This piece in yesterday’s New York Times — about New York disabilities lawyers who find ADA violations, then find plaintiffs — is both fascinating and, to my view, completely backwards in its framing.
The writer notes that the plaintiffs, after responding to inquiries about suits, collect a small settlement, and then states the crux of the issue as he sees it:
“The practice has set off a debate about whether the lawsuits are a laudable effort, because they force businesses to make physical improvements to comply with the disabilities act, or simply a form of ambulance-chasing, with no one actually having been injured.” (emphasis mine)
The article includes one quote from a person with a disability, a plaintiff who admits she hasn’t actually patronized any of the businesses she sued since they modified their spaces to become ADA-compliant.
Now, the fact that the writer only includes one quote from a person with a disability isn’t necessarily the writer’s fault. People with disabilities make up the largest minority on earth, and as such are a pretty diverse bunch, with a wide array of attitudes and experiences. But like other marginalized groups, they tend to be tokenized and their voices drowned out by “experts.” I wouldn’t be surprised if Secret interviewed more than one disabled person for the story, and if the interview went a little deeper and broader. The quote he used is most relevant to this story, as it’s framed — but that, to me, is the problem.
It’s not just that Secret doesn’t explore very deeply the plaintiffs’ reasons for signing on to the lawsuit. He notes they make about $500 per lawsuit: note that the average person on SSDI collects $1,064 per month, so $500 is a lot of money to a disabled person who is not able to work. The median income of disabled workers is about half what it is for nondisabled workers. I don’t doubt that most of these plaintiffs were at least partially motivated by money; I have reason to believe most of them needed it. It’s not weird or inappropriate to suspect the motives of attorneys who seek them out, or to note (as Secret does) that the attorneys make several thousand dollars per case.
But then there is that business about nobody being hurt by a lack of accessible businesses. And then there is this:
“Suit by suit, the lawyers are forcing this tough and intensely pedestrian city, so resistant to change, to meet standards for accessibility that are more than 20 years old. In doing so, they are part of a nationwide trend: In the last year, 3,000 similar suits, including more than 300 in New York, were brought under the Americans With Disabilities Act, more than double the number five years ago. Most of the cases involve claims against businesses filed by nonemployees.”
Right now I’m on leave from a job caring for people with disabilities, almost all of them in wheelchairs (many requiring larger-than average chairs). It’s a job I can’t do right now because I hurt my left foot riding my bike, so my own mobility has been limited for the last two months, and as I’ve noted previously, my partner uses a prosthetic leg to walk, all of which add up to accessibility being something I think about more or less as a matter of course.
My caregiving job emphasized community integration, so I took people on lots of walks and transit outings in different neighborhoods in the Portland area. When that’s the crux of your work, you learn pretty quickly which sidewalks are passable and which are just slightly overgrown with hedges; you learn which sidewalks have appropriate curb cuts and which sections of the neighborhood are better traversed right on the street. You learn whose wheelchair will fit on the bus and whose won’t.
And you learn which businesses are accessible and which are not. Obviously, you avoid the latter. Planning dates — and these days, planning my own forays into the community — requires a similar, but different, set of calculations about what’s accessible and what isn’t.
What I’m getting at is that if you write that no one is being hurt by a lack of accessibility, you’re right, but only because the ambulance chaser analogy and framing is fundamentally flawed. That people with disabilities are in many cases more likely to accept segregation than to seek out — and attempt to access — businesses they know aren’t going to be accessible for them doesn’t surprise me. Nor does it surprise me that some plaintiffs have shown little interest in accessing businesses named in the claims their names were attached to. Most of us — able-bodied or not — only visit places we can get to, and where we’ll feel comfortable, and avoid places that don’t fit that category for so long they just drop off our internal map and out of our routine.
So what’s a better way to cover issues that affect people with disabilities, or other marginalized groups? Here are some things I think work. Do I do all of these things all of the time? No. There isn’t always time and there isn’t always room for the extra research in a final story, and these are guidelines, not firm rules. But here they are:
- Ask the people affected, not just the experts. I want to know why the plaintiffs in these suits signed on to them (maybe it is about money and maybe it isn’t). I want to know how accessible they think their home cities are. I want to know what they think about the ADA. People who haven’t identified themselves as experts or leaders for a cause can be tougher to reach and some are reticent to talk, but many are not and everyone is an authority on his or her own life. I also notice the story quotes none of the business owners named in these claims or investigate how smaller businesses, on the whole, have been affected by ADA. (EDIT: rereading the story just now, I notice there is a quote from an attorney who’s defended several such businesses. Not really the same thing.)
- Ask: what stereotypes am I reinforcing? What common narrative does this story fit? It’s not necessarily a bad thing if your story fits a common narrative. It’s important to know what it is, though. “Insurance companies usually cover x, but the research recommends y” is a story I write a lot. “Frivolous lawsuit” is a narrative that’s sometimes valid, but still deserves a side-eye, if you ask me. Also, the assumptions Secret and I have both made — that the lawyers in his story are exploiting disabled people — reinforce the stereotype that people with disabilities have no autonomy. That’s another reason it’s important to include their voices.
- When you’re pointing out a problem, ask: what are the alternatives? How will this affect the big picture? One of the reasons I dislike the “frivolous lawsuit” narrative is that it doesn’t ask, Why lawsuits? Why not something else? Maybe there are ways to make small businesses accessible that function as more of a carrot (like grants or loans to improve their structures) than the stick of legal claims. If not, why not? What’s been tried? If ADA is fundamentally flawed (for instance, by emphasizing legal claims, or minimizing the reward a claimant can make while their representatives clean up), what else is there? If we want a more accessible world, how do we build it?