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It's Not 'Profiteering' to Sue Businesses for Americans With Disabilities Act Violations

The New York Times recently published a long-form investigative piece entitled The Man Who Filed More Than 180 Disability Lawsuits: Is it profiteering — or justice? The story pitted so-called serial ADA plaintiffs, including Albert Dytch, a man with muscular dystrophy who uses a power wheelchair, against small business owners who believe they are being unfairly burdened by ADA regulations and lawsuits for non-compliance. The article went on to suggest that receiving compensation for experiencing disability discrimination is “profiteering.” But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The article accurately clarifies that the ADA was intentionally written to limit incentives to file lawsuits. But that rendered the law mostly toothless, so states passed legislation to fill the gap. The vast majority of so-called serial ADA plaintiffs are collecting damages under state laws, including a California law called the Unruh Civil Rights Act which allows for damages of up to $4000 per accessibility barrier. The article fails to point out that this Act also entitles Californians to collect damages based on other forms of discrimination, including race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion. Disabled plaintiffs are not getting extra perks, they are members of a marginalized group seeking justice along with people of color, women, LGBTQIA+ folks, and more.

Living with a disability is expensive. We often have high medical bills, and many of our needs aren’t covered by insurance, such as personal care aides and some forms of mobility equipment. However, healthcare disparities aren’t the only financial burden we face. ADA violations regularly cost us substantial amounts of money and force us to miss out on experiences non-disabled people usually take for granted. Here are just a few examples of significant financial and personal costs people with disabilities incur due to businesses not complying with the ADA.

Because a corner store is violating the ADA by not installing a ramp for one step, a person with a mobility disability must travel further to do their shopping, which costs them time, gas money, bus or taxi money, and/or delivery fees.

Because a venue is violating the ADA by not having accessible seating, a person with a disability will miss out on events such as concerts and class reunions.

Because a restaurant manager is violating the ADA by denying entry to customers with service dogs, a person with a disability can’t enjoy a date or meal with friends.

Because a hotel is violating the ADA by not reserving accessible rooms when they are booked, a traveler with a disability can’t use the toilet or shower after a 12-hour drive.

Because a university is violating the ADA by not making important buildings on campus accessible, a student with a disability has limited educational opportunities, or must attend a more expensive university further from home that is accessible.

Because a company is violating the ADA by not hiring qualified applicants after they show up for an interview with a mobility aid, a worker with a disability can’t get a job.

Because a business is violating the ADA by not allowing reasonable accommodations at work, an employee with a chronic illness or disability must suffer in extreme pain, quit their job, or be fired.

Every example above has happened to me — not just once, but multiple times, and in some cases so many times that I’ve lost count. I’ve had to move, had vacations ruined, been verbally abused, gone days without a shower, been unemployed and underemployed, and spent a fortune on items and services I wouldn’t need if the world was accessible. If I had $4000 for every time I’ve experienced significant disability discrimination, I’d be sipping Mai Tais on a beach right now.

Despite more than a few scaremongering media reports warning about ADA lawsuits, as a travel blogger, I still encounter businesses all over the country with blatant ADA violations like a step at the front entrance or a bathroom stall that’s too small to fit a wheelchair. I’ve never found an attorney to take on any of these companies, and the few I’ve spoken to are already overloaded with cases. There are not thousands of lawyers just waiting to pounce on mom-and-pop shops with countertops an inch too high — but there are thousands of businesses perpetuating substantial discrimination against one in four Americans more than 30 years after a law was passed to protect us.

When businesses complain about the supposed high cost of ADA accessibility, they forget how quickly modifications will pay for themselves. Consider a small local market with a step at the entrance. Let’s say they spend $2000 to install a ramp — which they can deduct from their taxes. This gains them one customer who uses a wheelchair… just one. Doesn’t sound impressive, right? But he shops every week and spends $100 each time. With that customer, they’ll cover the cost of their ramp in new profits within the year. And chances are, he won’t be the only new shopper. Parents with strollers, people on crutches with temporary injuries, and elderly folks will also visit the store when before they might have gone somewhere else. Accessibility is a human right, and it helps everyone.

Every inaccessible business, from large corporations to tiny corner stores, represents a lost opportunity for people with disabilities to work, shop, socialize, eat, and live our lives without impediment. Every extra expense resulting from inaccessibility and discrimination contributes to the high poverty rate in our community and prevents us from reaching our full potential. Yet when people with disabilities have the audacity to assert our rights and seek financial compensation for what has been done to us, we are accused of “profiteering.”

Politicians push for “curing period” laws that would give businesses a warning and time to fix ADA violations before they could be sued — for breaking a 1990 law. We are told that we should try asking a business nicely to make their facilities and services accessible, even though there’s nothing nice about being unable to eat or shop or enjoy an event because of discrimination. We are tired of being expected to be grateful for a narrow bathroom with rails we can’t fit into or a ramp that looks like a cliff because “at least they tried.” Many of us do approach businesses politely about accessibility, but far too often, they refuse to make the needed changes, leaving us with no choice but to file a state or federal complaint, or go to the media. It’s been more than 30 years — they’ve had enough time to comply with the law.

Despite the Americans With Disabilities Act, the rights of disabled Americans are still routinely violated. Most of us will never get our day in court, but those who have the means and support to file lawsuits are fighting for us all. And if they manage to recoup a fraction of the losses our community has experienced, more power to them. It’s not profiteering — it’s justice.

Getty image by Raul Mellado.