Congress Could Destroy the Americans with Disabilities Act

A House bill, H.R. 620, is attacking key provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act under the guise of clarifying certain aspects of this landmark legislation. But it’s all part of the Republican war on disability rights. With misinformation swirling, it’s important to understand both the purpose of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the potential outcomes of this legislation.

First, the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA. Signed into law in 1990, this bipartisan legislation included a number of key civil rights provisions to protect the disability community, including anti-discrimination statutes and mandates for accessibility.

Under the law, public accommodations — like businesses — must comply with basic accessibility guidelines. This may include providing ramps or elevators as alternatives to stairs, adding grab bars in bathrooms for stability or providing communications materials in multiple formats.

This bill passed because of hard work by disability advocates frustrated with being kept out of public life. It affirms people’s rights to live in and engage with their communities, and many ADA protections benefit everyone. The legislation has been widely viewed by people across the political spectrum as a success — but not everyone.

Despite having 27 years to comply, some business interests still complain that the ADA is too onerous and difficult. These establishments think that they shouldn’t be required to welcome disabled people to their establishments, and they’re big fans of H.R. 620.

Right now, when a disabled people encounters an accessibility problem — say, a flight of stairs making it impossible to get to a bookstore — they have several options. One is to ask the business owner to comply with the ADA. Another choice is to file a complaint with the Department of Justice. Individuals can also sue directly to compel compliance.

Lawsuits are expensive and not very fun, but some disabled people have started filing them because requests for accommodations go ignored. Defenses of legislation like H.R. 620 often involve so-called “drive-by lawsuits,” in which people allegedly paper a town with lawsuits for personal profit — despite the fact that such suits come with no financial damages, only a requirement to remedy the accessibility problem. The ACLU notes that unscrupulous attorneys may use such suits to rack up billable hours, but that action by state bars can deter this small number of bad actors.

Lawmakers have attempted to introduce this legislation, known as the “ADA Education and Reform Act,” in multiple Congressional sessions, but this time, it seems to be gaining traction. Both Democratic and Republican representatives have signed on to cosponsor, indicating that it enjoys broad support.

So what does the ADA Education and Reform Act actually do?

If our theoretical wheelchair user wants to shop for books and can’t access the store, she’s not allowed to take the case to court immediately. Instead, she has to complain to the business owner, who has up to 180 days to respond.

By “respond,” we don’t mean “fix the problem.” No, the business just has to say it’s made “substantial progress,” which is so poorly defined that it’s basically meaningless. If the bookstore talks to a contractor and decides to do nothing, is that substantial progress? Businesses could drag their heels for months or even years to avoid complying with the law.

While the ADA is a law, many people seem to think it doesn’t apply to them, or view accommodation as a nuisance. By substantially undermining disabled people’s ability to take action on access issues, H.R. 620 effectively encourages businesses to do nothing: Just wait for a complaint, and then try to win a war of attrition.

What’s the big deal with waiting for a complaint? What if no disabled person wanted to use a business, anyway? Well, you have no way of knowing until disabled people try – and some don’t simply because they’re tired of dealing with inaccessibility.

Imagine if you were headed downtown to buy some socks, and every business you saw either had a large CLOSED sign or the signage was so confusing that it was hard to tell if they were open. Would you hop off the bus to try anyway? You probably wouldn’t — instead, you’d go home grumbling about how it’s impossible to buy socks in this town. That experience happens frequently for disabled people, and it’s very isolating.

H.R. 620 “fixes” a nonexistent problem — the government already provides education and outreach about ADA compliance, as do many local agencies. The law already provides a break in the form of mandating “reasonable accommodations,” a measure designed to reduce burden on small businesses; if they can demonstrate that something is unreasonably expensive or difficult, and there’s a less costly alternative, they’re free to use it.

But, like other recent moves by the Trump Administration, H.R. 620 is clearly calculated to push disabled people out of public life by dismantling the civil rights infrastructure necessary to define and enforce disability rights. Sadly, we do need legislation to protect the disability community from discrimination because in the absence of legislation, people continue to discriminate.

Take Action!

So what can you do about H.R. 620? You can join Care2 members in signing a petition asking members of Congress to protect the ADA.

You can also call your legislators directly. Here are some talking points relevant to people of all parties:

  • If you’re concerned about drive-by or frivolous lawsuits, evidence shows that action by state bars to discipline attorneys who engage in nuisance suits can be highly effective.
  • Most ADA-related suits are valid and specifically designed to remedy accessibility issues. This legislation will not put a stop to frivolous suits, though it may delay them.
  • The ADA works extremely well, and it’s the result of decades of bipartisan cooperation and collaboration. Protecting the interests of disabled people benefits everyone.
  • This legislation presents needless complex hurdles for disabled people seeking the public access they are entitled to under the law. Currently, most disabled people with access concerns already reach out to businesses, viewing lawsuits as a last resort.

Photo credit: Maryland GovPics

63 comments

Mike R
Mike R18 days ago

Petition signed

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Mike R
Mike R18 days ago

Petition signed

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Mike R
Mike R18 days ago

Petition signed

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Mike R
Mike R18 days ago

Petition signed

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Mike R
Mike R18 days ago

Petition signed

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Elaine W
Elaine W1 months ago

The longer he has power, the more people will be hurt...except the very rich.

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Kathryn I
Kathryn I1 months ago

The Republican Congress is about nothing else BUT destruction!! There's really nothing new about that.

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Elaine W
Elaine W1 months ago

Petition signed and I call my representatives offices with a short and concise opinion of how they should vote.

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Kimberly W
Kimberly Wallace1 months ago

Petition signed!

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Elaine W
Elaine W1 months ago

Outrageous. Petition signed of course.

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