I'm sorry, ma'am, I'm going to have to ask you to get off the ice," said the skating rink employee to my wife.
"I'm sorry ... what did I do?" my wife asked.
"No, it's not you, it's the wheelchair," he replied.
We were being asked to leave because our son Zane was in a wheelchair on the ice.
Zane was born with Emanuel Syndrome, a rare disorder that has left him deaf and developmentally disabled. At age ten he was just learning to walk and relied on a wheelchair to get around. As a result of his disabilities, Zane rarely has opportunities to socialize with other children his age. He lights up when other kids are around, but there aren't many things he can do that other kids enjoy.
A few years ago, we discovered the local ice rink when we went there for a special event with a group of disabled kids. We were thrilled to have found something Zane could do with other children his age. He joined the other kids as we pushed his wheelchair across the ice. A few weeks later, we invited two girls from Zane's school and their mother to join us for some Saturday ice skating at the rink.
The first 15 minutes were a huge success. Zane loved being with his new friends. But before we had made one circuit of the rink, we were asked to leave. We then spoke to a supervisor - and then to the supervisor's supervisor - and all three employees told us the same thing: Wheelchairs are not allowed on the rink. My wife and I grew increasingly angry and overwhelmingly sad that Zane would lose this opportunity for fun with friends. Ultimately, we decided to leave the rink.
As a litigator and the parent of a disabled child, I'm quite familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act. I primarily practice patent litigation, but I've worked on disability lawsuits on behalf of pro bono clients and, when necessary, on behalf of my son.
I have seen firsthand the good that disability litigation can accomplish. One of my proudest moments as a lawyer was winning a Medicaid appeal for a six-year-old girl, obtaining a communication device for her so she could talk to her mother and teachers for the first time. In 2008 I successfully represented my son in reversing his school district's policy prohibiting mobility devices, including walkers
Even so, I'm concerned that disability lawsuits often create hostility that undermines the ADA's purpose, alienating disabled people from the community instead of integrating them. For example, my neighborhood in San Francisco saw a small rash of ADA lawsuits two years ago, resulting in a series of articles in local media about a "scourge" of "predatory" disabled "hustlers." A store around the corner even posted a diatribe against the ADA on its door as it closed down for good. Nevertheless, I was grateful when the lawsuits led to most neighborhood merchants becoming ADA-compliant. Access, however, came at a cost: Now we were not just neighbors with a kid in a wheelchair; we were a threat - a looming lawsuit.
So when we were ejected from the rink, I felt ambivalent about what steps to take next. As a litigator, I considered a lawsuit. And as a parent, I wanted to fight for my son. But I was reluctant to add to the growing resentment. That Saturday night, after we got home, I researched the owners of the rink and wrote them a letter. Then I went on Facebook.
On Sunday morning I created a Facebook "cause" page titled "Let Zane Skate!" By Monday morning hundreds of people had joined our cause. Our family then appeared on the local TV news and radio stations. Within a week, the skating rink agreed to allow wheelchairs, to retrain its employees, and to post signs welcoming disabled patrons. Social media had solved the problem far faster than a lawsuit, and with much better results. Instead of increased resentment, our community responded with empathy.
Alas, this approach won't work for most accessibility disputes. Some businesses will never comply without the threat of an ADA lawsuit. But I'm gratified to know that tools such as social media can complement litigation, even for someone who usually loves a good fight.
Dan Robinson is an associate in the San Francisco office of Covington & Burling.