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."
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.
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."
"There should be no lawsuits in new construction, but it comes down to two mathematical possibilities: Number one, somebody's taking graft; or number two, the inspectors are not trained or are ignorant of the ADA standards," Garon says. There is, of course, a third possibility: Since fully accessible facilities are more expensive to build, businesses have a natural incentive to cut corners, taking the calculated risk that neither Garon nor his colleagues will ever get around to suing them.
Some of Garon's opponents have complained that Garon didn't give them a chance to make things right: The first they hear of any problems is when a federal subpoena arrives. By law, Garon is not obligated to inform building owners that he's about to sue. Every lawsuit Garon's ever pursued, he's won -- and that means the defendant is stuck with several thousand dollars in legal bills, both his and Garon's.
In response to this sue-first, talk-later tack, U.S. Reps. E. Clay Shaw Jr., R-Fort Lauderdale, and Mark Foley, R-West Palm Beach, sponsored a bill in February 2000 requiring notification and a 90-day waiting period before ADA lawsuits could be filed; it died in committee.
Garon says he tried the friendly approach. "I wrote letters for years," he gripes. "They'd throw them in the garbage. They wrote back and told me they're not interested. I wasn't asking them for a job! Out of 150 letters, I got maybe three responses.
"The contributing factor is apathy. That's the apathy that is tearing into the United States in many different areas, and that is, "It will never happen to me.'" A sizable legal bill, Garon believes, is an effective way of waking people up.
When Garon began his compliance crusade, he had plenty of examples to follow. South Florida, being a booming urban area with a large disabled population (due to its friendly climate, flat terrain, and status as a retirement haven), had already spawned activists from the same mold in which Garon recast himself. There is Ed Resnick, the retired Miami Beach lawyer who's been involved in more than 300 ADA lawsuits against high-profile defendants such as the University of Miami, Pro Player Stadium, Carnival Cruise Lines, Burdines, and Wal-Mart. There's Fred Shotz, who now makes a living as a consultant on ADA issues for sports facilities. And there's Michael Brennan, the activist-turned-consultant whom the Miami Herald dubbed "Hell on Wheels" for his litigious fireworks. "He was always my idol and my mentor, in terms of trying to do the right thing without putting anybody out of business," Garon says of Brennan.
Those activists had found, as Garon soon learned, that the only way to force cities and business owners to ante up for the required changes was to file a federal lawsuit. For the big operators -- municipalities and major developers -- Garon sheds no tears. They should have known to build it right the first time. But he does have some sympathy for the smaller operations such as mom-and-pop stores, who trusted their architects and the government permitting agency. "I do not wish to put any defendant out of business," Garon insists. "Rather, I want to partner with the owner and come to a reasonable solution."
To that end, Garon set about learning the business of the ADA. He learned about its provisions, finding that churches, private homes, and condominiums were exempt. He learned that buildings built pre-ADA had to make "reasonable accommodation" to the needs of the disabled. He uses the example of providing access to an antique wooden bar; to avoid cutting the fine wood, a "reasonable accommodation" would be a nearby wheelchair-accessible table. New buildings and extensively renovated older ones had to meet the new building standards.
Then he made sure he could file suit; he had to have legal standing ("Something I'll never do," he jokes), meaning that he was directly affected by the issue. That was easy enough to prove. Just as easy was finding a target; the problem was choosing among so many. He usually confines his activity to Broward County. Garon doesn't "go hunting," he says; he just tries different restaurants and stores as part of a normal life. He parks in the lot, rolls up on the sidewalk, opens the door, shops in the aisles or eats at a table, and tries to use the bathrooms. If he can't do all of those things, he starts noting specific violations.
After nearly six years of lawsuits, Garon has the state and federal specifications for many items memorized: Disabled parking signs must be 78 inches above ground level; parking spots and their attached access aisles must be 17 feet wide, or 29 feet for two spaces sharing an aisle. Usually, a practiced glance is enough to tell him if the reality is close to the ideal. And close is good enough for him, he says: "I don't bother with nitpicky stuff."
The unpaid hours he spends circling in his van or wrangling with attorneys are worth the effort, he says. Activists like Garon are determined to give something back to the disabled community that has helped them in the past, he says. He can get around and communicate well, but not everyone can; and he estimates, based on national figures, that 7 to 10 percent of Broward County's population is disabled in some way. (Broward County's ADA coordinator, John Batey, extrapolating from 1990 U.S. Census figures, guesses that the county's disabled population is 6 percent, or about 95,000.)
"His concern... is that a lot of people are reluctant to speak for themselves and are intimidated by lawsuits or are intimidated by owners," says fellow activist Brennan. Another Garon ally, Broward County Commissioner Lori Nance Parrish, agrees. "John Garon puts his heart and soul into making things better for the disabled community," Parrish says. "He's sort of my unofficial adviser on disabled issues."
Ironically, Parrish came to know Garon because his first ADA lawsuit, filed in April 1996, was against Broward County itself. He sued because he couldn't park his van at Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport, which the county owns. To park in the garages, motorists must take a ticket from a machine. All vans were required to park on the top floor. Garon couldn't reach out and grasp the ticket. "There was no way that a quadriplegic, driving by themselves, could get into the airport parking," he says. And the area where he was required to park his van had no access aisles -- the barred blue strips next to disabled parking spots where Garon has to let down his wheelchair lift.
The case was sent to mediation and settled; the county fixed the problems. "I just feel bad that they even had to sue us," Parrish says. "When the ADA law was passed, we were all aware that we had to make changes. But sometimes, the government doesn't move fast enough, so they file suit -- and that gets everyone's attention."
In November 1997, Parrish got him appointed to the county Advisory Board for Individuals with Disabilities, on which he served for three and a half years. He stopped going to meetings eight months ago, he says, because he felt the county was again ignoring them. He also couldn't reach the ticket to get into the county parking garage for meetings, he says, despite suing the county over the same thing five years before.
Garon filed eight early ADA lawsuits on his own, but in 1997, he joined with two other disabled activists, Vatrice Rivera and Keisha Brown, both of Fort Lauderdale, to form the Alliance for ADA Compliance. Most of his subsequent suits have been filed under that name. "We are the police, essentially, for the Americans with Disabilities Act," he says.
The list of places that Garon has sued reads like a Who's Who of South Florida businesses: Publix, Swifty Coin Laundry, McDonald's of Florida, Wal-Mart, and dozens of hotels. The settlement agreements in practically all of those suits are confidential, barring either party from discussing the terms. The secrecy surrounding them, however, has not stopped ugly rumors from circulating that Garon and other disabled activists are merely extorting legal fees and expert-witness fees rather than trying to fix any problems.
Thomas Waits, president of the Florida Hotel & Motel Association, says he knows that some activists have presented hoteliers with lists of "perceived violations," suggested that the owners hire specific consultants, and threatened lawsuits if they didn't. "That's what raised suspicion," Waits says. "I don't know that I could prove that. When there is a multitude of suits of this sort, it does raise some questions as to the real motivation for it." Waits says he has heard of Garon but doesn't know him and doesn't associate him with any shady dealings.
Garon himself emphatically denies engaging in such tactics. The problem, he says, is that many defendants don't understand the ADA and believe their attorneys' assurances that they can win, thus running up big legal bills. "Attorneys are generally paid by the hour, so the more they fight, the more they get paid. And not only that but the more they fight, the more my attorney gets paid and my expert witness, who went out to see if my complaint is accurate." Then, knowing they'll lose if they go to trial, attorneys urge their clients to settle with Garon.
He adds that defendants often find it cheaper to pay for his attorney and expert-witness fees, promise improvements -- and then do nothing. "Many places have literally ignored [their agreements], figuring I'll never be back around," he says.
Fellow activists Brennan and Resnick, however, attribute such charges to another source: some of the lawyers Garon himself has used in the past. "Some of the attorneys he'd originally been using were in it for questionable motives and wrote stipulation agreements that weren't very good or even enforceable," Brennan says, without naming names. Resnick says Garon himself characterized some of his attorneys as "money grubbers," and Resnick agreed. But both say Garon himself had no ill intent. "As soon as there's been any question about (his attorneys') motives, he's shied away from them," Brennan says.
Garon has used 13 attorneys since 1996 but is now down to two: Todd Shulby of Fort Lauderdale and William Charouhis of Miami, both of whom he is perfectly content with, he says. He refuses to name any of the attorneys he considers subpar, since many of their cases are still in progress or awaiting enforcement. He plans to wait until the settlement time limit runs out before switching those cases to his current attorneys for enforcement action.
Certainly, Garon's lifestyle doesn't imply that he's profiting from his legal campaign. And he says that the proof comes when he checks back to make sure his settlement agreements are being obeyed. About 35 of his lawsuits are still ongoing, Garon says; some are settled in a few months, while others drag on for more than a year. Of those that are settled, he's gone back to check on compliance with about 20 and wants to check up on about 100 more. "I will be policing probably 50 to 60 cases before the end of the summer," he promises.
Garon doesn't confine his campaign for equal access to the court system. He's perfectly willing to offer advice on ADA issues if it will be heeded. If not, his roles as adviser and litigant can overlap. In addition to the Broward County Advisory Board for Individuals with Disabilities, he served on Plantation's Disability Advisory Board in 1996 and 1997, examining new projects.
Plantation was and is a mess of noncompliance, says former city councilman Lee Hillier. "Our city had made no attempt to come into compliance," Hillier alleges. And new buildings were going up all the time. "Every single facility built since '92 in the city of Plantation at that point was non-ADA compliant." A case in point was City Hall.
"One evening [in 1997], I came to a meeting and one of the board members [disabled, like Garon] was waiting outside," Garon recalls. "They couldn't get into the building because they couldn't open the door." He asked why they bothered critiquing blueprints when committee members couldn't get into their own City Hall.
"At the end of the meeting, the director of the building department advised me in the hallway that the city does in fact want to fix everything." All that summer, Garon went through buildings, rolled around parks, and checked out parking lots gathering information for the city's ADA-compliance transition plan, which was already five years overdue. "After three years, they did absolutely nothing," Garon says. "I think they put one ramp at City Hall and a unisex bathroom, and that was it."
Then, in late 1998, the city supposedly lost all of Garon's work in a computer snafu, Hillier says; at that point, the city had spent only a tiny fraction of its ADA-compliance budget. "I didn't even get a "Thank you,'" Garon grouses. "They did: They got a "Thank you' in the form of a subpoena."
The subsequent case lasted for three years, until the city agreed to meet ADA standards by February 2003. The city also had to pay Garon's attorneys $150,000 in legal fees. Garon says he'll inspect each trouble spot to make sure Plantation fulfilled its agreement, but he's already skeptical.
Meanwhile, even as his lawsuit against the city dragged on, Garon ran for Plantation City Council in 1999 and again in 2001. His campaign signs -- one of which still hangs in his garage -- featured the familiar white wheelchair logo framed in blue, like a disabled parking sign. He lost by wide margins both times. "Did I really think I had a chance? No," Garon admits. "Most of the officials in our city are pretty much handpicked by the old guard."
During the 1999 campaign, Garon filed a state ethics complaint against his opponent, Councilman Jerry Fadgen, alleging that Fadgen had a conflict of interest involving a strip mall he managed (which the Ethics Commission had told Fadgen was a conflict two years earlier, as New Times has reported: See "There's Something About Jerry," March 16, 2000, and "Mall Rat," August 2, 2001). After the election, the Ethics Commission ruled that Garon was right but let Fadgen off without punishment. Garon got just 3.2 percent of the vote to Fadgen's 47.7 percent. Two other candidates split the remainder.
"The people of Plantation had all the facts before them, and apparently they didn't consider it an issue," Fadgen says. He adds that he considers Garon an upright, passionate fellow. "I have a great respect for John," he allows. "He's had a lot of experiences that the rest of us haven't had."
His 2001 campaign against Councilman Ron Jacobs, Garon says, was fought over a point of honor, in defense of Fred Shotz, a fellow ADA activist. Shotz says that Jacobs and other Plantation officials didn't like his report on ADA compliance problems at the Volunteer Park recreation center -- which Shotz had been asked to compile by then-City Councilman Hillier and which he did for free -- so they hired a private investigator to discredit him. Shotz can stand briefly without his wheelchair; the PI filmed him doing so while he gassed up his van. Shotz says that when he came back from a vacation in early 2000, he learned that Plantation officials held a press conference at which they presented the video as proof that Shotz is a phony.
Meanwhile, a city inspector found more problems than Shotz did, and city crews began fixing problems for which the builder should have been liable, Hillier says. "I'm not paying taxes for city employees to go out and fix ADA problems," he snaps. "That's the responsibility of the contractor. Every step of the way, the taxpayers have been screwed because of an inept, incompetent, and corrupted official process."
Shotz also found that the city had assembled a file on him in an attempt to discredit him and his findings, he says. Shotz is suing Jacobs, the City of Plantation, and other city officials over the incident. The case is still active in U.S. District Court. Jacobs refuses to comment on the matter.
Garon was so incensed -- it was he who had recommended Shotz as a consultant to Hillier -- that he decided to make it a public issue in an election campaign. "Since it was mostly Ron Jacobs that did it, he felt it was important to run against Ron," Shotz says.
"If I didn't run -- I filed ten minutes before the deadline -- that would have given the people the opinion that what [Jacobs] did was wonderful," Garon says. He was willing to sacrifice $8000 of his own money to defend Shotz's name. "I gave up the down payment on a brand new truck for that." This time he garnered 20.6 percent of the vote to Jacobs's 79.4 percent.
His political career on hold for now, Garon is focusing on the arena with which he's most familiar. In December, he filed a federal lawsuit against the new Weston Town Center, built by a major developer (Arvida) and approved by Broward County. The complex of restaurants and shops on Main Street, Garon says, was built with such utter disregard for the ADA that it's almost impossible to fix without tearing it down and starting over. Garon's lawsuit alleges 82 separate violations involving sidewalks, doors, counters, tables, and bathrooms -- nothing was built right, he says, making it impossible for the disabled to conduct normal business. To see a new, major project so badly built is "a slap in the face" to the disabled, he says.
Worst of all is parking, his particular bugbear. There's not a single disabled parking spot near the main business entrances; all are tucked around back. "So no "crips' are allowed on Main Street," Garon says wryly.
And the suit against Weston Town Center is only his opening salvo. "That's nothing compared to what's going to happen," Garon warns. "I'm going to hit them with every building out there. Any building that's brand-new that has serious enough deficiencies will be sued. I'm dying to see what they're going to do. I really think they could build the pyramid of Cheops again before they could fix all this."
But Garon maintains he's suing only because he cares. "I go out there a lot," he says. "I like the shops there." Weston's young and energetic population will one day be elderly and infirm, he points out; if much of the town is inaccessible to him now, where will they be in a few decades?
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Arvida's claim that it plans to conduct its own investigation into any problems, in Garon's opinion, means that the developer will merely try to apply for waivers to the Florida Accessibility Code. But that still won't exempt them from the ADA. "It's not gonna happen," he gloats. "You can't do that, even if you know all the Bushes." Attorneys for Arvida and Weston did not return calls seeking comment for this story.
The project was approved by Broward County building inspectors, to whom the City of Weston contracts its services. Tom Velasquez, chief building inspector for Broward County Building Code Services Division, admits there were problems. "It was a very rushed project, and most of the inspectors who did the project were newly hired inspectors and didn't have much experience with the ADA," Velasquez says. "We actually sent some of my people back, but since it's under litigation, I don't want to say much more."
Velasquez promises that, lawsuit or no lawsuit, changes are on the way. "I have taken some steps to keep something like this from happening in the future," he says. While all of his inspectors have had training in ADA standards, it's only a minor part of their job. Now he is establishing a team of inspectors just to check ADA compliance in a separate, special inspection of new construction. "We're actually giving new classes to all the inspectors," he says. Even so, he has fewer than 50 inspectors to cover the unincorporated area of Broward County and the 24 cities that use county building inspectors.
Garon has previously advocated creating just such an inspection team. Meanwhile, he sees more than enough work for himself with existing problems just in Broward County. "I feel like the sorcerer's apprentice," he says: In the course of inspecting one place for ADA compliance, a dozen more problems turn up. But if businesses and governments continue ignoring the ADA, he and his colleagues won't just go away. "These lawsuits are going to increase geometrically," he warns.