Congress Wants to Change the Americans With Disabilities Act and Undermine the Civil Rights of People With Disabilities

The Americans with Disabilities Act is the most comprehensive and foundational civil rights law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability. Yet, 27 years after it was passed, people with disabilities still face enormous barriers. People with mobility disabilities routinely find themselves blocked from the simplest of social interactions. They are unable to go to the corner grocery store to pick up a quart of milk because there is a step at the door. They are unable to go to the local movie theatre with their friends because there is no accessible seating. They might be able to get into the door of the local restaurant, but are stymied if they have to go to the bathroom while they are there, because it is the size of a postage stamp.

Title III of the ADA creates a proactive duty on businesses to remove architectural barriers and other obstacles that impede access to the establishment. But businesses have resisted making such changes for decades. And, now, they are asking Congress to help them. A harmful new bill in the House of Representatives, the so-called ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017 (H.R. 620), is gaining steam. It will be debated in the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday morning and may go to House floor for a vote soon thereafter.

We must stop this bill from ever becoming law.

H.R. 620 would completely change the way in which a business is required to comply with the ADA. Instead of requiring that a business comply proactively, the bill would place the burden on the individual who is being denied access. This bill proposes that after an individual with a disability is denied access she must first notify the business owner, with exacting specificity, that her civil rights were violated, and then wait for six months to see if the business will make “substantial progress” toward access, before going to a court to order compliance.

Business owners can spend years out of compliance and face no penalty even after they receive notice, so long as the owners claim “substantial progress.” By allowing a business an endless amount of time to become compliant with the ADA’s reasonable requirements, H.R. 620 removes any incentive for a business to proactively ensure that people with disabilities have access. Instead, the bill encourages businesses to just wait until an individual’s civil rights are violated before making any changes.

Those who support H.R. 620, particularly business groups, have argued that the bill makes only a minor and noncontroversial change to the ADA. They claim that the bill merely gives business owners additional time to make their facility accessible after they are notified of a problem. This argument is specious at best and should be rejected.

Supporters of this legislation ignore that shifting the burden in the bill goes completely against how our nation has enforced its civil rights laws since the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. When Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, it included a provision that allowed an individual who is denied access to a public accommodation because of race, color, religion, or national origin to immediately seek relief to gain access. This enforcement mechanism served as a powerful and incentivizing tool to ensure that businesses proactively complied with the law.

The success of the public accommodation provision in the Civil Rights Act influenced Congress when it drafted the Americans with Disabilities Act. Indeed, the public accommodation enforcement provision in the ADA is modeled on the enforcement provision in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Congress recognized that the civil rights of people with disabilities and their access to places of public accommodations should be treated no differently than the civil rights protections based on race, color, religion, or national origin.

This principle has stood in law for more than a quarter century. But now some in Congress are trying to change the way our country treats the civil rights of people with disabilities. That’s why the ACLU is fighting to ensure that the guarantees of the ADA continue; that the civil rights of people with disabilities are protected; and, in keeping with the intent of Congress, that they be treated no differently than others.

It is imperative that members of Congress stand up for the rights of people with disabilities. The Judiciary Committee in the House of Representatives is planning to vote and debate H.R. 620 on Thursday. The ACLU is urging all members of the Committee to vote against the bill and to stop it from going to the full House for a vote.

The bottom line is that people who use wheelchairs or who have other needs deserve the same right to visit local businesses as any other individual. Forcing people with disabilities to wait months to visit a supermarket or bookstore is precisely the kind of discrimination the ADA was designed to prevent. Businesses have had more than enough “notification” to comply with disability rights law. People with disabilities deserve equal access today — civil rights should not be delayed or tied up in bureaucratic red tape.

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Anonymous

I too am a person with limited abilities, please do not hobble me further. What is the purpose of making it harder to access ones civil rights? What is next?

Anonymous

The reason there are so many representatives from California supporting this is all the abusive lawsuits put forth in the name of ADA accessibility in California. There are people that all they do is notice old language on signs or faded paint on parking spaces and sue for thousands . These are businesses that were accommodating in good faith but they may be 1/4 inch off on how high the counter is or always leave their door open because they have a historic building with a noncompliant door knob but get sued anyway. Paying off these suits before getting to court is all most small businesses can afford. Something needs to be done about that.

Anonymous

Shame on you, Patricia! M ore than half of the people screaming for civil rights laws to be changed are Democrats! Maybe it's people with your biases that need to be stopped!!

Anonymous

I would say shame on the ACLU for not putting accessibility ahead of lawyers fees.

They make no attempt here to find a better path, but instead use disingenuous and contrary claims: A lawsuit should be exacting and specific. Repairing the access shoudl be put over penalties. And substantial progress is not a weak legal term.

The ACLU is wrong on this one, just like they were wrong to join in supporting the alt-right’s intimidation program last year.

Anonymous

I have a disability but don't need a wheel chair to get around, but I live where there are many who use the electric wheelchairs to get around to shop at a store a block away which is a great convenience. Most doors are open electrically, but I saw a woman in her electrical chair stuck due to a heavy door at the office of the apartment complex. This is so discriminating. I can't open it either due to the disability I have in my hands and due to that and my short size I can't put the garbage in the dumpster. Thank God my Son and Grandson stop by to pick it up for me.
Taking away the Laws that protect us is a Criminal Act and they have no business doing that and need to be removed from office. They are elected to SERVE The People Not take away the Laws that protect them.

Anonymous

ACLU, I am down with your program and thank you for your tremendous work. However, in this instance, I am not fully able to support your position. There is a cottage industry of ADA lawyers who are trumping up false phoney ADA cases purely for the financial benefit on themselves and their 'clients', at a grave cost to innocent businesses who are simply being fleeced. We need to take the financial motive and profit out of these ADA lawsuits and put the focus back where it should be, on ensuring a fair and open and accessible public for all.

Danyce R

Tell that to any of your family (or maybe your future self) the day they become disabled through no fault of their own.

Anonymous

If they are false - then how do they benefit financially? Give me one instance of such a phoney ADA case.

Anonymous

You have been taken in by stories of people who do not know what they are talking about. The ADA absolutely does NOT allow for monetary damages to be awarded. It only requires the business owner to make things accessible if found to be violating the law. A number of states have laws that allow for monetary damages and it is at the state level where the laws need to be amended and fixed. If this passes, people with disabilities will be the only protected group forced to wait six months or more to be allowed the right to access the same goods and services as other Americans. It's just another way of isolating and segregating people with disabilities.

Craig Klein

Agree competely that there need to be changes. Lets just make sure the proposed legislation doesn't go too far.

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