Herald on Sunday sports editor and sailing reporter Paul Lewis with the latest goings-on in San Francisco, the host city of the 34th America's Cup.
From: Paul Lewis
To: Anyone who's interested
Subject: EMAIL FROM SAN FRANCISCO
Disabled 'police' in force
You'd better do right in San Francisco or the disabled 'police' will get you.
In the United States' most liberal city (the local paper this morning had a typical headline: 'Gay Judges No Longer A Big Issue These Days'), the rights of the disabled have come into sharp focus.
"Drive-by litigation" pursuing the rights of the disabled has become an expensive drain on small businesses not complying with disabled access rules.
Lawyers can spot easily visible infractions like toilet access, the width of doorways and pathways and the placement of door handles. Lawsuits have shocked small businesses re the need to comply with disabled access bylaws. In the past few years, hundreds have been hit with lawsuits - most are settled out of court for upwards of US$30,000; more than many can afford.
Attorney Thomas Frankovich, quoted in the San Francisco Examiner, gives an idea of the prevailing atmosphere: "I wear the badge - the sheriff is in town, that's me and that's just the way it is. I'm going to take you by the scruff of the neck to the watering trough. San Francisco has been more compliant because of litigation."
Okay, then. As of July 1, property owners have to disclose their disabled compliance (or not) but, while the disabled are getting plenty of help from 'Sheriff' Frankovich, business owners are struggling with the costs of doing like they should. One action group, launched this year to financially help businesses in one district meet requirements and avoid lawsuits, is running out of money and is asking the city council for funds.
One restaurant owner, for example, said he feared for his 30-year-old business as his bathroom was upstairs but he could not afford to close down and alter the building.
However, the city is channelling limited funds to other areas where language and unfamiliarity with disabled rights make businesses more vulnerable to legal challenges - like Chinatown. Meaning others are left exposed to the drive-by lawyers.
There's no doubt disabled rights are important and pursued all over San Francisco. Even the men's room in the America's Cup media centre has one conventional stall and one for the disabled. But you'd also hope cities that apply disabled access laws would also help businesses with the cost of compliance so that they don't go out of business, giving the disabled access to nothing at all.
Paul Lewis, Herald on Sunday sports editor
- Herald on Sunday