OPINION: Villainizing the Victims
By HolLynn D’Lil
The caption under the photo of the owners of the Rio Nido Roadhouse in the Press Democrat’s (PD) article on Thursday, February 9 says it all. The owners installed a ramp for customers with disabilities in 2015. The underlying message is that they should be applauded for this action. The reporter, Paul Payne, doesn’t state that the ramp was installed 43 years after CA Health and Safety Code 19955 was passed requiring access be provided when businesses remodel. Nor that it was 25 years since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act which requires that businesses remove their barriers. No, the business owners are to be applauded for discontinuing their violations of the law, and Richard Skaff who tried to provide information to the owners on how to comply with the law is vilified by the PD.
The reporter, Paul Payne, didn’t provide the information of how long the owners have been violating state and Federal laws. Nor did he reveal that there is a $10,000 tax credit for small businesses for barrier removal. Instead, he quoted witnesses against Mr. Skaff who had to be taken to court to stop their illegal operations. Nor did he quote any of the many witnesses who supported Mr. Skaff in the trial.
Paul Payne simply didn’t do sufficient research to provide a balanced picture of the Rio Nido Roadhouse trial. He didn’t report that the witness who said she hired Skaff as an access consultant for $1,500 received seven hours of expert consultation, providing code and regulatory information so she could remove architectural barriers that prevented customers with disabilities from using her Inn. She later admitted that Skaff didn’t demand money or threaten to sue her. That same change in testimony happened with each of the hostile witnesses when questioned by Mr. Skaff’s attorneys. In every case, each said that Skaff never threatened to sue them or demand money from them. Payne omitted this important information.
Instead, Payne reports on previous lawsuits by Mr. Skaff as if they were a bad thing, and is now “turning his sights on the Rio Nido Roadhouse.” Really? These businesses which have violated state law requiring access in new construction since 1969 and when remodeling since 1972, let alone the requirements of the ADA since 1990, are the victims? What about the millions of people with disabilities who have been disenfranchised all these decades by businesses like the Rio Nido Roadhouse?
It’s this kind of biased reporting that encourages businesses to continue to violate disability civil rights laws almost a half century since their passage. It’s this kind of biased reporting that intimidates people with disabilities who don’t dare ask that their civil rights be enforced because they know they will face retaliation and humiliation by the press.
The reporter even faulted Mr. Skaff for never going inside the Roadhouse. How could he, if he couldn’t get in? Why didn’t he ask instead why it is necessary for people to sue businesses for violations of access laws that are almost five decades old? Why are the courts the only resource for compliance? Maybe he could ask why architects don’t include accessible design to comply with the laws in their work? Why don’t local building departments do their job which is to enforce the access laws?
The reporter also allowed to stand one of the quotes from a hostile witnesses who called Mr. Skaff a “so-called” expert. The reporter didn’t bother to check Mr. Skaff’s expertise, including his extensive back ground as Chief Building Inspector, ADA Coordinator of Public Works and Deputy Director of the Mayor’s Office on Disability in San Francisco and that he sat on three committees for the U.S. Access Board and on a committee on access for the National Fire Protection Association. He IS an expert, beyond doubt.
Another question – would the reporter have only quoted witnesses against Mr. Skaff and none that supported him in the lawsuit if Mr. Skaff weren’t disabled? He built a picture of Mr. Skaff as intimidating and unethical. Why? Would he have done that to a man who wasn’t in a wheelchair? Aggressiveness in men is usually applauded. (Governor Brown’s aggressive stance on immigration, for example.) This is like the treatment that women receive if they are “too demanding.” They are “shrill,” “inappropriate,” “acting beyond their place.” As in, “Sit down and shut up, Senator Warren.”