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Colorado ADA activist works to bring businesses in compliance

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POSTED June 27, 2014 12:15 a.m.

Stephen Hamer fights gallantly for the rights of the handicapped.

When reports out of a sleepy Colorado hamlet started to surface about discrimination against those with access issues, Hamer began making routine trips from his home in Colorado Springs to see what he could do to bring justice. 

And he employs modern guerilla tactics in his fight. 

No, he doesn’t find a litigator without scruples to mail out the “drive-by lawsuits” that have been stealing headlines in communities across the country and shuttering businesses without any hope or chance of making the improvements needed. He uses Facebook. He puts the word out onto the Internet. He pushes for education. 

He may be demonized in the community he’s pushing for change in, but his tactics are far different than those employed by mobile litigation factories like Carmichael’s Scott Johnson – whose papering of small, privately-owned businesses in Manteca and Ripon has already forced one to close and has dozens of others on the brink.

“That’s not the way that we do things. The first thing that we try to do is educate the business on the ADA and let them know the ways in which they aren’t in compliance, and if that doesn’t work, then we write them a very sternly-written letter,” Hamer said. “It’s only then, as a last result, that we file a federal complaint. We try other avenues first – that’s really what we’re pushing for.”

Hamer contacted The Bulletin when he first read about the businesses who were facing difficult choices ahead after being served legal paperwork, and his initial assessment of the situation was unduly harsh – calling them “crybabies” that have had more than two decades to do what they needed to do in order to avoid this day from coming. 

But he also said he doesn’t agree with the tactic of writing demand letters – a practice that is technically illegal but is still commonly employed by ADA activists – or even scouting out businesses for the sole purpose of making them the party to a suit without at least talking to them first. 

If the first piece of paper that anybody gets regarding their non-compliance is a lawsuit, then any chance of making that person understand why things need to be done a certain way is lost, he said. That’s why his group operates differently. 

Those that shut him down end up on his Facebook list – StephensADAListCO – that outlines businesses that have been less than accommodating to people with disabilities. Those that rebuff his attempts at talking get listed, and when that list gains traction, they become known as the business that doesn’t cater to people in wheelchairs. 

It’s a timeless tactic, and if you’re somebody that has drawn Hamer’s wrath, it’s one that you’re almost assuredly not too keen on. But when mistakes have been made, he’s corrected them – several businesses are even commended in photo collages for doing what they can to help those with mobility issues, and in the cases where minor improvements can be made, simply pointing them out, and not filing a lawsuit, can often bring about the desired effect. 

It’s a far cry from what dozens of Manteca businesses – many too afraid to even publicly disclose their names out of fear that it’ll just open them up for another ADA lawsuit from another unscrupulous out-of-towner – are experiencing right now. 

“I think that California, and to an extent the federal government, needs to look into some of these matters,” Hamer said. “That’s not the way that we do things, and it makes things difficult for people who are out trying to make a difference.”

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