Many of you know that since becoming Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Shalom, much of my time has been devoted to the promotion and enforcement of civil rights through my work with the Equal Rights Center (ERC), which I helped start in 1983 and also served more recently as its executive director. Currently, I am a member of the ERC board of directors.

Yes, the struggle for civil rights isn’t over. I know, we have an African American in the White House, although Donald Trump is hell bent on getting Barack Obama removed by proving he was not born in the United States. And yes, there are three Jews on the US Supreme Court. So much progress to celebrate, why in some grinch-like way would I want to steal this apparent victory and still sound the call to arms to oppose illegal discrimination? Can’t I take yes for an answer?

There are the obvious reasons. For example, since Barack Obama’s inauguration, hundreds of additional hate groups have taken root in the United States, which now boasts more than 1000 such organizations. And, as we see in Arizona and elsewhere, some of these folks mean business and how the Internet is exploited to help them.

And then there remains a constant flow of that all too familiar bigotry acted out against folks based on race, national origin, religion, gender, age and so on. Here is an example: A suit was just filed through a national but DC based law firm against Choice Hotels International. What happened?

Two women invited some friends to their hotel room to visit. The manager kicked them all out and said that the hotel has a no party policy and that no more than five people may be in the room at any one time. All the folks kicked out were black. They refused to leave. The police were called and investigated, only to discover a large group of white teenagers having a party in another room on the same floor and doing so unbothered by management. The police also found that there was no hotel policy banning parties in rooms. The police left. The manager still refused to let the two black women back into their room and threatened to spray them with mace.

I know. Disappointing. And why would Choice Hotels International fight such a suit? A lawyer told me once that such decisions have nothing to do with what is morally right and wrong, just with something called cost benefit analysis. You serve the bottom line...period. I have never been able to accept that reality, and I don’t think I ever will.

But tonight I want to discuss a huge legally protected group of citizens against whom illegal discrimination is directed more often than against any other group or class. And I want to enlist your vigilance and cooperation in stopping it. Of course I am talking about the more than 60 million Americans who comprise the class called people with disabilities.

How prevalent is this form of discrimination? It is everywhere. Almost every restaurant, most stores, most government buildings and the offices within, modes of transportation.

A recent ERC series of tests revealed that 60% of the time taxis in DC refuse customers who are blind and have service animals with them. And then there are the problems with METROACCESS!

And folks, this form of discrimination is so widespread that even hospitals are guilty of it. If you have disabilities, especially a mobility disability, or if you have a friend or loved one who does, you know exactly what I mean.

Tonight I am asking you to start taking notice and to do something about it when you see it: let the Equal Rights Center know.

The ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act, went into effect in 1990. So, how can it be that 21 years later all this discrimination against people with disabilities exists? Insufficient education and outreach, insufficient motivation to comply, insufficient investigations, insufficient enforcement action provides at least a partial explanation. But I promise you we can turn it around and I believe the extraordinary record of the Equal Rights Center in recent years, should provide lots of encouragement to us all to participate in making a difference, just by being more aware of what you witness and sending word of what is wrong through a quick phone call or e-mail to the Equal Rights Center.

In 2005, the number one crisis facing people with disabilities in the United States was finding accessible housing. The laws to make sure adequate accessible housing would be available went into effect in 1991. The laws just weren’t followed. Where? Everywhere! Everywhere. In Montgomery County, permitting officials would simply approve design and construction plans and occupancy permits without checking if the requirements for accessibility had ever been met. This same farce played out all over the country.

2005, the Equal Rights Center effort, with astounding legal support from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and the help provided the Committee by firms throughout the area, has resulted in the retrofitting of hundreds of thousands of units coast to coast and the proper design and construction of untold numbers of new units. Great successes indeed, but the fight is a long way from being over.

I must tell you, at this very hour the largest developer in the country, Equity Residential, remains one of the worst violators of fair housing requirements for people with disabilities. It is painful for me to say that Equity Residential is owned by Sam Zell of Chicago, a Jew.

I guess he never was in Temple to hear the portion Kedoshim, which will be read this year on April 30. In this famous, beloved parsha appear the words: “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.” It is not Jewish to act punitively towards people with disabilities. Sam Zell, we Jews are supposed to live what we pray! And I hope you discover soon that your brutally harmful cost benefit analyses in this matter turn out to be very wrong. Shame on you Sam Zell. Shame!

Just last week an announcement was made that the Subway Restaurant chain is now the largest in the world, significantly larger than McDonald’s. Well, for most of its history Subway pretty much disregarded the provisions in the ADA. The Equal Rights Center stepped in to stop that. An excellent settlement was reached. What makes it excellent? Last month I had lunch with a young man who uses a wheelchair. We got together at the Subway Restaurant on Main Street in Annapolis. He told me he could never go in there before a ramp was installed that leads from the entrance all the way to the service line and even to the now accessible doors leading into the accessible bathroom. That is excellence.

And I don’t know if you saw in the paper just a few months ago, news about the CVS decision to make over 7,000 of its drugstores accessible. That too resulted from Equal Rights Center action.

Some other places familiar to you that the ERC had to convince to pay attention to the ADA are MetroAccess, Hilton Hotels, the Washington Hospital Center, and Eye Care Centers of America. I could go on and on. I just want you to know that with your help this progress will advance ever more rapidly.

Let me share with you one brief story that really tells the tale for me. To this day, I still have trouble believing it, even though I was centrally involved.

A few years after I became the Executive Director of the Equal Rights Center, our Disability Rights Manager came to me and said that a sandwich shop in Dupont Circle that our staff frequents, had locked the door to one of its three entrances, the one accessible to users of wheelchairs. The Disability Rights manager told me she called the restaurant and mentioned the ADA and its rules about reasonable accommodation, and requested the door be unlocked. The answer was no. She then sent a demand letter. Same response.

I should note that around the same time two other Dupont Circle restaurants that had been accessible decided not to be. One of them, after changing ownership, actually removed a ramp and put in steps.

I decided to go to this first sandwich shop just across the Circle from our offices and find out what was going on. I spoke with Charlie, the manager of the place. He explained that the decision had been made to set up a tall stand displaying bags of potato chips and the best place for the stand was just inside the only accessible entrance to the restaurant. To protect the bags of potato chips from potential thieves, the decision was made to lock that door and keep it locked. Charlie wanted me to understand that potato chips trump the right of people with mobility disabilities to enter the restaurant. Potato chips trump civil rights. Ladies and gentlemen, I was unconvinced. I put my arm around Charlie and held him close and whispered in his ear, “Please Charlie, don’t make us sue you. It will be a slam dunk. Unlock the door!” He did so.

And please don’t get me started telling you about the four year battle the Equal Rights Center had to wage to get the DC Government to make the Wilson Building -- DC’s City Hall -- accessible! That was a truly disgusting display of bigotry and arrogance for which no defense, not even cost benefit analysis, applies. And the person most responsible for that ongoing abuse was the Attorney General for the District of Columbia during the Fenty administration: Peter Nickels. If you know him, please send my regards and tell him what I said. His entire time in office he assailed many of those civil rights he was sworn to protect.

Being able to find a place to live, or get a taxi, or receive treatment in a hospital, or get access to a bathroom, or use a pharmacy, or go to a bank, or being able to enter and use safely your city hall is a legal right that people with disabilities constantly find violated. Even when it comes to buying clothes, they are frequently blocked. Have you ever noticed the signature feature of Hollister Stores? It is a high step right placed right at each store’s entrance!

The ERC is on the case and expects to get Hollister and its parent company, Abercrombie and Fitch, to change their discriminatory practice in the near future.

Being able to access all these different types of places and services should not be withheld from any group of citizens not even to protect a bag of potato chips, certainly not in 2011 in the USA!!! My Lord, what are we fighting about?

What do you think would be the public’s response were these same places that choose to remain inaccessible to people with disabilities put out signs such as though I remember seeing as a boy: ‘No Coloreds, Jews or Dogs Allowed’? How long would these establishments get away with that?

Is accessibility really something we should have to continue to fight about? God Almighty how can this be so?

When it comes to the ADA’s rule of providing reasonable accommodation, it is way past time for most businesses and government agencies to get with Nike’s slogan: “Just do it!” Just do it already.

I hope you will help. I will put in the Shofar how to alert the Equal Rights Center of your encounters with inaccessibility, or civil rights violations of any kind.

I tell you tonight I am still looking forward to the day when everyone will agree that not even protecting bags of potato chips trumps civil rights. Kein yhi ratson... So may it be. Amen.

Equal Rights Center
11 Dupont Circle NW
Suite 450
Washington, DC 20036

Disability Rights Program Manager: Robyn Powell