Wheelchair Users, Disability Advocates Win One for Civil Rights and Accessibility

05/25/2011 11:50 am ET

Up from NYC: A Broad's Side View

You'd think in America, in the year 2006, Americans wouldn't still have to fight for the right to get a prescription filled or to buy aspirin and greeting cards.

That's exactly what happens, every day, to the millions of Americans who are disabled, especially those with mobility impairments requiring wheelchairs. And when supermarkets, pharmacies, doctors' offices, and hundreds of other places are not made wheelchair accessible, life becomes that much harder.

Disabled in Action,a 36-year old organization comprised of and led by people with disabilities, has fought ceaselessly to obtain accessibility for everyone, and their fight, unfortunately, isn't even close to being over and won.

But today, they turned out in force in midtown Manhattan to announce a landmark settlement.

They filed a Federal civil rights lawsuit in 2001 against one of the largest pharmacy chains in NYC, Duane Reade, for inaccessibility. They were able to bring this lawsuit, in large part, because of the existence of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ADA "gives civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities similar to those provided to individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age, and religion. It guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in public accommodations, employment, transportation, State and local government services, and telecommunications," according to the government's own website on the ADA. (They also say on the website that, "Fair, swift, and effective enforcement of this landmark civil rights legislation is a high priority of the Federal Government." Anyone else laughing out loud?)

After nearly 5 years, Duane Reade finally agreed to settle the case, and it's hoped that the settlement, certainly the first of its kind to be hammered out in New York, will provide a blueprint for other large retail stores, here and across the US. (In response to one of the comments: you can find info about the settlement on this page of Disabled in Action's website.)

Marianne Engelman Lado, general counsel of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI), which represents the plaintiffs, said at today's announcement, "We think this is a win-win situation and are pleased that Duane Reade recognizes that ensuring accessibility is not only good policy, it is good business." And William McCabe, lead counsel from Ropes & Gray, LLP, one of the firms also representing Disabled in Action, added that, "Agreements like this are important because, even though it has been nearly 14 years since the ADA became effective, our clients still find that they are often denied the access to stores and other public accommodations mandated by the Act."

Jean Ryan, a plaintiff in the suit and a member of Disabled in Action also correctly pointed out, "We're customers too. We shop, we buy things and we'll be much more likely to return to a store that's easy to shop in." Someone else added that, by making a store more accessible for wheelchair users, it also makes shopping easier for people with strollers and shopping carts.

After the announcement, which was attended by at least a dozen Disabled in Action members and others in wheelchairs holding signs, I hung around and discussed other actions and lawsuits the group is taking. One woman spoke about a bus driver who wouldn't let her board a bus in the way that's safe and "usual" for her. He stopped the bus, refused to move, and had to call for a supervisor. This took 45 minutes and, during that time, some of the passengers disembarked and started screaming at the woman in the wheelchair, "you selfish bitch" and other not so compassionate things.

And yet, despite obvious mobility problems and, often, a scary lack of general understanding and compassion, the Disabled in Action members keep going; they never give up. Why should they be consigned to second class citizenship status?

They are a truly inspiring bunch, tough and determined. (How tough, you may ask? go to this page of their website to see a truly astonishing photo of a wheelchair-using demonstrator being physically carted away by police at another DIA action, wheelchair and all, fist raised.)

This event was a big reminder that we ALL need every bit of civil rights protections we can get, and that every single one of those Federal, State and other laws that uphold those rights needs to stay in place because the fight for civil rights is never, ever over.

But, at least for today, we're able to say, "Score one for the good guys."