Zoltan Hirsch: Wheelchair Crusader or Business Disabler?

A recent article in the NY Post was sent to me by the New York State Restaurant Association, which is at the forefront of protecting local restaurants and other licensed venues from potential disaster. The Post article tells the story of Zoltan Hirsch, who’s been confined to a wheel chair since he lost his legs in a car accident. But he’s also armed with powerful attorneys and backed by the Americans With Disabilities Act. This act is meant to allow the disabled to have the same experiences as those without disabilities when attending public places and businesses.

Mr. Hirsch had filed 87 federal lawsuits at the time of the writing, seeking damages reported to be $500 per establishment, and legal fees which can be $15,000 or more. The article raises the question on whether or not he is a crusader or a con man. The story goes on to say that he is now filing about 1 suit a day, hitting establishments that range from a Brooklyn Dunkin Donuts, to the Louis Vuitton in Soho, to a strip club. If he can’t wheel himself inside he sues.

The American Disabilities Act lays down standards that accede those put forth by New York City code, and it’s the city code that most places comply with. Many ignore even that code. Something has to give, as the law seemingly does not take in to clear account the age and architecture of our city, and the prohibitive costs of compliance by the hard pressed “Mom and Pop” establishments that cannot afford costly lifts or revamping of their establishments. Most places that are not in compliance have been around since before this issue was an issue, and retro-fitting handicap access might be impossible or bank-breaking. There are modern lifts for small staircases and ramps that can sometimes be installed. The ramp thing gets tricky as code calls for a “pitch” of 1 foot per inch of elevation. This means that a 1-inch discrepancy between the sidewalk and the interior of the establishments grade would require a 12 foot ramp. 18 inches needs 18 feet. Lots of places are up a step 3 feet in the air, and don’t have 36 feet for a ramp.

A great deal of the buildings in this town were built in the 1800’s and compliance now is impossible. There sometimes is a clash between what the ADA requires and what Landmarks Preservation will want, as our classic buildings are often deemed unchangeable. The unwritten law is that the establishment would act in good faith and carry wheelchair bound patrons up the steps. Mr. Hirsch’s lawsuit seems to blow away that unwritten law.

Mr. Hirsch may be in it for the money or he may be a crusader. Either way, his actions raise questions. In the past, I was too often told by proprietors not to bother with that handicap crap. I have always told them no. It is the responsibility of persons desiring new construction or remodeling to comply with laws that help disabled patrons feel at home. It isn’t being nice; it is being compliant with the law of the land. Even if Mr. Hirsch is wrong, he is right and has rights to force the issue. Representative Duncan Hunter of California has proposed legislation that would provide notices to businesses about possible ADA violations before a lawsuit is filed. This would give these businesses the ability to spend money on compliance rather than attorney fees and suits. It doesn’t stop Mr. Hirsch and others from revisiting the situation if compliance is not achieved. Compliance is the order of the day, and more legislation is needed to help those establishments where complete compliance would be impossible. Sanity must prevail, but proprietors must be forced to take the high road—the right road—to make the lives of our neighbors who have a tough go at things due to disabilities easier.

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