Last week, the Detroit Free Press reported on a federal lawsuit filed in Michigan that caused me to question whether some disability rights organizations are more concerned about money and prestige than their stated mission. I’d like to share the basic details of the case, then circle back to answer the larger question.

The Lawsuit: Canter v. Disability Network West Michigan et al.

In a lawsuit filed July 21 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan (PDF), disability advocate Eleanor Canter alleges that the City of Muskegon, a property developer and a disability rights group conspired to discredit her and sweep ADA violations under the rug.

Photo of the business entrance included in the legal filing.

When the new Heritage Square Commons development opened in downtown Muskegon, Michigan, Ms. Canter noticed that two business leasing space there — a coffee shop (“Drip Drop Drink”) and barber shop — had inaccessible entrances due to a step and a permanent barricade blocking a portion of the sidewalk. She and other advocates, including Brad Hastings of Disability Network Western Michigan, raised concerns about the alleged ADA violations.

Ms. Canter had contacted both the property developer and city, but was told that an alternative rear entrance satisfied ADA requirements. That door, the suit alleges, is frequently locked and the interior corridor leading to those businesses is often blocked by stored items, rendering it inaccessible.

When it became clear that Canter would continue her pressure campaign, the city contracted with the nonprofit organization Disability Network West Michigan (“DNWM”), one of 15 centers for independent living in the state. Mr. Hastings, the organization’s Advocacy & ADA Coordinator, had previously written to local leaders alleging an ADA violation at Drip Drop Drink. After securing a partnership with the city, the complaint alleges that Hastings changed his tune. According to the suit, DNWM subsequently awarded Heritage Square Commons a “Seal of Approval,” and the organization’s statement of support was used by both the city and developer to discredit, silence and “chill” Canter’s advocacy efforts.

In the suit, Canter has asked the judge to declare that her rights were violated and to issue an injunction prohibiting the developer from designing or constructing facilities that do not comply with the ADA Standards. The suit also requests an award of unspecified damages and legal fees.

Servants or Profiteers?

Ms. Canter’s case has not been decided, and it would be unfair to comment on the veracity of her claims before the trial is held.

It is fair to say that, for many, disability advocacy is a business. Like every other career, professional advocates seek out new opportunities, advancement and pay raises. Without a doubt, it is easier to be personally successful in this arena with a “go along to get along” attitude. Taking uncompromising positions on civil rights rarely leads to financial or professional success.

Money and status are powerful motivators, and can cause even the most determined advocates to compromise their position and that of the stakeholders they serve. There are countless examples of disability advocates, nonprofit organizations and elected officials taking contributions from powerful corporations in exchange for their silence. For the sake of the disability community in Western Michigan, I hope that wasn’t the case here.

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