Two Southwest-based eye surgery centers reached a $1 million settlement earlier this year with the Justice Department, which had accused the firms of discriminating against patients with disabilities.
The January agreement settles a 2022 lawsuit against Barnet Dulaney Perkins Eye Center and American Vision Partners that claimed they violated patient rights covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The two companies “refused to operate on certain patients who needed assistance transferring from their wheelchairs for surgery and required other such patients to pay for third-party medical transport and transfer assistance,’’ according to a Justice Department statement about the consent decree.
The companies deny any wrongdoing in the consent decree, which calls for $950,000 of the settlement to be set aside to compensate patients, and the other $50,000 to be paid in a civil fine. Under the decree, which was approved Jan. 19, the firms agree that they will not violate ADA in the future, will train staff and post ADA notices, among other measures.
Cases like that are not surprising to Arizona activist Gina Schuh, 37, who said people with disabilities regularly have to fight for the rights promised in the ADA.
Schuh, based in Gilbert, has been using a wheelchair since age 18. Also an artist and lawyer, she teaches disability rights to business owners and others, lacing serious information with self-deprecating humor. She is active on Facebook and Instagram.
“It’s not an easy walk in the park – I mean it’s no walk at all,” Schuh jokes. “I’m not embarrassed of my disability, I’m not ashamed of my disability. When people tell me not to let it define me, I say, ‘Actually. it 100% has defined me as a person and who I am today and I am cool with it.’”
In an interview, Schuh talked about running into routine bias, the myth that the ADA resolves disability concerns and about leveraging the power of activism to reform systems for future generations.
Have you ever encountered poor medical treatment?
I went to a medical facility recently and they said, “Oh yeah, there’s no place to transfer you and we can’t help you.” It was pretty ridiculous. They made me go into a storage room in order to get undressed because the changing room wasn’t accessible and I needed X-rays.
This stuff is pretty common, shockingly common, and that’s what’s crazy. People in wheelchair groups around Arizona are always asking for medical places that can transfer patients or have a transfer bed because they were refused at other places. A lot of people don’t realize that they’re being discriminated against, but they don’t fight it because there are no repercussions.
There are layers and layers of discrimination that you don’t see until you are impacted by it.
What are some common accessibility issues you face?
Showing up to places where they aren’t being accessible – it’s simple things that could be fixed. I’m happy to talk to a business and coach them on how to be more accommodating, and I think that really helps everyone in the long run.
One in four people identify with being disabled and that’s a huge percentage. The problem is that the disabled community is so disjointed – all of the disabilities are so different. I, as a wheelchair user, have no idea what it is like for someone who is visually impaired.
What makes activism in the disabled community difficult?
People with different types of disabilities are living under the same guidelines for the disabled community. But our lives are so different, so it’s really hard for people with disabilities to work cohesively fighting for the same goals, because all of our needs are so different. Access all around is a mess. It’s a mess and we’re told to be happy but it (the ADA) doesn’t do a lot. They’re making people with disabilities the bad guy and it’s horrible.
What are some barriers with the ADA now vs. when it was created in 1990?
For public accommodation, people with disabilities struggle quite a bit for access still and that’s because everything is so out of date. It doesn’t reflect the current numbers and I think that’s something that can be better.
Going to law school opened my eyes to see why the Americans with Disabilities Act is actually so challenging to have written and been applied, and why it is so out of date because it’s such a daunting task to do. I love it but I hate it because people see it as the perfect standard. People think if you meet all of the standards in the ADA you’ve done great. What I see it as, is a minimum and I think what it has done is make businesses complacent because they don’t have to try beyond the minimum standards, which are pretty low.
Sometimes I have to drive around to find parking because I need to have room to open my ramp. Everyone loves parking in the front, especially when it’s hot in Arizona. There are times where I will have to come back to a business later because I can’t get a parking spot.
What were some issues you faced after going from an able-bodied person to living with a disability?
When I was 18, I had a diving accident. I dove into the edge of a pool. I dove 3 feet deep and I broke my neck at the C5/C6 vertebra. I am technically a quadriplegic and a full-time wheelchair user. I ended up going to get my bachelor’s in political science. Then I went to law school to aid in my disability advocacy, because after becoming a wheelchair user, I realized that discrimination was running rampantly. I knew something needed to be done.
At first, not being able to get into places that could have been easily accessible made me feel for a while that my money wasn’t as valid, my business wasn’t as important. I later realized it wasn’t that, because people just didn’t know. That’s why I took it upon myself to educate businesses and help others advocate for their rights.
What is the passion behind your drive to advocate for not just your own rights but for other people?
We need equal access. We are equal in our brains and minds. My body may not be equal but we’re all living. I contribute to society in ways that able-bodied people can’t. I think when we start quantifying the quality-of-life is when we start failing as a society.
People with disabilities already have a lot going on in their life. They are merely trying to survive. Why is it their responsibility to ensure that businesses are following the law that was implemented by the government?
Just planting seeds in people’s brains on how they can be better will help not just us now, but also people in the future who will have a better life because issues were fixed by us.