The Crip Patrol Rolls

When United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Houston honored restaurateur Ninfa Lorenzo with a dinner at the downtown Hyatt Regency last month, the organization got a little bit more theater than it had planned. As the attendees converged on the hotel's opulent banquet hall, they were greeted by a small group of people, some of them in wheelchairs, distributing pieces of colored paper folded and stapled shut. "They must have thought we were handing out door prizes," says one member of the group, who adds that most of the attendees carried the handouts inside the hall.

The pieces of paper weren't door prizes. They were fliers that criticized Lorenzo for not having a wheelchair ramp in front of her Navigation Drive restaurant, the place where her food empire began some 40 years ago.

"Ninfa's on Navigation refuses to ramp its entrance," one flier said. "This hurts people with CP [cerebral palsy] and other disabilities." Also on the sheet was the name of the group sending out this message: the Crip Patrol.

The Crip Patrol is a small band of disabled guerrillas that was founded in February by 35-year-old Crosby King, a beanpole-skinny guy with thinning, sandy hair who is dependent upon a brightly painted wheelchair. King is a University of Houston graduate, as are most of the Crip Patrol's six other members. Most are also wheelchair-dependent. In some ways, the Crip Patrol could look like just a gathering of King's friends who want to make a little noise. In other ways, it could look like the leading edge of disabled activism in Houston. For decades, most advocacy for the disabled had come from charitable organizations or the courts. But in the mid-'80s, some disabled groups took a chapter from the book written by feminists and gay activists and started speaking up for themselves. King's Crip Patrol seems to fall into that group.

King says there was no one thing that made him and his cohorts decide to turn confrontational. The problem of lack of access is so widespread, he says, that asking him for the event or inaccessible place that pushed him over the line would be like "asking blacks in the 1950s to find a restaurant that discriminated against them."

Just how effective the Crip Patrol actually is may be a matter of interpretation. In numbers, they haven't done a lot. Since their February founding, the group has protested against only four businesses: a convenience store on property owned by UH, the 59 Diner, Ninfa's on Navigation Drive, and Droubi's on Kirby. But in terms of victories won, their record looks pretty good. The convenience store, where the Crip Patrol made its maiden strike on Easter Sunday, has since put in a wheelchair ramp. The 59 Diner widened a handicapped parking space. And one week after the confrontation at the Cerebral Palsy dinner, Ninfa's also sported a new wheelchair ramp. The group is contemplating legal action against Droubi's.

Not everybody who has responded to the Crip Patrol's demands has liked the way they were treated. The name also startles some people, but King dismisses that concern with a shrug. "Disabled people are taking back the terms 'crip' and 'cripple,' " he says. "We're defensive when able-bodied people call us crips, but we can call ourselves that." Still, it's their actions that cause the most concern. The objects of the Crip Patrol's attentions may appreciate their motives, but not their methods.

"They shouldn't have done that to Mama," Roland Lorenzo says of the Crips' skewering of Ninfa. "Those functions are done to raise money.... That's actually serving people that [the Crips] are trying to serve, too. So it seems a little bit incongruous for them to lambaste her. Especially when she had absolutely no knowledge of what was going on."

Indeed, though King says the Crip Patrol always informs a business in writing about a problem before going to the streets, the businesses aren't so sure that they're really interested in solving problems without demonstrations. In the Crips' message to Ninfa's, they gave the establishment until April 24 to build a wheelchair ramp. But the benefit for Ninfa Lorenzo, and the protest against her, was held on April 21. King admits that in this case his group jumped the gun, though he prefers to call it a preemptive strike.

Geoff Herbert, the general manager of 59 Diner on Farnham, feels similarly "set up" by the Crips. But Herbert also says the bottom line is that the group is right in its demands for equal access. "We should have had that space allocated differently to accommodate them," he admits. "So I guess I have no one to blame but myself."

Although pleased with their initial victories, King is unhappy that it takes such attention-getting measures to force businesses to get into what he feels is compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was passed by Congress in 1990. "We're trying to gain access for disabled people," says King. "We shouldn't have to, because a law was enacted years ago saying businesses were supposed to do this."

But the problem with the ADA, according to some, is that it's ambiguous. The ADA is supposed to apply to any business with more than ten employees and gross receipts above $500,000. But it's also supposed to apply only when improvements are "readily achievable" and "able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense." It cost about $250 to build the wheelchair ramp at Ninfa's. Likewise, the cost of an expanded parking spot at the 59 Diner was minimal. But bringing the restrooms in those restaurants up to ADA specification could cost close to $10,000. Is that "without much difficulty or expense"?

That sort of question may be one reason that bigger advocacy groups for the disabled have focused on large corporations. Advocacy Inc., the Austin-based group that has been the leading legal voice for the disabled in Texas, has tended to avoid going after "mom and pop" businesses because it worries about possible backlash and because a court decision against a chain operation can result in more changes than one against a single store or restaurant.

But while King isn't avoiding the big boys -- he's presently a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit, against the Tandy Corporation, that's seeking to force all Texas Radio Shacks and McDuffs to comply with the ADA -- he wants small-business owners to know that they're not being let off the hook. His Crip Patrol is rolling in search of future targets. And he issues a warning to places where the disabled have trouble with access: "They don't want to be on our shit list.

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Steve McVicker