Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Gary C. Norman: Expanding access to public accommodations

Gary C. Norman

Gary C. Norman

I am optimistic of the role of legal tools, both soft ones and positive ones, to shift the conversation and, over time, make our society more inclusive.

As a result of broadly and justly defining places of public accommodations, such as to allow a service animal in our public space, Bowie and I were busy in 2018. We enjoyed adventures at various places of public accommodations such as meetings, bistros and hotels. I have also interacted with any range of websites, which are also, arguably, places of public accommodations.

I have been reflecting on how the idea of places of public accommodations has evolved in say even the past five years, ultimately influencing the lives of a range of diverse Americans.

It would be difficult for me, as a service animal handler, ever to narrowly define who we should allow into our public spaces. I have been a supporter of expanding the concept of places of public accommodations, such as covering gender-identity concerns.

Regrettably, there are misinformed persons, including civil rights leaders, who would deny me access with Bowie in my various roles as a private person and as a public leader. The temptation can be to see this solely as a disability-related problem instead of holistically understanding  that people who would deny Bowie and me opportunities are probably denying liberty to others, say, women who require temporary leave due to pregnancy.

Our vitriolic and social media-based times may belie this; the American people are, however, a decent and welcoming people who benefit when laws shift in the directions they often already know to be just. In this regard, I am confident that legal measures, mixed with soft measures, will advance us in forging our human relations in Maryland. Fundamentally, because states are the closest to the people, they must be our laboratories for more inclusion. As a newly minted chair at the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights, I note a couple of measures I urge be considered.

For instance, it is inane that there is a split in the U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal whether the Americans with Disabilities Act could be broadly defined as to cover websites as places of public accommodations. The American people must inherently know that such places are part of the public square, even if they do not know how blind people access the web. The U.S. Department of Justice withdrew proposed rulemaking that would have shifted the needle on this important question. If I were smarter and knew that a website could be considered Maryland-centric, then I would support a bill covering Maryland websites as places of public accommodations.

I support the expanding public accommodations law in Maryland to ensure more persons with disabilities can enjoy the public square.

As one example, the Maryland public accommodations protections, including the $500 fine that could be used as a civil monetary penalty, have not been increased since 1957. If Maryland cannot sanction bad behavior with what grabs all of our attention – money – then there is no overall oomph to enforcement efforts.

For those who are skeptical of civil rights enforcement, civil monetary penalties can only be assessed after an administrative law judge hears the case at the Office of Administrative Hearings and orders penalties in his or her decision. Consequently, I support a bill in the 2019 session that would expand the ability of the commission to seek such penalties, if ordered by an ALJ.

Returning to soft policymaking, I have also discussed with local and the state chambers of commerce the creation of a partnership to focus on disability-related access. Notably, a web platform (a more vetted Yelp-like process) would recognize positive service animal access, for example. For those who require growth, that platform would connect me to places of public accommodations that might benefit from training. Namely, Bowie and I would be visiting you to train you on the law.

Expanding the concept of places of public accommodations in remedial statutory schemes has a manifold value for society. It uses the law to promote inclusion. Of greater importance, we receive a more welcoming public space, which can lead to improved social and economic commerce among peoples. I thought of this recently when serving as a MC at a soiree held at an osteria in Little Italy.

The law, both the ADA and state law, allowed me to be at the place of public accommodation. Ultimately, its compliance, beyond its orientation to be the “Cheers” of Baltimore, resulted in revenue for that place of public accommodation. But what proved truly special is that a unique person with a dog, and an old Italian, the bistro’s owner, could find the warmth of conviviality as fellow humans, indeed, as ones who enjoy wine.

So, Bowie and I may be at a bistro near you in Annapolis next session probably promoting public policy, including the public accommodations bill.

Gary C. Norman, Esq. LL.M. serves as the chair of the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights. He can be reached at prometheusgroup16@hotmail.com.