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“This American Life” Spotlights “Crybaby” ADA Lawsuit Filers


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.

Their summary:
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).

10 thoughts on ““This American Life” Spotlights “Crybaby” ADA Lawsuit Filers

  1. best post so far! and i like most of ’em…

    well this is such a critical issue – a daily one for us – that i hate dealing with cuz i dont always want confrontations – i cant count how many times ive heard the excuse:
    “well, we’re a small business, and it’s just soo expensive to make it accessible…”

    Margaret is spot-on – we hate having to give attitude to get our way.

    screw that. sue ’em cuz that works. but for every lawsuit im sure there are 1,000s more situations that go unheeded. ive never sued, and i deal with this almost every time i go out.

  2. thanks leonardo!

  3. NPR does not own or distribute This American Life – it’s produced by Chicago Public Radio and distributed by PRI.

    If you want to email them to tell them off (in re transcripts) or tell them they did well (in re the treatment of the ADA), go here: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/about/contact-us or web@thislife.org.

    Going to NPR will just get you a long wait and an email saying that they don’t produce the show.

  4. We have regional offices and each has contacted over 1000 non-comlpiant businesses in their respective areas with a series of three letters as notices of non-compliance. We spell out that we can get them government money, up front, to pay for their consultation fee as well as alterations. Not one, I repeat, not one has responded postitively. period! When we are forced to drag them into court we do not settle for money. Wes ettle for them using our servicde to document their violations, write construction spacifications, over see alteration implementation and certificatio. The entire cost for this is $ 499.99 for small businesses, and do not forget, the government pays for it.

    Business owners who chose to continue an illegal, wilful disregard of civil rightsw mandates are the only ones that end up paying big buck for real advocates, not drive by serial litigants.

  5. What are the names of the disabled folks who sue in Florida, Ohio, Hawaii, Colorado, Washington, Origon, Navada, Arizona,
    Texas and the rest of the states except California . These people don’t make any money from their lawsuites if anything
    it may cost them money being court fees. So it must be for
    civil rights. They are heros for the disabled, they certainly
    are not making any MONEY. ADA suers.

  6. Oooh, you’re such an inspiration. I love this blog!

  7. Thanks for the info. I plan to email this American Life and send them the photos of the cemented over wheelchair platform lift at one of the hotels I stayed at this year. I was a cry baby. I wrote numerous letters, called the corporate office, and not a single change was made. Yeah, I hate being made to look like the irritable disabled person but what can you do?

  8. Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. As a peacemaker the lawyer has superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough.

  9. There was an article in the New York Times yesterday focusing on lawyers who look for violations first, then find plaintiffs. The writer compared the phenomenon to “ambulance-chasing, with no one actually being injured.” The article is here:

    I wrote a blog post criticizing the article (one point I didn’t explore very well was the one you raised – the fact that civil litigation is really the only enforcement mechanism for the ADA) and also offering advice for other media folks (I’m also a healthcare reporter) covering disabilities issues. The post is here, and I welcome feedback/additional suggestions about covering disability issues:

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