This week’s episode of This American Life (a long-running radio show on NPR) has a “by able-bodies, for able-bodies” look at disabled people who file lawsuits against businesses that are in violation of the ADA.
In California, a kind of crybaby cottage industry has popped up around, of all things, the Americans with Disabilities Act—the federal law that requires all public places to meet a minimum level of accessibility. Some people make a living by suing business owners for not being up to code. Alex MacInnis hung out with one of them.
Surprisingly, the episode is pretty disability-positive, with most of the interview time going to real, live disabled people.
The episode starts with the extremely-unpopular-with-ablebodies Tom Mundy, who makes a living suing ADA-violating businesses in Southern California. The show’s producer mentions how in California, disabled people can make $4,000 by suing a business for not being up to code. A lawyer who represents business owners estimates Tom has made half a million dollars in just three years.
The producer then drops the bomb that most people who read this blog know all too well, but that most TABs don’t realize: The ADA is not enforced. The government doesn’t even pretend to enforce it – there is no agency (federal, state, regional, or otherwise) to monitor whether or not businesses are complying. So it’s up to people like Tom Mundy to sue in order to gain equal access.
The episode, entitled “Crybabies”, describes for listeners exactly what is so annoying about these lawsuits: it’s the lawsuits themselves. Legal action immediately puts the TAB business owners on the defensive, and often the suits come from disabled people who didn’t bother to ask the businesses to provide access, politely. Instead, an ugly legal notice comes in the mail.
Wheelchair-using attorney Margaret Johnson of Disability Rights California ends the show with evidence from her personal life spelling out why lawsuits are necessary. Margaret gets her haircut at a place that she chose, in part, because it had an accessible parking space. Had.
One day she showed up to a hair appointment to find that the striped area next to the accessible parking space had been painted over, and was now serving as a non-accessible space. Since a car was parked in this new space, she could not get out of her van. She managed to find a spot on the street, and made it to the appointment. She then told her haircutter about the problem, who promised to relay the info to the owners of the shop.
After a few instances of coming back to find the space was still inaccessible, the haircutter brought one of the owners out to speak to Margaret. The owner explained, inexplicably, that the city had painted over it. He said he would look into it, but at her last appointment, the spot was still inaccessible. A lot of people probably feel Margaret’s pain when she says:
It puts me in a position to have to be the bitchy, crabby…pushy disabled person that nobody likes or wants to deal with because they want disabled people to be nice, and smiley, and get along, and not make waves, and just go along with the program. It’s an emotional toll. I don’t know how to explain that better… Why can’t I just say this is an issue, and why can’t it be done? Why do I have to be pushed to the point of doing a lawsuit?
On another note, the liberal, upper-middle-class people behind This American Life might want to turn the microphone on themselves and consider providing more transcripts for shows (According to them: Sadly, we don’t offer transcripts for most shows. It’s an expensive service, and we don’t get nearly enough requests to justify it.). Non-hearing impaired people can listen to the episode here (roll tape at the 33:55 mark).