In five years, Oralia Diaz has never missed a Houston Rockets home game. She's a season ticket holder, and, in the winter at least, she finds herself loading up to head to the Toyota Center more often than the grocery store or a restaurant.
After a win last season, Diaz was on her way to her car, when, on the ramp leading from the door and into the garage, her wheel caught a crumbling spot, sending Diaz out of her wheelchair and onto the pavement. She was by herself. Several passers-by remained passers-by until Diaz finally yelled out for help.
“[The ramp] is not adequate for wheelchairs,” Diaz said. “I've complained about this issue several times, and they indicated it was not their responsibility. Whoever's responsibility it was has not considered it.”
Perhaps they will now.
On Monday, the Texas Civil Rights Project rang in the 25th anniversary of the American Disabilities Act with 32 lawsuits filed across the state, four of which were in Houston. One of those lawsuits was filed against the company that built the Toyota Center's parking garage, SP + Central Parking, for its crumbling ramp and automatic door buttons that don't work, Diaz says.
The TCRP filed a second on Diaz's behalf against Thai Pepper, a Montrose restaurant whose wheelchair ramp is steep enough to turn Diaz into a tumbling speed racer, she says, and whose restrooms are not wheelchair-accessible. The ADA requires restrooms to have grab bars and be wide enough for wheelchairs to enter, accommodations that are missing at the restaurant. Diaz says that if she or other patrons in wheelchairs need to use the restroom they have to go home.
“These are basic barrier cases,” TCRP attorney David James said. “These shouldn't be surprises to defendants. These are the hallmarks of the ADA that people are familiar with. They've had 25 years to comply.”
James says that aiding clients in filing ADA violation lawsuits is something the TCRP does annually, but that they wanted to make a bigger statement for the law's 25th anniversary. James says the organization won't file suit unless the business doesn't respond to written or verbal complaints, like in Diaz's case. But even after it does, the cases generally settle “for a fraction of the minimum amount of damages if the defendant is cooperative right off the bat,” James says. “We definitely want to encourage and welcome changes in these places, and we incentivize that by withdrawing or compromising on these monetary aspects.”
The two other Houston cases include one against Gorditas Aguas Calientes, a restaurant in Northside Village that also doesn't have wheelchair-accessible restrooms and whose wheelchair ramp is blocked by parked cars, and another against a dollar store in East Houston called 99 Cents Plus, where floor space and aisles are so cluttered and narrow that navigating in a wheelchair is nearly impossible, according to the lawsuit.
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Amin Alehashem, who is representing James Sweatt in the case against 99 Cents Plus, said Sweatt used to be a football player until he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. “He came in last week,” Alehashem says, “and what he tells me is, for them, it's about being able to live without that much assistance, to be able to be self-sustaining in their lifestyles and their ways. And when you can't get into a place, or you can't move around in a place, you have to consistently rely on others to help you. It's a humiliating feeling. What people ultimately want is not always needing help to do simple, basic tasks.”
Diaz echoed that sentiment. She said that the lack of accessibility is something she's encountered not only at the Toyota Center parking garage or Thai Pepper but “frequently, in many, many places.” Diaz has been in a wheelchair since 1994, after having polio as a child, and so she has seen the country's awareness of the disabled community ebb and flow over the last couple decades—but mostly flow. “The ADA has made a big difference,” she said.
But Diaz keeps speaking up because there's still plenty of work to be done—and not just on her behalf. She's seen others fall navigating the very same ramp that flung her to the ground in the Toyota Center parking garage.
“I'm hoping [this year's ADA lawsuits] will make people aware that we're out there, we're consumers,” she said. “My hope is that accommodations are made not for me, but for all the other people who are affected.”