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It's hard to operate a steering wheel when your hands don't work, but years of practice let John Garon turn his ten-year-old white Ford van by shoving on an attached knob. He presses on an array of levers to work the gas, brakes, and signals as he slowly circles Tri-County Plaza in Davie, his wheelchair locked into place on the van's floorboard.
Call it a reconnaissance mission: Garon sued the plaza's owners in federal court in February 1999, for such issues as parking access and sidewalk ramps. The case was settled in December of the same year, with Tri-County Plaza agreeing to make changes. Two years later, the 59-year-old Plantation resident is back to see if the owners are holding up their end of the bargain.
He checks the parking and curb cuts, his rule-of-thumb indicator for other problems. And just driving around the lot, he sees trouble. Most of the disabled parking spaces don't have signs. Most also lack access aisles, so Garon can't even get out of his van if the adjoining space is occupied. "That's worse than when I sued them," he exclaims. And in front of the Home Depot, two disabled spots are covered with the store's lumber carts.
There are curb cuts in front of the plaza's newer stores, and orange construction netting marks the locations of more to come, but speed bumps separate them from disabled parking. And one disabled spot in front of Tiger Cuts hair salon has been painted over, the wheelchair logo still showing faintly. Its new sign reads "Tiger Cuts Parking Only."
Just before he leaves, Garon cruises by one of the disabled spots in front of Old Navy as three smiling, healthy twenty-somethings pile into a green Mercedes parked there (without a disabled parking tag). "Look at this," Garon sneers. "Look at these people. Do you see anyone even limping?"
By early afternoon on this mid-January day, Garon is finished with his cursory inspection of the strip mall. Feeling a little peckish, he pulls into the parking lot at Taco Bell in front of Tri-County Plaza (Garon loves tacos, even the fast-food variety). But when he rolls inside, he is stymied: A metal railing controls the flow of customers to the register. Garon can't get up to the counter to place his order.
That's the sort of incident that motivates John Garon: finding that a small undertaking the ambulatory need never stop to think about is impossible for him or anyone else in a similar condition. Restaurant lines and tables, parking spaces, public restrooms, water fountains, store aisles, and sidewalk ramps are the most prominent features on the terrain of his life. They must be so or his life would be spent immobile, cut off from much of the world, unable to take part in the humdrum activities that the able-bodied take for granted.
Although it's just Garon driving around today, he is not alone in his legal quest. He is one of a growing number of activists in South Florida and nationwide who have made it their mission to enforce the Americans with Disabilities Act by suing those businesses and governments that don't comply. They've got their work cut out for them: 12 years after the ADA's passage, that Garon can still encounter impediments everywhere he goes is testament to how little has been done. To counter the forces that deny him access to so much of the world, Garon gleefully wields a powerful weapon: federal civil rights lawsuits. The pudgy, heavy-featured, gruff-voiced Garon has also made brief forays into Plantation politics, running for City Council twice on platforms that not only championed the rights of the disabled but pushed such grandiose schemes as revitalizing the State Road 7 corridor with a huge geodesic dome containing theme restaurants from all seven continents ("I don't know what the heck we'd do for Antarctica," he confesses).
John Garon hasn't always been a crusader for the rights of the disabled. The New Jersey native lived a fairly normal life until age 45. He has two grown daughters, who live in New York City. A picture in his office still shows a smiling Garon standing on a dock. He sold industrial chemicals and dreamed of one day practicing his hobby of amateur photography in Africa and on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Those dreams seemed within reach: He and his second wife, Kim, whom he married in 1982, together made close to $100,000 per year.
But all dreams end, and Garon's ended abruptly and cruelly. Kim died of brain cancer in 1985, age 38. And Garon was weakening. The muscle strength in his extremities had been slowly deteriorating since he was 15, but the decline accelerated in the late 1980s. "My legs started to buckle," he says. "I fell a couple of times." But no one knew why. Then the development of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) provided a terrible answer. In 1987, Garon was diagnosed with arteriovenous malformation, a birth defect: a tangle of misshapen blood vessels near his spinal cord that could rupture at any time, killing him or causing paralysis. "I was given five years to live," he says. "I submitted myself to experimental surgery at [New York University], and they shot me full of Krazy Glue."