers Mistler had to interact with, she told Mouth, "had no idea . . . that there are [different] types of learning disabilities and therefore different types of accommodation, depending on the disability. Same for blindness, and varying degrees of hearing. They didn't even know this, and they didn't have to go through any training to learn it. " Mistler said that when she questioned this, she was told that "they learn by doing the job."

"Some of them have worked in disability rights for 20 years," Mistler said, "and they still don't get it."

Wodatch admitted that, although "early on we did a lot of that; we sent our new attorneys to DREDF's trainings - almost all of them" - in the years after 1994 there had been "not much" disability training whatsoever.

"The Disability Rights Section has a lot of money and a lot of people," Mistler told Mouth. "What they don't have is a consciousness of what is important to disabled people."

 DOJ slow to enforce CRIPA, too
The Department's enforcement of the 1980 Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA) has come under fire from a number of People First groups. Dissatisfaction with the Department's enforcement efforts, reports Mouth, resulted in Congressional investigations in 1983 and 1985. In a 1984 issue of the Nebraska Law Review, Robert Dinerstein wrote that "as a result of . . . its utter failure to enforce CRIPA, The Department of Justice has manifestly failed to extend to institutionalized disabled persons the rights that are properly theirs." John Kip Cornwell, writing in the November, 1987 Yale Law Review, leveled similar charges.

The criticisms are still valid today, Mary Hayden, Ph.D., wrote in Mouth. Hayden, a Director of Research at the Research and Training Center on Residential Services and Community Living at the University of Minnesota, charged that the Department "avoids litigation and relies too much on conciliation."

The Department, she wrote, "shows such solicitousness for the prerogatives of state officials or parents who support institutionalization that in some cases [it] has in fact failed to protect the rights of people in institutions."

In 1987 and again in 1990, Mouth reports, the Department "formally advised Pennsylvania officials of 'deficient conditions' at Ebensberg Center," an institution.

"Following these notices, DOJ officials met and corresponded repeatedly with the state to negotiate . . . ""Five years later, in 1992, Justice finally sued because of the "chronic failure of Pennsylvania officials to agree to necessary improvements," according to a letter from then Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Deval Patrick.

Patrick said in his letter that evidence had showed that "Ebensberg residents has been subjected to preventable deaths and repeated and preventable devastating injuries, including loss of sight, gangrene, . . . Residents have been found covered with ants. . . . A resident was found with an infestation of maggots in her ear." Yet, Mouth reported, "it took the Department five years to file suit." According to Mouth, Liz Savage mistakenly believed that the case tried by Steve Gold (called Helen L.) was a case that had been tried under CRIPA, not the ADA. In fact, two federal courts used the ADA to rule that a state could not force a person to remain in a nursing home who wanted to live in the community.


When Mistler, an investigator, noted that a case should be referred to the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board - because a federal building was involved - "my supervisor," she told Mouth, "sent back the intake form with red marks all over it: 'Who in the world is the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board and why in the world would we want to send something to them?'"

"We had a wonderful case against a major bank in Missouri," she continued. "They were putting in hundreds of new ATMs and they were doing it wrong."

"The Disability and Business Technical Assistance Center in Missouri caught it and couldn't convince the bank to do it right, said Mistler. Then somebody filed a complaint with the Department

"It was perfect timing," said Mistler. "A perfect case. The ATMs had not yet gone in; it was going to affect a great number of people; it was one of the biggest banks in the region."

The investigative unit where Mistler worked started to work on the complaint, she said, but the Department lawyer assigned to the case "there again, didn't understand the significance of ATMs" to disabled people. By the time the Department finally got around to the case, she said, "the bank had already installed those ATMs. They had never even received a letter from Justice" suggesting there might be a problem.

"Not even a call."

But "the premiere person in the [Civil Rights] Division running disability policy is a person with a disability," Wodatch pointed out. This is Liz Savage, who Wodatch called "the counselor to [Acting Asst. Attorney General for Civil Rights] Bill Lann Lee for disability policy." Savage, who was involved with passage of the ADA, is referred to as the "disability community liaison." Her presence, activists charged in Mouth, hasn't seemed to help enforcement one whit.

According to Mouth's report, lawyers at the Department have received Title III complaints about Greyhound for years. One attorney working on a complaint, a source told Mouth, couldn't understand why the Department had the complaint. "Supposedly people are having trouble with Greyhound. What's the issue? I don't even know why we have it," the attorney is reported to have said suggesting that it be sent to the Department of Transportation.

Wodatch says the Department now has "investigations open against Greyhound on the issue of facilities that they stop at and use being inaccessible, and on drivers not providing assistance in boarding and disembarking." Wodatch calls the investigation "very important" and hopes that "within the next six months or so, something can be resolved.

"We are going to negotiate with them, says Wodatch. "Negotiation doesn't always mean we won't file suit."

Mistler told Mouth, "High up on the intake form is a question that says, 'can this be referred to mediation?'

Mediation - formally called "Alternative Dispute Resolution" - is, as Wodatch put it, the "rising new star" in legal circles. The Section got a grant from the Key Bridge Foundation to refer cases to mediation - because, says Wodatch, "we knew there were a lot of cases we couldn't get to." But he knew, he said, that "a lot of people with disabilities think this second-class citizenship."

"There's this push toward mediation," Mistler told Mouth, "so there won't be a backlash."

"Alternative dispute resolution has its place," Kaltenborn told Mouth. "But tell me: alternative to what? It's an alternative to law enforcement.

The business of the Department of Justice, Kaltenborn said, was "law enforcement." Kaltenborn called alternative dispute resolution "a total abdication."

No, mediation was "not enforcement," Liz Savage conceded in an interview with Mouth. She called it "an agreement between the two parties. . . . For example, a restaurant agrees to . . . install a ramp. . . . If there's non-compliance, the complainant can come back to us."

Mediation was "effective," Savage told Mouth, "in 85 percent of the cases." But Kaltenborn says that mediation allows the Department to "avoid defining compliance. Instead of saying 'this is readily achievable and that is not,'" she said, they avoid "having to answer the hard questions."

"In mediation, each side gives up something," Mistler said. "And that's really good for the company that's not in compliance with the ADA, but what is it to the person who's being denied their civil rights? What are they giving up?"

Mistler told Mouth that from her observation of internal reports, the Department of Justice did not press mediation as strongly with other civil rights groups - women and blacks - as it did with disabled people. And yes, it was true that people could then file complaints or bring suit themselves. But, said sources, people rarely did that. Nor did disabled people file suits on their own. Often they couldn't afford to, and attorneys often wouldn't take the case, because there was no payment for damages. It is a vicious circle, And the Department of Justice, says Mouth, isn't helping.


 There was one thing I have always wanted to do:Make bathrooms off limits to everybody when they're not accessible for people who use wheelchairs.

At an office function, a training session, a party - you just lock the bathroom door to everybody. That's equality. It's easy and cheap. And it's a real learning experience.
I did this to a boss of mine who didn't get it. She wanted me to go to a jazz club with her, and I knew the bathroom was upstairs. So I said, "Okay, but when you have to go to the bathroom, you leave."
She was horrified. She said, "That means I can't drink!" But she agreed. . . .
Then she got to that point [where she really had to go] and she wasn't about to use the inaccessible bathroom, so we left.
We went from club to club in Georgetown, looking for an accessible bathroom - for my friend, who is not in a wheelchair!
Now she won't even go to a place that isn't accessible.
And that's the kind of thing I wanted to do at Justice.

-- Sharon Mistler

Department offices' access problems
"If the Department were a business we were investigating, one source told Ragged Edge, "we'd find them in violation of the ADA just like that. No question."

Perhaps the most troubling - and damaging - accusations against the Disability Rights Section are that it blatantly fails to provide access and accommodation in its own offices, to its own staff.

Access violations in Section offices, says Mouth, "ranged from the storage room that you couldn't even get into, to the Xerox machine in it, to the mailboxes that were too high, to the fax machines, to the hallways where you couldn't pass somebody because of boxes blocking things."

Some staffers made their offices inaccessible, when things could have easily been handled differently. "They arranged their furniture so you could not enter their offices, close the door and have a private conversation."

"The desk where the receptionist sits is too high."

"There is a book where you have to sign up to use the conference room. It's on a high ledge between the two secretaries in the front office, and I couldn't get to it."

What I did - with two of the attorneys who do 'get it' - we printed up, on the computer, between 50 and 60 signs that said, 'THIS IS INACCESSIBLE'. And we posted them. The guys who helped me were tall; they labeled the high-up places I couldn't reach; I labeled lower places.

We ran out. We should have made more signs.
      Sharon Mistler


Wodatch seemed defensive on the accusation about the boxes in the hall. "We still have some boxes in the halls, although we are making an effort to get rid of them,"he said. " In terms of accessibility, we have what the new construction standards say is the appropriate amount of turn space" Although, he added, he feels, too, that they shouldn't be there. As to charges about other access violations in the offices, he simply responded by saying that "basically it's accessible but it's by no means perfect."

Access complaints that "have merit" "have been changed or are being changed," he said. "Sometimes it takes a long time to get them changed," he added. "The thing we have to work on the most is having the government systems respond more quickly.

"It's taken a long time to get some changes," he went on. "In the past year we finally got them to put automatic doors on the restrooms.

"But another part of the government just ordered new computer printers [for our office] - humongous things that are out of the reach range of someone in a wheelchair. So what we have done is not assigned those to any person in a wheelchair."

For a long time, sources charged, the Section had no adequate sign-language interpreters available.

Wodatch readily admitted the problem: They'd relied on outside firms to provide interpreting services, he said, and "that proved to be, first of all, very costly, and very inefficient.

"Because the way the government works, we couldn't just use one service; we had to use a variety of services," he continued. "And we would sometimes get interpreters who were less than proficient.

"We had an investigation of Walt Disney World. And you have a meeting where you have the attorneys there, and the investigator is a person who is a late-deafened adult, and I could tell she couldn't really tell what was going on, but we couldn't stop the meeting; we had the officials from Disney there. It was really very difficult.

"We have a number of deaf employees," he continued, "and we needed interpreters just for the interactions in the office. If all of a sudden we had a special meeting called for the next day, or if it was going to be an evening meeting, we couldn't get an interpreter in that short a period of time. That created staff frustration."

 The Intern's Computer
We had an intern come in last summer; a law student; a fairly severely disabled kid who needed to have a talking computer. We didn't have one of those here. We knew around January that he would be coming in [in a few months], so I sent the request in for the equipment. Now it was $20,000 worth of equipment for someone who was a summer employee - and he wasn't even an employee; he was a summer intern. But in my estimation we had the obligation to do that and cost wasn't - you know, a limitation- so we put the order in. He came in May; it wasn't until the middle of July that the equipment was in and working. And so - we did other things for him, but that's an example of it just took a long time. Now part of that was a question of, am I making the right judgment that I should spend that much for someone that's not a permanent employee, and, in fact, not even an employee?

      John Wodatch, Disability Rights Section Chief, Civil Rights Division, U.S. Department of Justice.


Wodatch said that within the Section, with those things over which he has control, "I've tried to use every kind of opportunity that the government provides." He mentioned "job sharing" and "working at home - which we pioneered for the Division," he added.

"I finally got permission to hire another person, and so now we have two fulltime interpreters," he said. "I'm glad now that we have hired our own people. They're here, we're in charge of their time, and it's cheaper."

Wodatch could not just make decisions to get accessible equipment or provide accommodations if they cost money, he told us. "I have certain leeway, but the basic decisions are done Division-wide, not by Section."

Whether this picture of Wodatch having to beg for access from his own Department rings true or not, it is a useful symbol. A government entity unable to even muster up, even within its own walls, a desire to obey either the letter or the spirit of the rights laws it is charged with enforcing can hardly be looked to for protection of rights. Nor, does it seem, that can be much vision emanating from an office that has taken years, it seems, to figure out that staff oughtn't to be allowed to arrange office furniture to block access -- or to have on staff people like investigators and attorneys and support staff who have as part of their job requirement a working knowledge of American Sign Language.

As Mouth's investigative report shows, disabled people really have very few options open to them for getting satisfaction under the ADA. The attorneys housed in the Disability Rights Section of the Department of Justice who should be enforcing the law seem less than committed to it, Mouth's report shows. Disabled people don't have these attorneys pushing their rights very hard. On their own, most disabled people can't afford attorneys, and the law itself provides no money for attorneys' fees.

They can file a complaint with the Department, but chances are it won't get very far, either.

But there is another route, Mouth reports: Disabled people can sue ADA lawbreakers on their own. Without an attorney. This is called a "pro se" lawsuit (from the Latin meaning "for oneself").

"We have a form for them to do it themselves," said Steve Gold. "They can file their own lawsuit. This was done solely because there are no lawyers who want these cases."

ADAPT activist Mike Auberger, whose 100 complaints the Department has reportedly not yet touched, is, Mouth reports, doing just that.

Disability rights are trivialized by most people. They are not considered civil rights. The fact that a person using a wheelchair cannot get up two steps into a store - or cannot get on a bus, or that movies aren't captioned - is not looked at as a violation of that person's civil rights.

    Can you imagine what this country would have been like seven years after [passage of the] 1964 Civil Rights Act if we still had bathrooms marked "whites only" and "colored only"? When Congress passed a law in 1964 saying [racial] access must be equal - why, if restaurants and bus stations had continued to keep separate bathrooms and separate water fountains, there would have been a bloodbath in this country! -- Steve Gold

 Story continues ...


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