True Activists Don’t Just “Drive-by”

Yellow file folders filled with papers. One folder is labeled "barrier."
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Here’s an unpopular opinion: Anderson Cooper’s recent coverage of “drive-by lawsuits” on 60 Minutes wasn’t nearly as egregious as many disabled people seem to believe. Such lawsuits, named for the speed and lack of warning with which they are initiated, are filed against business owners whose locations do not fully comply with the accessibility standards set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Cooper’s angle was, unfortunately, strongly slanted against the importance of adhering to the laws set forth by the ADA. But even from my vantage point as a wheelchair user and activist who fights fiercely for accessibility, I’m not fully on board with the disability community directing the majority of their anger toward Cooper. Though his reporting on these lawsuits missed the mark in multiple ways, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that Cooper exposed a major issue: there are lawyers out there undermining the hard work of activists, and the ADA itself, by recruiting disabled people to sue for even the most minor ADA violations as a money-making scheme.

Drive-by lawsuits lead to small gains in accessibility, but at what cost? One of the interviewees on 60 Minutes made this point well, noting that slapping people with lawsuits before trying to work with them to correct accessibility issues only serves to make business owners wary of the disability community. Indeed, such wariness and animosity was clearly evident in the demeanors of the business owners that Cooper interviewed.

Arguably, then, the lawyers who are supposedly working in the interest of the disability community by filing these lawsuits are actually fanning the flames of discrimination toward disabled people.

None of this is to say there weren’t glaring omissions of information in Cooper’s reporting. He should have addressed the history behind the ADA – the relentless, often unrecognized activism of people who have been fighting for full accessibility for years. And he should have covered the very real accessibility issues that millions of Americans still encounter each day. John Wodatch, former chief of the Disability Rights Section of the Department of Justice, who Cooper interviewed, was absolutely correct in his assertion that since the ADA was passed in 1990, over 25 years is an excessive “grace period” for following the law. It is certainly beyond ridiculous that we’re still fighting for basic access needs so many years after the passage of the ADA. But lining the pockets of greedy lawyers shouldn’t be a first line of defense.

As such, the segment would have been more effective if it addressed alternative advocacy tactics to work with business owners for proper accessibility, acknowledging the countless advocates who are doing the work of educating business owners and providing accessibility trainings and technical assistance each day. These people should be the ones who members of the disability community turn to if they find a business to be inaccessible. If a business owner refuses to comply with the law after initial advocacy steps are taken, then that is when legal action should be considered.

After all, the right to sue for ADA violations is an important tool for the disability community, but when lawsuits are thrown around like confetti, it ultimately subverts the weight they are intended to hold.

On the whole, Cooper indeed failed to cover the issue of drive-by lawsuits in a balanced way, but I urge the disability community to think carefully about how we respond. I know how exhausting it is to live in a world where people so often cannot be bothered to follow laws meant to protect our civil rights, but I choose to view the 60 Minutes segment as an opportunity. We can use this as an opening to reach out to 60 Minutes, and to further our efforts to publicize more information on the accessibility resources and information available to business owners on local and national scales. Keep in mind that true activism leaves far more than lawsuits, bitter business owners, and a new swimming pool lift or a few extra feet for an accessible parking space in its wake.

Even if we have to painstakingly accomplish it one person or location at a time, true activism forges deeper understanding, lasting connections, open communication, and unconditional acceptance among people. And that’s how accessibility and inclusion are achieved.


Emily Ladau, Editor in Chief of the Rooted in Rights Blog, is a passionate disability rights activist. Her writing has been published on websites including The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Salon, Vice, and Huffington Post. Alongside her work as a writer, Emily has spoken before numerous audiences, ranging from a panel about the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act at the U.S. Department of Education, to the occupational therapy program at New York University. Her work can be found at wordsiwheelby.com. All of Emily’s activism is driven by her firm belief that if we want the world to be accessible to people with all types of disabilities, we must make ideas and concepts surrounding disability accessible to the world.

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3 thoughts on “True Activists Don’t Just “Drive-by”

  1. Nathan says:

    Emily, this piece was a slam job on disabled people. Yes, there are lawsuits, but Cooper went out of his way to make us look bad. There were no actual disabled lawyers in the story, In fact, the only disabled people in it were two dopes who were trying to help the lawyers make a buck. I’m sorry, I know access is a huge problem, but so is accountability of disabled people. I have Cerebral Palsy and have used a wheelchair for years. There are more important things to fight for than swimming pool lifts. I’m really tired of having to fight for a twenty six year old law and nobody really backing us up.

  2. I appreciate your thoughts, but those business owners have had 26 years to get compliant. They are breaking the law. I might have had a problem with “drive-by” lawsuits right after the passage of ADA, but I struggle to sympathize with business owners who have been flouting the law for over twenty years and complaint when they are called to account. Business owners have an obligation to learn about the regulations that apply to what they do, and complying with that is just part of overhead. A business that can’t cover its overhead is a failed business that should close its doors.

  3. reli-Abilities says:

    I appreciate your thoughts on Anderson Cooper’ 60 Minutes piece Emily. The on going history of the ADA is that it was clearly set as to require those who are disabled too carry the burden for compliance because there has never been boots on the ground evaluating and documenting the lack of architectural access at millions of public accomodations across the country. A beneficial thought and suggestion is to have bi-annual training sessions held by the DOJ OCR so the public outreach helps move the issue forward and a better understanding results. This will reap rewards and will be much better than the status quo. Or, require all states to follow the lead of Massachusetts where there has been an Architectural Access Board and promulgated rues & regultions that are based upon building code and are triggered in a handful of ways. Its a tremendous valuable resorce as I have filed over 200 complaints using 521CMR and at least 85% of those complaints have been resolved after better and safer Access & Opportunity was created all according the the relavant edition of the rules & regulations. All of the complaints I filed it was clear that the building owner or business owner had the opportunity too follow 521CMR but all too often failed to do so for a variety of reasons. The Executive Director holds numerous training sessions of the use of and applicability of 521CMR training local municipal building officials and other town/city officials. The ADA is now well over 9,200 days past and yet there are way too many building owners who raise thier hands in the air like they have no idea it was federal law. It is the buisiness or building owners responsability and I have trouble being sympathetic towards thier lack of will to fully understand the ADA and thier lack of being fully Inclusive for all potential customers

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