Advocating for 'tough issues': ADA enforcement often falls to people with disabilities

“Especially in the more rural communities, there aren’t too many people that are willing to file any complaint,” said Randy Sorensen, executive director at Options, an East Grand Forks nonprofit that aims to help people with disabilities live as independently as possible.

Carla Tice, left, with Tricia Kennedy of Self-Advocacy Solutions, demonstrate the challenges people with disabilities face navigating winter sidewalks.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

An East Grand Forks man claims a business there discriminated against him because of his disability and has filed a complaint with the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice and with Minnesota’s Department of Human Rights.

Mohamed Mohamed, an imam and the director of the East Grand Forks Islamic Center, claims a worker – a self-described owner – at a Dairy Queen on Central Avenue declined this summer to read the restaurant’s menu to him. The worker then wondered why Mohamed was driving when he had a visual disability and then, Mohamed claims, said people who are legally blind cannot drive in the United States and allegedly told him to learn how to read.

“Thousands of such incidents occur everyday in our country,” Mohamed wrote on Facebook shortly afterward.

One of the restaurant's two owners declined to comment on Friday.

Mohamed has congenital nystagmus, a condition he was born with that makes his eyes shake involuntarily. It renders him legally blind but, he’s quick to point out, doesn’t mean he’s literally blind or incapable of driving.


“Legally blind is a spectrum,” Mohamed told the Herald, noting that he has passed a Minnesota driving test. “Where I am right now, I can drive during the day, but I can’t see standard print, I can’t read far distance. Basically, for me to be able to read print, it has to be read to me or has to be … really large.”

The complaint Mohamed filed with the federal government alleges, in effect, that the restaurant violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, a law enacted in 1990 that bars public and private entities – governments, businesses, nonprofits and so on – from discriminating against people with disabilities. Title III of the act obligates most businesses that are open to the public to make the business accessible to people with disabilities.

“While businesses aren’t required to do anything that would cause them undue burden, they are required to make reasonable modifications,” Tammy Pettinato Oltz, an assistant UND law professor who has taught disability law, told the Herald. “When a customer has a hearing or visual impairment, restaurants should be prepared to make adjustments to ensure they can communicate effectively with the customer. This might include writing things down or providing other visual aids for someone who is hearing impaired. For the visually impaired, this could include having an employee read the menu or providing another way to access it, like a pre-made audio recording or a braille menu.”

Mohamed said he hasn’t heard back from the federal government apart from a message confirming it had received his complaint. He said he spoke to the state government about a month ago and staff there told him they were still working on the complaint he lodged with them.

Enforcement of the disabilities act, which is commonly abbreviated as the “ADA,” generally happens via federal lawsuits or complaints like Mohamed’s. That means it often falls to disabled people to know and, in effect, enforce the law themselves, according to Herald interviewees.

“Especially in the more rural communities, there aren’t too many people that are willing to file any complaint,” said Randy Sorensen, executive director at Options, an East Grand Forks nonprofit that aims to help people with disabilities live as independently as possible. “We’ll have people call us and talk about complaints or things we should follow up on, but … we need a person with a disability that actually wants to put their name on the line. And that’s where it really gets tough with ADA and trying to ensure that people’s rights aren’t being infringed upon.”

That ultimately can cause a contentious relationship between people with disabilities and business owners, according to Oltz, because small businesses might not know there’s a problem with their services until someone complains or sues.

“A better method for everyone,” Oltz said, “would involve more proactive government enforcement through inspections and the opportunity for businesses to correct minor issues before facing a lawsuit or other penalty.”


Winter mobility is difficult

There are other challenges for people with disabilities in the Grand Cities, especially in the winter.

Tricia Kennedy uses a motorized wheelchair to get around, and she finds that many property owners don’t properly clear snow and ice from their sidewalks. The same is true, Kennedy reported, for many of the small ramps – sometimes called “curb cuts” – that connect a sidewalk to the street. That means she often travels in the street itself.

“It’s dangerous,” Kennedy said. She pulls over when she hears a car behind her.

Public transit is, of course, an option, but bus stops aren’t immune from snowfall. Kennedy calls the city to report stops and sidewalks that are tricky to traverse – the follow-through there is sometimes fine and sometimes not, she reported – and she’s met regularly with city transit staff to go over concerns people with disabilities might have.

Grand Forks and East Grand Forks also offer a shared “dial-a-ride” system that can take certain people from place to place somewhat like a taxi cab, which can hedge against the hazards presented by snowy bus stops. But that service requires booking a trip at least one day in advance, and waits like that don’t accommodate spontaneous outings or quick-turn changes in plans, interviewees said.

Still, Kennedy and Carla Tice, a coworker of Kennedy’s at Self-Advocacy Solutions, a Grand Forks-based nonprofit, offered a broadly positive review of the city’s accessibility. Kennedy graded the city as a whole at approximately an 80 out of 100, and said it is “above average” because Grand Forks City Hall staff keep working on sidewalks, curb cuts and other accessibility issues. Tice’s score was about 65.

“Accessibility means a lot of things, not just physical ability,” she said. “I think there needs to be some more acceptance of people. ... There needs to be more education to let people know that some of their ideas of what people with disabilities do and how they live and everything else needs to change. ... I think we need to work harder to make sure that we’re more inclusive.”

Kennedy added that people with disabilities need support and equal access to housing, education, voting, employment and so on.


"We all want the same thing," she wrote. "To have opportunity and be treated equally. Along with that, we, like everyone, deserve respect. When we advocate for tough issues we want people to take us seriously and work together to make the change needed for a better community."

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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