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Rights of People with Disabilities: Practical Advice from Sid Wolinsky

Story by Bob Waxman, photos by Peter Sussman and Nancy Rubin

On Thursday afternoon, October 18th, Ashby Village Members and Volunteers were honored with a talk by Sid Wolinski, legendary attorney and champion of disability rights.  In 1993, Sid and Larry Paradis, founded Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) where Sid is currently the Managing Director. Before that he was Director of Litigation and co-founder of Public Advocates, Inc. and the first Director of Litigation of the San Francisco Neighborhood Legal Assistance Foundation. Sid has twice been a Senior Fulbright Scholar (Hungary in 1993 and Malaysia in 1981) and has been an adjunct guest lecturer at Boalt Hall School of Law, Hastings College of the Law and King Hall at UC Davis. In 2011, he was the recepient of the California State Bar’s Loren Miller Award, a Lifetime Achievement Award for public interest legal services. Prior to pioneering litigation to enforce and expand the rights of the disabled, Sid, like many of his peers, worked in a traditional corporate practice in Beverly Hills, quitting soon after making partner. Ever since, he has been actively engaged in using the law as a tool to advocate for the rights of the disabled and the underserved.

As one might imagine, Sid’s career has been long and storied. Nonetheless, Sid wasted little time recounting personal war stories, concentrating instead on some of the recent accomplishments achieved by his firm, both here in the Bay Area and elsewhere.  Notably, DRA represents virtually no individual plaintiffs.  Instead, DRA brings class actions, representing plaintiffs as a class. In other words, DRA represents groups of people similarly affected by the conduct of defendants, usually large corporations or public entities in violation of the law that protects the rights of the disabled, generally the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), passed in 1990. The firm almost never brings suits for damages. Instead, it seeks to fix problems such as providing services that before had not existed, or expanding access to facilities that have been denied. It is probably the only major firm in the country to bring class actions on behalf of the disabled, having 38 lawyers in its Berkeley office at Center and Milvia, and 8 lawyers in its office in Manhattan. Notably, Larry Paradis who cofound DRA with Sid in 1993 was himself disabled from a genetic condition known as Gaucher’s Disease which left him with extremely fragile bones and using a wheelchair. Larry passed away in 2016. Many of the lawyers and other people who work at DRA are also disabled. But while wheelchair users comprise a significant number of people served by the DRA, it addresses issues that affect all people who must grapple with limited functions, whether ambulatory, manual, visual, cognitive or anything else.

Many people, whether handicapped or not, would think that the passage of the ADA would have “solved” the lion’s share of the problems faced by those who are handicapped in some fashion. Quite the opposite is true. BART has elevators in their stations thanks to a lawsuit brought by the DRA. Likewise, a suit had to be brought to provide better maintenence of the elevators. In New York City, 73% of the stations are not handicap accessible. The first suit filed by the DRA in NYC was to expand elevator service in the subway. When Sid recently visited a NYC station that finally enjoyed elevator service thanks to one of the DRA’s suits, he expected the elevator would be filled with the disabled. In fact, it included mothers with strollers and travelers struggling with suitcases, demonstrating the broad social benefits under the ADA to be enjoyed by people by people of all abilities. Recently, the DRA filed its third lawsuit against UBER.  And in New York City, only 1/3 of all taxicabs are handicapped accessible. Lawsuits have already been brought to make cabs accessible for walker and wheelchair users.  Sid estimated that New York City in general is 75% inaccessible.

In addition, there is currently a lot of effort to enforce the rights of people with visual and auditory impairment. New York City has 13,400 intersections but only 110 are controlled by audible pedestrian systems.  Another major issue that is being addressed is the necessity to serve the handicapped in disaster planning. Oakland now has a Disaster Plan to accommodate those who are hard of hearing, blind, of limited cognitive ability or have diabetes. Amazingly, many school districts in the United States lack disaster plans for children with disabilities. This is in sharp contract with the practice and policies in the UK.

Currently, SFO is handicapped accessible. O’Hare in Chicago is not. While Airports have to be handicapped accessible, airlines do not.  The ADA passed in 1990. The Air Carrier Access Act, governing handicap access for airlines, passed before that and have a more narrow set of standards. This means that handicapped persons have rights of access that start in airports and end at the entrance to the plane.

There are now efforts to judicially expand access to technology. HULU, for instance, will soon provide its users closed captioning. Cinemark, one of the largest film theater chains in the country, will soon provide closed captioned screens to each user who requests it.  Soon, technology will exist that will electronically close-caption live performances to smartphones and tablets. In addition, expanding markets in technology continue to bring down the costs of access for both providers and users.

Efforts are currently underway to expand handicapped access to Assisted Living Developments. (Yes, as hard as it may be to believe, the absence of access in “assisted living units” remain a troublesome area for noncompliance with the ADA.) While improvements to technology hold promise to expand access, much tough work in litigation and even tougher work in legislation remains to be done.

In his talk, Sid emphasized the enormous damage that a repressive judiciary can have on vindicating the rights of the disabled. The US Supreme Court and Courts of Appeal have made it increasingly difficult to bring class actions, not simply for the handicapped but for all classes of plaintiffs, and has narrowed the rules on “standing” affecting who is considered entitled to bring suit. Moreover, the US Department of Justice, which in the past has become actively involved in support of suits seeking to vindicate rights under the ADA, has been MIA in the last two years.  

It’s worth noting that the DRA and public interest firms like it depend heavily on court award attorney’s fees to fund their cases. The fees are awarded against defendants when plaintiffs are victorious. The DRA wins 97% of its cases brought to trial. And the possibility of an award of attorneys fees against a defendant becomes a source of pressure on a defendant to settle a claim out of court. Near the end of October, the DRA celebrates its 25 Year Anniversary. As a 501C corporation, DRA is also able to receive tax deductible donations. All of us, Ashby Village members and volunteers can offer a huge Thank You to Sid and his colleagues for their effort.  It’s also worth noting that Sid Wolinski is no stranger to Ashby Village. His wife is Ashby Village volunteer, Pat Kirkpatrick. Thanks to both members of this gracious partnership for their contributions to our Village.

   Sid Wolinsky 1
Sid Wolinsky

Audience members enjoying the program

Sid chats with attendees after the talk