This Thursday (tomorrow), the U.S. House of Representatives will vote on H.R.620, the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017. The bill, if it becomes law, would limit the ability of people with disabilities to enforce their civil rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Introduced by Representative Ted Poe (R-TX), the bill has 108 cosponsors—97 Republicans and 11 Democrats.
Back in September, I watched as the House Committee on the Judiciary held a mark-up session and voted to report the bill to the House by a 15-9 margin. In disgraceful fashion, the committee rejected numerous reasonable amendments to the act, sending a message to people with disabilities that our participation in society is not valued.
‘Drive-by’ ADA lawsuits only scratch the surface
In a 60 Minutes segment that aired in December 2016, Anderson Cooper highlighted ADA lawsuits in an overwhelmingly negative light. I saw the segment as a poor journalistic effort, failing to examine the true effects that ADA violations have on the disability community. Cooper focused only on serial litigants and not on any of the major accessibility victories that have been gained through the threat of legal action.
You don’t have to look very far for these – the Department of Justice maintains a list of their own enforcement activities on ADA.gov. Without legal intervention, wheelchair users wouldn’t be able to ride Greyhound or SuperShuttle, and it still wouldn’t be possible to reserve accessible hotel rooms on the Hilton website.
Personally, I have struggled to decide whether serial litigants are doing a bad thing, or whether they’re doing what the government should be (if it had more resources). Unfortunately, those who abuse the law’s protections for profit are only picking the low-hanging fruit. Countless cases have been brought against hotels for the absence of a swimming pool lift, but do not consider the in-room accessibility that is most critical. The legal settlement or court’s ruling would require a lift to be installed, but other ADA violations often remain.
I am writing this article from a Days Inn that has an accessible pool lift, but the “accessible” guest room’s bathroom lacks grab bars, an ADA-approved shower seat and a handheld shower spray unit. So, unless wheelchair users are meant to bathe in the swimming pool, this hotel is not accessible. What good is that?
If I were the U.S. Attorney General, I’d absolutely be a serial litigant, going after every ADA violation that is reported. People with disabilities have the same rights to legal protection as every other American, and I would make it my mission to combat discrimination in the built environment.
The H.R.620 notification requirement won’t work
The ADA Education and Reform Act will prevent aggrieved individuals from filing lawsuits under Title III of the ADA until they have provided notice of the violation to the business owner that is “specific enough to allow such owner or operator to identify the barrier.”
While that sounds reasonable on the surface, H.R.620 further delays civil action by affording the business owner up to 180 days to demonstrate that he/she has made “substantial progress in removing the barrier.” What “substantial progress” means is not described, and will have to be decided by the courts on a case-by-case basis.
I notify businesses, hotels, transportation providers, airports and local governments of ADA violations all the time. 99% of them take no action, all but daring me to bring legal action (I don’t). If notification does not spur compliance at a time when I could jump straight to a lawsuit, I don’t understand how the reforms proposed in this bill could possibly improve compliance. If anything, H.R.620 will undercut the accessibility movement, slash our civil rights and establish a new right for business owners to discriminate against the disabled.
The ADA Standards for Accessible Design, which have been in place (and in writing!) since 1991, are freely available online. Business owners can download them here. Is that notification enough? And what other laws should we allow people to violate until they are served with a written notice that they’ve violated the law?
ACT TODAY — Call your Congressman!
The ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017 will reduce ADA compliance and make it harder for people with disabilities to participate in society. Businesses will be given the freedom to discriminate, while being shielded from litigation thanks to a law that rolls back nearly 30 years of disability rights.
I strongly encourage you to pick up your telephone TODAY, call your congressman or congresswoman, and express your displeasure with H.R.620. The vote is Thursday, February 15, so the time to act is NOW!
To find the contact information for your congressional representative, click here.
You can also tweet using the hashtag #HandsOffMyADA. Be sure to follow me on Twitter while you’re at it!
Let’s defeat this despicable bill!