TO THE BEST of Wayne Crosby's knowledge, nobody in a wheelchair has ever tried to enter the Christy's Market convenience store in downtown Brockton, Mass., one of several that he manages.
"But if anybody ever had trouble getting into one of my stores," he tells me, "I'd be the first one to help him in."
When one of his customers, "a very, very large lady," found the aisles too narrow to navigate, Crosby rearranged the store to accommodate her.
"I'm always looking to see what I can do for my customers. I make eye contact, try to anticipate what a customer needs. Say an old lady needs help getting to her car -- I do it. I have one lady, has a piece of glass in her brain. It causes her to have seizures sometimes. So whenever she comes in, I have somebody walk her home, just to be sure she's safe."
Crosby is telling me these things after I called to ask him about a federal lawsuit brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act that accuses his store of being inaccessible to disabled people. The suit has been filed by the Disability Law Center, a group of lawyers specializing in disability-rights litigation. It names as defendant not Crosby, but Massachusetts Treasurer Joe Malone, chairman of the state Lottery Commission. The lawyers want the lottery to order all 7,000 of its ticket agents, as a condition of keeping their licenses, to spend whatever it takes to become fully handicapped-accessible.
For reasons only the DLC lawyers can explain, they decided to single out Wayne Crosby's store. The complaint charges that his Christy's Market "is inaccessible to persons with disabilities because this business has a step at the entrance which prevents individuals who use wheelchairs from entering."
I read this accusation to Crosby. He's shocked. His store, as it happens, is accessible -- there's a ramp a few feet to the left of the door, marked in fading yellow paint with the familiar "handicapped" symbol. Evidently the DLC's lawyers don't bother to look before they litigate. But that isn't what stuns Crosby. He can't believe any customer with a problem would rather go to court to resolve it than come to him.
"To sue someone?" he asks disbelievingly. "Without even calling first to ask if we can make a change? Even someone in a wheelchair can pick up the phone to make a request. Why start a lawsuit?"
Any plaintiffs' lawyers reading this are by now laughing uproariously. What a sap, they're thinking. Doesn't Crosby know that outfits like the DLC exist to sue -- that they were formed for the express purpose of using lawsuits as blunt weapons with which to reshape society to fit their views? Doesn't he know the Americans with Disabilities Act was designed to generate massive amounts of litigation? Why does he think it was nicknamed the "Lawyers Full Employment Act?"
The ADA is a terrible law enacted with the best of intentions. Most of us are instinctively sympathetic to the hardships faced by the disabled and would like to see their lives made easier. Reasonable people also recognize that there are some activities in which the disabled, by definition, will never be able fully to take part. But the ADA proceeds from the unreasonable premise that equal access for the disabled -- which is defines so broadly as to include one-sixth of the population -- is a matter of "civil rights," and that to secure those rights, no cost or burden is too heavy to bear. Or rather, to impose.
The suit against the lottery is a case in point. If it succeeds, any tavern or convenience store wanting to sell lottery tickets will have to redesign its place of business so that no person with a disability would need help to get in or get around (as if there is something shameful about helping a human being unfortunate enough to be handicapped). And if some of these businesses can't afford the cost of a retrofit? Tough, say the DLC lawyers. And if some will go bankrupt without their income from lottery sales? Tough, say the DLC lawyers.
Odds are this lawsuit won't succeed. The ADA exempts companies with fewer than 25 employees, and while it does cover activities of a "public entity," a private business doesn't become a public entity merely by getting a license to sell lottery tickets. (Memo to the Lottery's legal eagles: Check out Tyler vs. Manhattan, 849 F.Supp. 1429 (1994).)
But this is just one case in a thundering avalanche of litigation. As often as not, the goal in these cases isn't to win in court, but to bludgeon defendants with the threat of such crushing legal costs that they agree to settle. And to the outlandishness of the demands that are being made in the name of civil rights for the disabled, there is no limit in sight.
Just ask David Freeman's ex-wife.
Freeman was the Duxbury, Mass., firefighter who beat his sleeping wife with a baseball bat, fracturing her skull in six places and nearly severing her ear. Then he beat the rap by pleading insanity. The fire department, not wanting an "insane" wife-beater on its force, dismissed Freeman. Whereupon he sued for handicap discrimination -- the disability being his insanity -- and won. The town was ordered to reinstate Freeman, complete with back pay and damages. And who were his lawyers? The Disability Law Center.
Eventually the ruling was reversed. But the case suggests just how far the disability-rights bar intends to take the ADA. A dangerous law is being exploited by stop-at-nothing zealots. It isn't going to end with the Massachusetts Lottery.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)