BYLINE: Juan Castillo email@example.com American-Statesman Staff
A state advocacy group for people with disabilities said Thursday it is suing the City of Austin and more than two dozen businesses in the city and across the state, accusing them of discriminating against people with disabilities by denying them access to public amenities.
The lawsuits in Austin are directed at signature facilities that are ingrained in the city’s unique culture and that people with disabilities can’t fully enjoy, the plaintiffs said. They said the lawsuits were timed to coincide with the 22nd anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act , and that they seek compliance with the law and aim to build a city culture of inclusiveness for all.
“Let’s keep Austin weird, but above all, let’s make Austin an inclusive community,” said Joe Berra, an attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project, which filed the suits on behalf of several plaintiffs. Adapt of Texas, an advocacy group for people with disabilities, joined in the lawsuits.
“The (law) should not be an afterthought or a burden for architects, designers, developers and city planners,” Berra said. “It is a moral imperative to make our community inclusive.”
The civil rights project said it filed 32 lawsuits in Austin, Houston, Burleson, Longview, El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley by the end of Thursday and expects to file one more suit in Austin on Monday.
The lawsuits name 12 defendants in Austin, Berra said.
Lawsuits against the City of Austin accuse it of failing to provide accessible parking in the downtown business and entertainment districts – specifically on Sixth Street, as well as on South Congress Avenue – and of failing to provide accessible routes and ramps throughout its trail system, equal access to pools, and adequate signs to alert people with disabilities to accessible paths and entrances in city parks.
“The City of Austin has yet to be served with this lawsuit; however, we are continuously working to ensure Austin is a livable city for all of our residents,” the city’s Law Department said in a statement Thursday.
At a news conference held on the sidewalk in the 1500 block of South Congress Avenue, Jennifer McPhail with Adapt of Texas, described her difficulties gaining access to the city’s hike-and-bike trails and to Deep Eddy Pool.
“We’ve been patient long enough. I want access to the trail just like anyone else,” said McPhail, who uses a wheelchair and is a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits against the city.
Watching the news conference from her wheelchair-accessible van, a plaintiff in another lawsuit, Doris Standlee, said she was there to show the inaccessibility of parking in the South Congress area, which is lined with restaurants and eclectic shops. Even if she were to find an empty parking space, her wheelchair ramp would lead right into a street curb, she pointed out.
“I can’t even imagine being inside one of these shops,” Standlee said.
One suit targets the Statesman Capitol 10K, which is run by the Austin American-Statesman. In the lawsuit, plaintiff Robert Menard , who uses a wheelchair, objected to what he said was a requirement that would-be participants in wheelchairs prove that they have completed a 10K race in less than 50 minutes, as well as a rule allowing only use of racing wheelchairs, which Menard said he could not afford. He said the rules discriminated against him and prevented his participation in the 2012 race.
Eddie Burns, vice president, chief financial officer and business manager for the Statesman, said the newspaper had not been served with the lawsuit and did not have a comment.
Other lawsuits named local restaurants, cab and bus companies and large retailers.
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