Last month I ate at a restaurant in the French town where Van Gogh once lopped off part of his ear. The bathroom was so small, I could barely squeeze through the door. "This," I thought, "is what it is like without the Americans With Disabilities Act." That's the law most people equate with public bathrooms bigger than the bedroom I once had in Manhattan. The changes the ADA brought about here will soon work their way through Europe, because of the United Nations' Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, an international treaty based on the ADA. To date, 125 countries have signed on. In 2012, the United States Senate voted down ratification. Last month, former Senate leader Bob Dole rolled himself onto the floor of the Senate in a wheelchair to plead for passage, but the top Republican on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations announced Dec. 20 he would still oppose it.
I've been out of the country. But I still followed in our local news media the ruckus Eureka attorney Jason Singleton raised by going after local businesses for failure to comply with the ADA. Porter Street Barbecue in Arcata closed after Singleton filed suit against the restaurant for failure to provide adequate access for people with disabilities. The restaurant argued that it could barely survive as it was and it couldn't afford the upgrades needed to comply. The news media painted Singleton as Public Enemy No. 1 and treated the loss of the restaurant as a tragic event.
That reminded me of a man I once knew. In my late teens I worked in my dad's take-out deli in New York. Once a week, I'd fill a bag with cooked foods and assorted groceries and take it two blocks to a customer who lived on the second floor of a building with no elevator. He was a war veteran who couldn't walk. He never left his apartment. How could he? Even if he had an elevator in that building, sidewalks had no cut curbs. Many of the stores in that neighborhood had doors too thin for wheelchairs. That was before the ADA.
Without the force of the law, cities had no incentive to provide access for disabled people, who made up too small a portion of the voting bloc to matter. Without the law, businesses would find upgrades for disabled access an unnecessary cost. Really, how many people in wheelchairs ever went to them anyway?
There's the Catch-22. If I can't get through your door, I won't come to your business. If your city is inaccessible to me, I won't live there unless forced to. An inaccessible business will likely have few, if any, disabled customers. A city without sufficient access will have few disabled residents. But do you want to live in a place unfriendly to disabled people?
That's the question I didn't see asked when I read the numerous articles about Jason Singleton. In a Times-Standard editorial Dec. 22 I learned that he had filed 259 ADA lawsuits against businesses since 2005. It acknowledged that those businesses should have complied with the law. But what about the businesses that can't, it asked. Or those which get the required local and state permits to operate and still get hit with a lawsuit for non-compliance of the ADA? The T-S said that the ADA was not designed to be used as an extortionist's cudgel.
But it was designed so that private citizens could take on the task of enforcement that local governments would not be able to or be willing to do. If our local governments more strictly enforced the ADA requirements when they first issued business and building permits, Singleton would have a more difficult time finding businesses to sue. Judges would be more likely to dismiss these cases summarily. When local and state governments do not enforce, the law empowers private citizens — through lawyers — to take on the enforcement themselves.
However much you find such lawyers to be obnoxious, without enforcement of this kind of law, many businesses would not spend the extra money needed to make their businesses accessible. And without it we would have a community that does not welcome people with disabilities.
If you, reading this article now, have legs and arms that work and eyes that see and ears that hear, how sure are you that you will still have them next year or the year after or the year after that? Or that your spouse or child or parent will remain able-bodied?
It is sad when a business closes because it can't afford to comply with a law like the ADA. But isn't lax enforcement of the law unfair to those businesses that do comply?
As the daughter of a small businessman, I know there are costs to doing business. If a business can't handle those costs, it shouldn't be in business. It would be nice to have more businesses in our community and more jobs. It would also be nice to know that when I need a cane or a wheelchair, I won't have to leave Humboldt to find a more accommodating place to live or wheel myself from one business to another pleading with them to make their business accessible. That's what my government is supposed to do for me. And when it doesn't, I'm glad there are people like Jason Singleton who will take on the task. I won't begrudge him the money he makes doing it.
Marcy Burstiner is chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Humboldt State University. She has been away since August. But she is back. If you want to comment on this story or let her know of some media coverage or issue you'd like her to look into, email her.