Thursday, January 27, 2000
By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
It's not exactly South Beach, but East Carson Street on the South Side has become a place with serious buzz, a hip destination for those in search of a drink, some blues, a bite to eat.
Some members of the population, however, say they've been missing out on the action because they literally can't get in the door.
Yesterday, four people who use wheelchairs sued three popular bars on East Carson because they can't get over the step in front of each establishment.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court by the Disabilities Law Project on behalf of the individuals, says the bars - Margaritaville, Excuses Bar & Grill and The Clubhouse on Carson - have ignored the Americans with Disabilities Act by not installing ramps.
In addition, the Law Project vowed to file three new ADA suits a month against 11 other bars and stores that didn't respond to a November letter warning them about their noncompliance.
None of the four plaintiffs - Rick McWilliams of Penn Hills, Molly Sager of Ross, Brenda DaRe of Pittsburgh and Jason Sentner of Brookline - returned calls yesterday.
But their Law Project attorney, Jana Finder, said the issue is a simple matter of a civil rights violation.
"These people want to go to the bars and drink and hear music," she said. "The Americans with Disabilities Act has been in effect for 7 1/2 years. It's being ignored. It's been 7 1/2 years and people in wheelchairs still can't get into some places."
The owners of Margaritaville didn't return a call and The Clubhouse isn't listed, but the owner of Excuses was angry at hearing from reporters that his bar had been sued in federal court.
"There's 180 businesses down here that have a step to get in," said George, who wouldn't give his last name but said everyone knows who he is. "They better sue them all."
They just might try.
The same three-suits-a-month tactic worked in Harrisburg, according to Finder and Josie Byzek of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities.
When Byzek, a 33-year-old with multiple sclerosis formerly from Regent Square, moved to the "really cool" Midtown Market section of Harrisburg, she said she and friends who used wheelchairs had trouble getting into shops in the trendy historic district.
So last July, the Disabilities Law Project in Philadelphia and a Harrisburg attorney started filing suits on their behalf. Soon, local merchants began meeting with the advocacy group to discuss settlements. Today, Byzek said, many of the shops have installed ramps and many others have promised to.
But Byzek said nearly eight years is long enough for people with disabilities to wait for businesses to get with the program.
"We have this civil rights law that's dangled out there like a carrot [for us], and everyone just ignores it," she said.
Finder said the Pittsburgh suits will hopefully have the same effect as those in Harrisburg. To help them see the light, she said she will send copies of the suits against Margaritaville, Excuses and The Clubhouse to the other establishments she said ignored the Law Project's letter, which was sent to 21 businesses in all.
In addition to asking for meetings and warning about legal action, the letter also informed owners they could receive tax breaks under ADA guidelines if they renovated their entrances.
Seven establishments responded, saying they would comply: Piper's Pub, St. Elmo's Bookstore, Paparazzi Restaurant, Lava Lounge, Stutz Pharmacy, Rynn's Luggage and Fathead's Saloon.
The others, which the Law Project didn't name, didn't reply. George, the Excuses' owner, said he never saw a letter. But Finder said he got one, and so did all the others.
"[Owners] get defensive when they find out they're being sued," she said.
"But they should realize that people with disabilities want to be customers."