Businesses in south Florida are quickly learning that discriminating against the disabled will not be tolerated, as thousands of lawsuits have been filed to make them ADA-compliant.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been on the books for more than 23 years, now. The purpose of these laws is to create more broad and widespread accessibility for people living with disabilities, to prevent discrimination, and to enable people with disabilities to have better access to general goods and services, so they can live more normal and independent lives. Examples of the changes wrought by the ADA include accessibility ramps outside of stores for people who use wheelchairs, and handicapped signs and parking spaces.
Unfortunately, not everyone agrees with the act, and some choose to simply defy it. Over the past few years in Florida, thousands of lawsuits have been filed against businesses who choose to ignore the ADA. Many of those sued decry the lawsuits as frivolous, while those on the other side claim that there is no other way to actually enforce the law, since there are no criminal penalties in place for failing to comply.
Farmer Girl Restaurant owner Peter Roubekas says of the lawsuit, “all of a sudden I get these papers filed to me like I am a criminal. I had to move the toilet 2-3 inches. I had to move the sinks. They make it an issue because it’s two inches too high.” He points out a parking space for disabled people and says, “This is the area they say is not level. This is really picky things they find wrong with it.”
In an effort to come into compliance, Roubekas spent $12,000 making it easier to access the bathroom, dining area, and parking lot. He even hired an expert who told him that he is compliant, but Roubekas says he’s still been challenged with claims of discrimination for the salad bar being too tall.
The source of the lawsuit is David Ramnarine of West Palm Beach. Ramnarine has been disabled since 1990 following a bout with cancer. He uses a wheelchair to get around town, and he’s filed 59 discrimination suits against Florida businesses in the past three years. Ramnarine’s attorney claims that this is a minute number of suits when compared with the number of places at which Ramnarine must deal with discrimination every day.
Those who support the lawsuits, such as disability advocate Joe Houston, say that these suits are the only way to get businesses to comply with the ADA. Houston’s team alone has filed 148 lawsuits in south Florida over the past three years. Houston refers to himself as a “tester” who looks for ADA violations. While he says that he doesn’t go to businesses strictly to sue, he does keep his eye open for violations. “Being a tester, it’s like a light goes on when you see something that’s right,” he says.
Though Houston has been called a “serial plaintiff,” he insists the he doesn’t actually decide who sees a lawsuit. “I tell the lawyers what I encounter, and they take it from there,” he says.
Houston was paralyzed in a car crash from the chest down at the age of 18. And while Roubekas claims that people like Houston are just in it for the money, Houston points out that the average settlement in these cases, around $10,000, goes entirely to the lawyers and experts—he makes little to nothing off of any suit. “It’s a tough job,” he says, “because I don’t get paid.”
For a man like Houston, who is unable to use many bathrooms and has a difficult time even with doorknobs and faucets, the lawsuits are an important means of curbing discrimination. He says of his own problems, “Because I couldn’t use [a public bathroom], I have to go and find and duck out behind the store to relieve myself. I have no other choice. You gotta go.”
Experts point out to businesses that, while improving a space to meet disability standards can be expensive, there are grants available to defer some of those costs. Watch the story that aired on a south Florida TV station. What do you think of Houston’s “testing” methods?