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

As written, this bill does not address costs to either the disabled people who are being denied access nor to "innocent businesses". It flatly puts the onus on each individual person who is being denied access to do the innocent business' homework for them about accommodation and then put perhaps a huge part of their lives on hold for, at a minimum, six months to see if the innocent businesses feel like not oppressing them anymore.

This is the edge of a large wedge attacking the concept of equal rights for all.

Anonymous

If a business isn't ADA compliant then they're not, "innocent" and they deserve to face litigation for their neglect.

I know what to do, advertise that certain businesses in our communities are out of compliance with the Act and sponsor boycotts of those businesses and any business owner who supports this so-called reform of the ADA.

No compliance, no business, equals bankruptcy, seems fair to me.

Thomas Young

Your comment is spot on. Our city, Corte Madera, CA, was sued for millions by an ex-Mayor using this scam. It cost the city millions, eventually settling out of court. The one bright spot is that the city is taking access seriously after dodging it for years. He has moved on to try it elsewhere. I served on the AAC and watched the intense process involved. Both my son and I are disabled and these politicians from both parties need to be removed from office.

Anonymous

This proposed change to the ADA is far from being the way to fix the holes in the process. There will always be shysters doing their best to game the system, but punishing the people we're trying to protect is not the way to flush out the wrong doers!
Personally, I've had to miss more weddings and celebrations than I care to admit simply because my scooter cannot climb stairs any more than I can.
Certainly, loopholes should be closed, buy trampling the rights of those of us disabled through no fault of our own is the opposite of the type of action to take.
In this area, M. Anonymous, you are wrong.

Anonymous

I agree that taking the financial benefit of lawsuits out of the equation would make the "false, phoney" accusations less frequent, but those are not as frequent as many people think. And taking the urgency of following a law that is 27 years old and the financial consequence out of not complying makes this law pretty much impossible to enforce. How would you suggest getting businesses to spend their money on removing physical barriers without giving them financial consequences? Maybe any awarded money should go to a fund to help struggling business become compliant? Money is a motivator and even now it's not motivating enough to get compliance.

Rochelle Dunlap

And again, by citing cases that happened in California and Colorado, you are speaking about things that happen under state laws, not federal.

I do have to take exception to the comment about the Squeeze Inn. They will bring disabled people's food outside to them.

Do you realize how much that sounds like the Jim Crow laws? Having to go in the back door or eat outside because of skin color?

And you think because someone has mobility issues that's okay? It's a matter of widening doorways, installing a handicap stall in the bathroom. Pretty simple fixes.

I'm lucky, as an amputee I can go anywhere without problem. But I was in a wheelchair for 2 years after my amputation and there were many places I just couldn't go. It is very frustrating.

Anonymous

There are a lot of lawyers making false discrimination claims too - should we take rights away from minority people too? So make things HARDER for those who are disabled because others are taking advantage. Great idea.

Beth

My husband is disabled and this hits home. Congress must be stopped this is deplorable!

Bill Patterson

No surprise here...the US Chamber of Commerce and other business groups have a long history of this kind of legislation. They only care about money, masking this with lip service to "freedom" that essentially locks out dissenting voices from the marketplace...be they disabled, people of color, LGTBQ community members and anyone else who questions the pursuit of the almighty dollar. Thank you for fighting this transparent effort to place disabled people at arm's reach from equal access to the privileges the rest of us take for granted.

Christie Loving

Answering the super not brave anonymous below...there may well be a few bad apples out there. But to NOT SUPPORT genuinely disabled people because of them - you are simply in the wrong. Think this through and then come back

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