The Enforcer

John Garon may be a partial quadriplegic, but he wields federal civil-rights lawsuits with consummate skill

In 1989, the risks of sealing the malformed vessels were high. Doctors gave him a 10 percent chance of dying on the operating table, a 30 percent chance of getting by with a walker, and a 60 percent chance of ending up in a wheelchair. The odds played out as expected. Garon is now a partial quadriplegic. He's able to move his arms, but he can't walk, and his hands are frozen shut. He can awkwardly work one thumb to control his motorized wheelchair.

After the surgery, absolutely everything about his life changed. Garon watched his dreams of travel slip away. His income plummeted to about $8000 per year from disability payments. Under the maddening rules of the federal health-insurance system, he can't earn a decent living without giving up the Medicare and Medicaid benefits that pay for his wheelchair, the expensive custom-made appliances he needs for simple tasks, and the two part-time nurses who tend him daily. "It's very sad that I cannot earn any income," he says. Garon doesn't need around-the-clock care, but that specter always looms. "I'm always one step away," he says. Living arrangements, always problematic for those with disabilities, were finally settled in 1995 when Garon moved in with his friend and former computer student Ray Carlson, at Carlson's home on the pleasant cul-de-sac of NW 100th Terrace in Plantation.

Despite his difficulties, Garon finds a way to do most things. "You learn to adapt," he says. A wheelchair lift and a cumbersome set of levers let him drive his van, which is emblazoned with references to his favorite escape: Star Trek. A sticker on the van's sliding door reads "USS ENTERPRISE, SHUTTLE CRAFT, NCC-1701-WC." The "WC" stands for wheelchair. "I can get anywhere in Broward or Dade counties within two hours," he says. He's even flown a friend's Cessna once but is scared to do so again.

An array of high-tech but cumbersome devices helps Garon live a semblance of a normal life
Sherri Cohen
An array of high-tech but cumbersome devices helps Garon live a semblance of a normal life
Garon once ran for office to defend the honor of fellow ADA activist Fred Shotz
Sherri Cohen
Garon once ran for office to defend the honor of fellow ADA activist Fred Shotz

The Internet opened as broad a world for Garon as did his love for science fiction. Voice-recognition software on his computer lets him "type" 140 words per minute, keeping in touch with the world. He's able to indulge his penchant for New Age music by subscribing to a broadband Internet radio service.

But that wasn't enough. Garon still fretted about his limitations. He faced a life that seemed to have lost its purpose. "I can't just sit around the house and watch TV all day," he says. He worked for about five years with the Independent Living movement, which aims to help the disabled reintegrate themselves into society. But the longer he worked and thought about it, the more it became obvious that such changes as were necessary to level the playing field -- sometimes quite literally -- were not going to come without a fight.

Another possible factor, visible to anyone who spends a few hours with Garon, is anger. He is a jovial raconteur, cracking jokes at his own expense ("One day I'll do "sit-down comedy,'" he says). But that bluff persona masks a simmering bitterness, much of which stems from his constant low-grade frustration at partially working limbs and cantankerous appliances, which make minor tasks a major effort.

But some of that anger is directed outward. He is darkly suspicious that everyone is watching him; he mutters that all of the nondisabled consider him an "outsider" to be shunned. He sees evidence of this belief in how difficult it still is for someone like him to perform everyday tasks in a world not designed for them. So he is determined to make the world accessible by suing practically every government and business in sight. Thus far, his hit list stands at an even 200, all filed in the Fourth U.S. District Court in Miami. And he's never gone to trial. "Every suit was settled either at mediation or prior to calendar call at the courthouse," he says.

Garon can sue because he finds almost every government and business is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. "Every city in the United States should have been accessible," he says. The new-construction standards of the ADA came into force in 1992 for businesses and 1995 for governments; every public building built after that time, from hotels and restaurants to city halls, must meet certain construction standards to allow access for people with all sorts of disabilities. That means, among other things, curb cuts and wide aisles for people in wheelchairs, clear walkways and Braille signs for the blind, and close parking spots for everyone disabled. The law is far from unknown; in fact, local government inspectors are supposed to examine building plans and certify that they comply with the ADA -- and the Florida Accessibility Code, which is even stricter -- just as they must comply with plumbing and wiring codes. Yet even with a decade of ADA standards to reflect upon, thousands of new buildings nationwide fail the test every year.

One reason for this is that the ADA is an unfunded mandate: The federal government set new standards but offered no financial incentive to make it so. Still, it's the law, Garon points out; and the ADA is not just a set of building codes. It's a civil rights law. If a building is physically inaccessible to the disabled, that makes it as much of a civil rights violation -- denying access or service to someone based on factors they can't control -- as any similar refusal based on race or sex. Imagine the screams that would ensue today should a Broward storekeeper post a sign in his window reading "Whites Only." To Garon and other ADA activists, such signs are visible every day: Every high curb, every narrow aisle, every cramped bathroom declares "No Disabled Allowed."

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