Modesto Hernandez, a wheelchair user due to the effects of polio, is taking a stand against businesses that fail to accommodate the special needs of patrons with disabilities. Hernandez has filed more than 12 accessibility lawsuits against numerous New York shopping centers and locations including the Bronx Zoo, Cross County Shopping Center, the Nanuet Mall, and most recently the Midway Shopping Center in Scarsdale and Tanglewood Shopping Center in Yonkers. Hernandez’s lawsuit claims the establishments violated New York’s Civil Rights Law and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and his complaints mirror those of millions of persons with disabilities: curbs or walkways that are not designed for wheelchair use, counters and rails that are too high, and inaccessible parking for people with disabilities on excessively sloped ground, to name a few.
Hernandez is one of millions of people all over the U.S. who are exercising their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and holding businesses accountable for not providing adequate access for persons with disabilities. His lawsuits seek changes or modifications to improve accessibility and unspecified damages plus attorney’s fees. Plaintiffs involved in these types of lawsuits hope to send the message to businesses to bring their establishment up to code and make them accessible for all persons, regardless of their physical ability.
The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, local and state government, transportation, telecommunications, commercial facilities and public accommodations. Accessibility lawsuits have been on the rise in recent years. Oregon, Florida, Hawaii and California are considered “hot bed” states for accessibility lawsuits. California recently proposed Senate Bill 783, legislation that would give Californian businesses some relief from abusive accessibility lawsuits.
There’s a fine line, however, between a person having a legitimate complaint and a person being nit-picky. Defendants in accessibility lawsuits feel plaintiffs and their attorneys are abusing the ADA laws to make a profit. The plaintiffs insist they are acting on behalf of all persons with disabilities and doing their part to make all places accessible for everyone. Despite increased awareness of the needs of persons with disabilities, too many businesses and other establishments still lack adequate facilities to accommodate such persons. Furthermore, many of these establishments are reluctant to incur the expense to make the necessary changes. In many cases, change only comes when a business is sued.
Hernandez’s attorney insists that his client is not just going around looking for businesses to pick on. Hernandez’s job as a wheelchair repairman takes him all over the country making house calls and deliveries. If he notices a problem with accessibility at any particular place he visits, he calls his attorney.
One defendant has gotten the message and is taking corrective action. The Bronx Zoo agreed to 84 changes at their entrances, restrooms, signage, parking lots, and animal exhibits. The changes include installing accessible tables in the Terrace Cafe, lowering a handrail in the reptiles exhibit, and redesigning paths at the Tiger Mountain exhibit to reduce changes in level.
Will more architects and designers continue making accessibility a primary consideration when designing buildings and structures, so there will be less accessibility lawsuits in the future? What is your opinion of Hernandez and other plaintiffs like him bringing suit against frequented establishments? Is this the right way to go about bringing about accessibility to all–by having lawyers direct businesses to comply–or should these changes be left to established officials, like public health authorities? Weigh in here and let us know!