Disability activists are suing the State of Michigan and other local governments for violating building requirements, saying in a federal complaint that they do not have “simple access” to courtrooms and offices throughout the state. The lawsuit focuses on the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center in downtown Detroit, arguing that the building lacks “disability-accessible, barrier-free” amenities.
“Until recently, the disability community hasn’t been centered in discussions about serving people with disabilities,” Ashley Jacobson, an attorney specializing in disability services, tells WDET. “I’m hopeful that through our case and through some of the awareness that it garners, other buildings, other institutions and entities will follow suit and wind up making their buildings more inclusive enough to code.”
Jacobson is joined by Jaime Junior and Jill Babcock as plaintiffs in the case. In their capacity as attorneys and disability rights activists, the three claim Michigan government buildings fail to accommodate their wheelchair use and other physical disabilities as required in the Americans with Disabilities Act and state statutes.
The violations listed are extensive, focusing on poorly designed ramps and sidewalks at building entrances, heavy doors, improper signage and insufficient space at parking drop-off areas. The lawsuit also refers to a “palpable, egregious, and pernicious violation” to have accessible bathrooms readily and equally available in government buildings.
As an example, the lawsuit states accessing the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center’s only ADA-compliant bathrooms can take “20 or more minutes” from most floors and requires users to go to the building’s basement. The facility houses Detroit City Council sessions, Third Circuit Courtrooms, mayoral offices and several Wayne County services. According to the lawsuit, about 760 people with disabilities visit the building every day.
“Unfortunately, even though the laws have been on the books for decades, this is a problem throughout the state,” says Michael Bartnik, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in the class action civil rights lawsuit.
Bartnik says the goal is to get a federal court order to force changes at all violating government buildings, like the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice near Greektown and the Michigan State Capitol. Such a judgment would have broad application in Michigan, where according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 2 million adults live with disabilities, accounting for one in every four people living in the state.
WDET spoke with Jacobson and Bartnik regarding the lawsuit. Read an excerpt of our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity, below.
Eli Newman, WDET: How did you come to bring about this lawsuit?
Ashley Jacobson: I spoke on a panel about disability rights a few months ago. We were discussing the issues that a lot of attorneys with disabilities face when we represent our clients in courts and the inaccessibility. One of the issues that was raised was about the lack of accessible restrooms in some of the court buildings and public buildings. That’s how I got involved with this case.
There is a specificity in this lawsuit about bathrooms. Can you elaborate about the ways that they are deficient in serving the disability community?
Jacobson: When you don’t have proper access to a restroom, you’re having to plan out additional time because if the only accessible restroom is a 10 to 15 minute journey to one accessible stall in a dark corner of a basement, like it is in the Coleman A. Young Building here, that is a major concern. And for me, a lot of my clients have disabilities as well. They want to make sure that if they need to, like myself, adjust medical devices, access medical equipment, be able to physically reach the hand soap dispensers, which is also an issue in this building. They need to be able to do that in order to seek justice and also access resources that are available to non-disabled people.
This lawsuit does have a particular focus on the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, but it does also outline other buildings and other facilities where these kinds of violations might be going on. How extensive do you think these violations are?
Michael Bartnik: Unfortunately, even though the laws have been on the books for decades, even though Congress has stated a purpose since the 1970s, and our state legislature since the 1960s, that individuals with physical disabilities are absolutely entitled to the same civil rights and to the same access of services and the same access to buildings, this is a problem throughout the state.
There are many buildings in various parts of the state, different counties, different cities, where they have brought their buildings up to code or the building is recent enough that it is up to code. But the buildings that have been around for a while or even buildings that have been recently constructed do not always comply, even though the law is very clear that they are required to comply and to spend the money to get them up to code.
Jacobson: Until recently, the disability community hasn’t been centered in discussions about serving people with disabilities. And there was also a lack of awareness that wasn’t there prior to the emergence of social media. And so for individuals like myself and other disabled people, being able to connect with the disability community online has been really beneficial because we’ve been able to share what our rights are, share with parents of kids with disabilities what they can enforce in schools and communities. I’m hopeful that through our case and through some of the awareness that it garners that other buildings, other institutions and entities will follow suit and wind up making their buildings more inclusive enough to code.
Is it possible that a judgment in this case could also affect change in some of these other facilities?
Bartnik: Yes, that’s the precise relief that we’re asking for. A federal court judge has what’s called injunctive relief. The court has the full authority to compel various governments involved to fix their buildings and comply with the law. The answer is yes.
As I’m reading through this complaint, it strikes me that a lot of the examples that it highlights are very sensitive. We’re talking a lot about bathroom habits, things like that. And I wonder how, as one of the plaintiffs of this case, including those details makes you feel.
Jacobson: I’m definitely at an advantage because I, as part of my work, have been privileged to create my own business and law firm where I know I’m not going to discriminate against myself. I’ve worked at law offices where that was not the case, where I faced discrimination quite often. Comments about my disability. Being discouraged from using my cane during presentations because they were worried clients would think my physical disability affected my intelligence. I have been denied access to restrooms at law firms and in courts. And so out of necessity, I’ve had to advocate for myself. But also professionally, I have a lot of experience talking openly about disability including my own. So when I created my practice, I knew that I wanted to be very transparent with my clients about my own disabilities. And I’ve never once had a client see my disability as anything but an advantage to my work because I have the empathy for what many of them are going through.
I will say that it’s always vulnerable sharing details about your medical history, personal details about how your body functions, and some of the things that you need with strangers and with the media. But I’m lucky that I’ve had a lot of experience doing it. And so while it is a vulnerable and raw place to be in, I know that it’s important and I hope that my clients say to their parents or their spouse, “My lawyer has a disability like me, isn’t that cool?” That if that client wants to work in one of these buildings someday, they won’t have to face the same barriers that I did.
I will say that since we filed the suit, I’ve had other lawyers, some who I knew had disabilities and some who I didn’t know had disabilities, reached out to me and say, “I personally have had accessibility issues going to this courthouse.” I wouldn’t be surprised if more people join us, or at least raise awareness on the local level where they practice, of these issues and hopefully institute some changes. Because just as a reminder, a lot of times when you see somebody on the street or see a colleague at work, they might have a disability and you have no idea. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t entitled to certain rights in the workplace and in the community.
I’m really hopeful and I’m grateful for all of the support and all the people who have reached out since we filed.