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

Really, why would they need time? If an existing business isn't in compliance already, they have knowingly been breaking existing law. If they are just opening, why seek out a way to exclude the disabled? It doesn't make sense, other than protecting the asses of establishments who haven't cared about the law or the customers and don't want to be fined for it in the future.

Warren

Thank you for pointing out the weakness of some Civil Rights type enforcement, it approaches criminal how some ADA self appointed pseudo cop shows up and MAKES an issue that has not been even noticed for years, even in shops or stores and restaurants where owners go to great lengths to accommodate, not exactly as the law states but an accommodation none the less. Asking for assistance is discouraged and considered demeaning by these pseudo cops, if a person is really inconvenienced in a mean spirited or intentional way, then sic the hounds of hell. One gym I was a member at had to tear out part of the dressing areas to install a new ramp for a disabled member, it was not convenient for the person to use the actually fantastic ramp longer ramp around the pool area that was already there, it was just longer, not a terribly good reason but the ADA cops enforced the ruling that longer but adequate was not good enough.

Brian

YOu are right 60 Minites did a story last year called Drive By Lawsuits. Where lawyers paid people to go find issues so they can file a lawsuit against the business. As an architectural Drafter who has done several new and remodel business drawings dealing with ADA requirements I understand the reasoning of this story but like everything else in this world people are out to make a quick buck on this.

Anonymous

This is about as sensible an argument as saying that rapists should not go to trial because once in a blue moon a victim made up the story.
People with disabilities should be 2bd class citizens because you don't like lawyers?
The ADA has been the law of the land for almost thirty years. I think businesses have had time to adjust.

Anonymous

Then hope to fuck you don't become disabled, you ableist little prick. :)

Az

Dear Anonymous - I have heard of this detestable practice too. But this bill swings the pendulum too far and puts yet another burden on every single person with disabilities to take on business establishments who are non-compliant. As if they (and their families) don't have enough to deal with.

ServiceLab

While I agree that there are many business owners who don't understand the ADA and many lawyers who will take advantage of them for that, I absolutely do not believe that taking away my civil rights will help that situation. I believe that business owners should be informed of the ADA. I believe the ADA should be better known, and that people should be educated on their rights and responsibilities under the law. I believe that courts should try harder to be impartial and understand the truth in cases such as you are describing, and that fewer people should be forced to pay exorbitant fees because (for example) the jury doesn't know the difference between an Emotional Support Dog and a Service Dog. But I absolutely do not believe that the countless business which have denied me entry, the countless city buses which have kicked me off or refused to move until I leave, the countless restaurants which have called security, or the countless employers who have refused to hire me, should be able to continue to discriminate against disabled folks with impunity forever and ever until one of us somehow miraculously happens upon enough money, time, energy, and good health to: pay our medical bills, afford rent and groceries and cost of living, get out of bed, get a lawyer, get out of work often enough to get to court, file complaints, wait six months, sue, win, and then do it all over again the next time we experience discrimination... which will, in my experience, be the very next day. Every day. Forever.

Maureen McManus

If I read this correctly it sounds to me like the passage of this bill would greatly increase the number of ADA-related lawsuits, not reduce them.

Crystal

While I respect your opinion on this matter, from the perspective of someone who became disabled after surgical complications, are you aware of the challenges for those stuck in a wheelchair?

I once went to a large casino in Vegas while in a wheelchair and on IV antibiotics 24/7 (talk about a fun trip through TSA to bring all of those balls of IVs to get on the plane). I needed to use the restroom in a popular and large casino. There were probably 20 stalls, one of which was labeled for wheelchair access. I'm not complaining about the lack of stalls but instead the lack of space for a wheelchair IN THE ADA STALL. When I got into the stall, the space was too small to move my wheelchair around so I ended up having to CLIMB OVER THE BACK OF MY WHEELCHAIR, ALL THE WHILE JUGGLING MY IV just to get to the toilet. Do you know how hard that was? What do people with even less mobility than me do if they can't climb over their chair?

I could provide a good hundred examples of challenges those of us with mobility issues deal with on a daily basis. All I'm asking for is a little extra help to be more independent and feel more "normal". I shouldn't have to sit outside a heavy door that I can't open in my wheelchair and does not have an automatic button and cry until someone comes by that I can ask to open the door for me.

I do empathize with your argument, but just like medical malpractice law it's to protect the more vulnerable. I would hate to see ADA protections loosen to better serve businesses over a vulnerable population.

I can assure you that if you spend a week in a wheelchair, your eyes will open wide to the difficulties added to your day just to get around -- all just because you can't walk with your legs/feet. Some people will take advantage of any protections to make some money through lawsuit, regardless of the specifics of a given law. Changing this will only hurt people with disabilities that count on ADA to get around.

Anonymous

So true.

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