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Remembering disability advocate David Ketroser

photo of article author
George Shardlow
David Benjamin Ketroser was born to Irwin and Grace Ketroser. He attended St. Louis Park High School, Stanford, and the University of Minnesota Medical School, specializing in neurology. Not one to resign himself to a paltry one advanced degree, he went on to get a law degree from William Mitchell School of Law. He was the child of a Minnesotan Jewish community that seems to be an omnipresent, essential ingredient to any and all civil rights advocacy in this state. I do not know when he was diagnosed with MS, but by the time I met him, it required him to use a power wheelchair. He was a licensed accessibility specialist, although that is something of an understatement. He died on Nov. 7, due to complications from MS.

David’s and my paths crossed only once, but it was impactful enough that I’ll never forget it. I was serving as legislative director for a disability advocacy organization. For the preceding year, we had been partnering with business associations to do proactive outreach to small business owners about complying with accessibility requirements under both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Minnesota Human Rights Act. The partnership was prompted by a recent spate of “drive-by” accessibility lawsuits. By “drive-by,” I mean that at least some of the lawyers filing these lawsuits were doing so on behalf of clients who may or may not have actually attempted to access the business in question. By some accounts, certain lawyers were literally going on Google Earth, scanning for businesses with visible access violations. During a 60 Minutes special on the topic, several plaintiffs even claimed that their lawyer had filed lawsuits without their knowledge and consent.

A notable distinction

David held a notable distinction among this group of litigators, in that in addition to being a lawyer, he himself was also a person with a disability. This distinction would become acutely relevant during the legislative deliberations that would ensue. Given that the proactive outreach that my organization conducted had not succeeded in stymieing the flow of lawsuits, the business community proposed a new round of legislation.

The bill as first introduced would have, in effect, granted an inaccessible business impunity. The bill required an aggrieved person with a disability to file a complaint with the business in question. That business would then have enjoyed a 60-day window to remedy the violation, before being subject to any liability. In effect, business owners could put their feet up and wait for a person with a disability to contact them. Until that transpired, there would have been no lingering, ongoing impetus (in state law) for them to become accessible in the absence of that threat.

Given our previous collaboration, the business community assumed that our organization would provide them with cover fire and support their bill, even though they had made no effort to include us in drafting the initial engrossment. In early hearings, we expressed our support for preventing drive-by lawsuits, but we also conveyed our concern that the bill, as drafted, went too far. In one of the early hearings on the bill, a small business owner described the harm a lawsuit had caused him and then pointed to his collaboration with our agency as evidence of his good faith. I testified after him, expressing our concern. Afterwards, he turned to shoot me a look of indignation and disgust. As is too often the case in politics today, our pursuit of nuance was interpreted as betrayal.

Working in conjunction with trial lawyers and business advocates, we ultimately secured a compromise, aided by the legislative acumen of Senator Nick Frentz, that would require an aggrieved person with a disability to demonstrate real harm, before filing suit. No more Google Earth. Nonetheless, parties with legitimate grievances would retain their right to litigate those grievances.

One outstanding controversy

There was only one outstanding controversy. Civil law acknowledges a distinction between the bar that needs to be met by a person represented by an attorney versus what is expected of the average citizen, representing themselves without formal, legal education. The bill as introduced subjected the aggrieved person with a disability to the same level of scrutiny, whether they were represented by an attorney or represented themselves. Advocates within the legal community wanted to maintain a lower burden of proof for a person with a disability representing themselves, in recognition of the aforementioned legal tradition.

There was just one problem: David. While he had allowed his license to lapse, David was an attorney and a brilliant one, at that. An attorney representing themselves is represented by an attorney. It (truly) did not seem fair that he would be excused from the level of scrutiny applied to any other attorney. His body may have required accommodation, but his brilliant mind certainly did not. So, how do you solve a “problem” like David?

In what would arguably be the first and maybe only materially beneficial application of my liberal arts education and upbringing as the son of an English teacher, I proposed the phrasing “a person not represented by an attorney, who is not an attorney themselves.” The compromise was accepted. Therefore, I was feeling quite smug and self-satisfied, walking through the halls of the capitol as a young advocate, when my phone rang.

“This is David Ketroser.”

I stopped dead in my tracks. Throughout this entire process, we had not actively collaborated with David. He was like Godot, lingering somewhere offstage, but nonetheless serving as the focal point of the entire drama. A time or two, I saw him from across the room, at a legislative hearing. He would testify with a righteous anger that caused the room to shake.

The latest draft of the bill had been posted to the Legislature’s website, including my proposed compromise language.

“It might as well have my name on it,” David astutely and pointedly noted.

One more thing …

To the best of my ability, I repeated our talking points and attempted to articulate the multiple truths we were endeavoring to hold in tension. David made clear that he was unimpressed and continued to be virulently opposed. As our conversation came to an end, he asked if he could say one more thing. I braced myself for another onslaught of indignation, but instead he said this.

“Thank you. You’re the first person in a while to stand up and fight on this.”

I do not include that to be self-aggrandizing. I say it to preface the wave of shame that came over me, as soon as he said it, shame rooted in the lingering fear that I was a traitor who did not deserve his thanks. You see, while we stood at opposite sides of a fault line, my relationship with David was complex. Internally, I was torn into two pieces.

There was the part of me that had been mainstreamed in the classroom growing up, had been voted homecoming king, had for all intents and purposes enjoyed the quality of life afforded to able-bodied people. (This is in part due to the mildness of my condition, but more so due to the reforms secured by the advocacy of David’s generation). That part of me wanted to yell at David, to tell him to be quiet, because they were finally giving us a seat at the table.

Then, there was the part of me that got bullied so aggressively in middle school that I fell into despair, the part of me that used to wonder if my condition precluded me from being the object of sexual desire, the part of me that, even today, attracts the stares of passers-by, on the days when my symptoms are particularly acute. That part of me recognized that David’s generation had grown up in a society that kept people with disabilities caged in institutions. That part of me heard him, as he seemed to say that that Frederick Douglass was right; power would never concede anything without a fight. That part of me was secretly rooting for David. That part of me recognized him as a hero. That part of me knew, deep down, that a fully accessible society would have nothing to fear from David’s litigation.

New generation emerges

Ultimately, the legislation passed. To my knowledge, at least in state court, the capricious lawsuits ceased, while legitimate cases continue to be heard. A new generation of advocates, exemplified by the righteous irascibility of my friend Noah McCourt, continue to push our state and our country to make good on their promises. For my own part, I left the world of disability advocacy and now represent one of the largest corporations in the world, in what you might call an act of adult mainstreaming. I continue down this path of integration as rebellion. I remain suspended, as I have always been, somewhere between the chains of my ancestors and the wings of my children.

Seeing news of David’s death hit me like a ton of bricks. The next day, I went to work. Though I don’t need it, as a symbolic tribute to David, I pushed the button for the automatic door. It slowly swung open, granting access to the corporate headquarters within, which in and of itself felt like a metaphor too pregnant with meaning to be fully articulated. As the door’s motor hummed, I silently gave thanks to God for the warrior he now calls home.

Rest well, David.

George Shardlow works in government relations for a Minnesota-based company. He lives in Hopkins with his loving fiancé, not far from where David grew up. If any business owners have questions about accessibility compliance, George encourages them to contact the Minnesota Council on Disability for referral to an access specialist, at mn.gov/mcd.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 11/29/2019 - 03:50 pm.

    Ketroser was one of the sleaziest people around. An absolute stain on the legal profession.

    http://m.startribune.com/doctor-lawyer-wheelchair-user-it-s-the-same-person-and-he-s-filing-disability-lawsuits-by-the-bundle/381330311/

    • Submitted by Deidre Kellogg Ketroser on 12/12/2019 - 06:50 am.

      Pat Terry: for you to make that cruel and ignorant comment tells me that you either did not know David, and/or you are part of the business lobby who feels they can ignore the ADA & MHRA, even though they have been law for over 25 and 35 years respectively.
      You probably think that your bottom line is more important than making a world full of barriers more accessible and welcoming to those in the Disability Community. David was one of the most ethical people around. perhaps he sued you because your business was in violation. Unfortunately, the way they created the ADA, the only way to get remediation of barriers is through litigation. Somehow people turn that around and blame the victim, when all along the real problem is businesses that are knowingly out of compliance but don’t care and won’t fix the violations until forced.
      So tell me, who is the real jerk? A person such as David Ketroser who sees discrimination and injustice and used his remarkable skill set to try to right the wrongs and make the world more accessible, or people such as you who don’t care about the Disability Community and creating a more accessible environment because it might be inconvenient and touch your financial bottom line?
      David worked very hard for justice and to make this world a better place.

    • Submitted by Fred Stasek on 12/14/2019 - 06:46 am.

      I read the linked article, and it is quite as good a testament to David Ketroser as any memorial. As a counselor to his wife’s efforts to help my cause for justice (in a completely different legal arena) David’s contribution to my life and efforts for justice were highly valuable, and I didn’t even know his background or what he did usually. So the article was helpful.

      Meanwhile, names are cheap. Come on, man!

  2. Submitted by Deidre Kellogg Ketroser on 12/12/2019 - 06:51 am.

    My thanks to the author for a touching article on my late husband.

  3. Submitted by Deidre Kellogg Ketroser on 12/13/2019 - 09:19 pm.

    A CORRECTION TO MY RESPONSE TO PAT TERRY’S COMMENT:
    Pat Terry: for you to make that cruel and ignorant comment tells me that you 1.did not know Dr. David Ketroser, and you are likely part of the business lobby who feels they can ignore the ADA & MHRA, even though they have been law for well over 25 and 35 years respectively.
    You probably think that your bottom line is more important than making a world that is full of barriers more accessible and welcoming to those in the Disability Community. Dr. Ketroser was one of the most ethical people you will ever meet.

    Perhaps he sued you because your business was in violation. Unfortunately, the way they negotiated the ADA (and the MHRA is even more prohibitive) was that the only way to get remediation of barriers is through litigation, which discourages most people from trying to correct the injustices. Dr. Ketroser had a unique skill set (in addition to his medical and law degrees he was a Licensed Accessibility Expert and at the time of his death was completing a Master’s Degree in Bioethics at the U of M) that allowed him to make enforcing a law that helps to even the playing field for people with disabilities his life’s mission towards the end of his far too short life.

    Yet somehow some people try to change the narrative and blame those that are victims of this discrimination, when all along the real problems are businesses/owners who are knowingly out of compliance but don’t care and won’t fix the violations until forced.

    So tell me, who is the real jerk? A person such as David Ketroser who sees discrimination and injustice and used his remarkable skill set to try to right the wrongs and make the world more accessible, or people such as you who don’t care about the Disability Community or creating a more accessible environment because it might be inconvenient and touch your financial bottom line?

    Since you are most likely an able-bodied person who would not be negatively affected by this world full of barriers, let me tell you what it is like for those of us in the Disability Community when we confront barrier after barrier and violation after violation everywhere we go: we feel disrespected, humiliated, unwelcome, discounted, disposable, and angry.

    People use the term “serial litigants” for people such as Dr. Ketroser who dare take on the “system.” They are only “serial litigants” because there are so many violations. Everywhere one looks one finds violations. But we are the ones who are supposed to just forget about it and look the other way, when our rights are being blatantly violated?

    I acknowledge that there are unethical people who file abusive ADA law suits out there, but Dr. David Ketroser was not one of them.

    He no doubt shortened his brilliant life because of his dedication, hard work and passion to right wrongs. Just ask his patients, even people he has sued and opposing counsel in some of his lawsuits and they will tell you that he was a decent, kind, ethical and compassionate human being.

    Dr. David Ketroser worked very hard for justice and to make this world a better place. For all.

    P.S. As for the link that you shared to that unfair and biased article by John Reinan in the Star Tribune, that story was so badly done, calling it journalism is charity. It was a hit piece. Mr. Reinan came with an agenda that he was less than honest about. He was clearly representing the business lobby, and purposely painted a not so flattering picture of who Dr. Ketroser was and why he did what he did. The bias became all the more evident by the photograph chosen to accompany the story. The photographer had been there during the entire interview, shooting multiple rolls of film, and yet the photo that was chosen was one where Dr. Ketroser pulled himself up (with great effort) to put on his coat. He could not stand on his own for more than a few seconds and was wheelchair dependent always. Yet the choice of photographs was so deceiving, as if to insinuate that Dr. Ketroser only used a wheelchair as a prop. It was a huge insult and betrayal.

    I don’t know why you feel the way you do about the late Dr. Ketroser, but I can assure you that you did not really know or care to know who Dr. Ketroser was and what he was trying to accomplish. I hope that whatever satisfaction you got from posting such a mean-spirited comment about Dr. Ketroser was worth the pain that it caused his widow.

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