Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Dueling Accessibility Stories

Diagram showing accessibility measurements of wheelchair user reach ranges at sink
Matt McKinney, Minneapolis Star Tribune - May 18, 2015

Kate Ross, Minneapolis Star Tribune - May 19, 2015

I applaud the Minneapolis Star Tribune for giving space to “both” sides of an accessibility debate.

Accessibility diagram showing wheelchair turning radiiIt does seem like objectively, what’s going on with this “non-profit” is pretty shady … suing businesses for ADA violations as their main source of funding. I can imagine an organization doing something similar in a more productive way. If they chose their targets with more care, restricted them to larger, better resourced businesses, or offered settlements involving ADA compliance rather than just cash payments. Apart from the possibility of being a straight-up ripoff, it seems like the people running this organization have the kind of tunnel vision you sometimes see in disability activists, where they literally don’t perceive how the general public views the issue. It’s one thing to decide you don’t care, and pursue what’s right no matter the consequences. It’s another thing entirely to assume everyone will understand, because how could they not?

On the other hand, it’s worth wondering whether the business owners profiled in the first article are truly innocent victims, whether they are woefully ignorant of the ADA, or maybe just don’t give a damn about accessibility. Is this guy closing his bowling alley because he can’t afford to run it anymore due to the lawsuit, or is it out of spite? Maybe he was going to close it anyway, and he’s using the occasion to give a public “f-you” to people he sees as whiny busybodies.

Diagrams showing restroom accessibility designs
The second article, published the next day, reminds readers that accessibility is a real issue, and that continued failure to make a business accessible 25 years after the law passed is a violation of the law. We may question the motives of the plaintiffs, but that has nothing to do with the guilt or innocence of the defendants.

I also found it interesting that the second article is by a young woman who had a short-term disability. In fact, her arguments are the usual, standard, pro-accessibilty material. They read like she has just done some research on a new subject for her … which seems to be the case exactly. Her editorial also brought up those old frustrations a lot of disabled people feel when a “newbie” describes their shock to discover that accessibility is still a problem today. Sometimes it seems like we disabled can repeat our complaints forever, but it doesn’t sink in until a non-disabled, temporarily disabled, or newly disabled person “discovers” the issue. In this case, that’s okay, because this article coming a day after the first serves a valuable purpose, in just the right way.
Diagram showing side reach ranges for wheelchair user

As far as I’m concerned, this is the issue. The Americans with Disabilities Act has been federal law for almost 25 years. I can’t imagine a single business, program, facility, or government entity that can legitimately excuse lack of accessibility by claiming ignorance. All of the facts and information you need to comply are freely available on the Internet. If you care enough to spend an hour browsing, you can at least figure out what you need to do. It takes a little more thought and consultation to decide how to proceed, but that’s pretty easy, too.

Suing businesses for personal gain or punitive fines isn’t the best way to do advocacy, in my opinion. On the other hand, I don’t feel sorry for any of the businesses that find themselves targeted, if they are, in fact, not accessible. There’s been plenty of time and opportunity do fix this. Just get on with it.