Nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population is disabled. This means that the ADA — the Americans With Disabilities Act, which was passed in 1990 under President George H.W. Bush’s administration — protects the basic rights of almost 60 million disabled Americans.
My husband ― a quadriplegic wheelchair-user since a spinal cord injury in his 20s, a father to our 6-month-old and a professor at Oberlin College ― has found the ADA to be invaluable to our family’s ability to participate equally in society. In the U.S. House, 213 Republicans and 12 Democrats took a step toward making our everyday lives a lot harder by voting “yes” on H.R. 620 on Feb. 15.
Misleadingly named “The ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017,” H.R. 620 is posited as legislation that would prevent frivolous lawsuits against business by removing incentives to comply with accessibility laws. But in actuality, the new bill could potentially strip away access to a number of Americans living with disabilities.
Much of the support for the measure and its under-the-radar, low fanfare (at least in mainstream media coverage) passage relied on widespread public inattention to and ignorance about the ADA’s significance to disabled populations. Rationalizations for H.R. 620 belie either a fundamental misunderstanding or willful misrepresentation of both the ADA and the bill aiming to gut it.
“Dismantling the ADA doesn’t just hurt disabled people and their families. It hurts all of us.”
In a nutshell, the ADA protects the rights of disabled individuals to participate in public life and access government services. A landmark piece of legislation and the most comprehensive set of protections for the disabled population in U.S. history, the bill includes specific accessibility guidelines for businesses, particularly in the event of new construction or remodeling. The ADA sought to eliminate discrimination and to provide a legal incentive for government agencies and private businesses to address areas of inequality for the disabled.
This new bill largely dismisses the reality that the heart of the ADA isn’t about legal action at all. The ADA does not provide for monetary compensation beyond legal fees. The goal of an ADA lawsuit is not financial reward, but steps toward equality by compelling the business or organization in question to provide accommodations for the disabled.
H.R. 620 fundamentally weakens the ADA at its core and imposes an even greater burden on disabled people who encounter barriers to access. The disabled individual in question would now have to lodge a specific written complaint with the business violating the ADA, detailing the changes that need to be made for their particular accommodations. The business would have 60 days to respond to acknowledge receipt, and would have another 120 days to provide proof of “substantial improvement” toward accommodations, which is so vaguely worded that it’s difficult to enforce or evaluate.
Thus, while H.R. 620’s proponents claim that it untangles “red tape,” that’s the opposite of its likely outcome for the very population the ADA was written to protect, adding months of exhaustive labor and bureaucracy-defying logistical feats to our plates without promising a favorable outcome.
H.R. 620 sets up a bogeyman in order to quietly roll back basic rights under the guise of protecting small businesses. The bill’s primary backer is the International Council of Shopping Centers and any claims from this group that it’s merely attempting to prevent exploitation and frivolous lawsuits should be viewed with, to put it kindly, heavy suspicion. Retail lobbyists were some of the ADA’s strongest opponents when it first passed, and that hasn’t changed.
The ADA allows my husband to be an effective parent, to go to work, to drive, and to enter public spaces for the purposes of everything from food shopping, education and medical care to recreation, exercise and socializing. It’s the primary factor in my husband’s financial independence because he can’t work somewhere if he can’t park, use the restroom or get in the door. For many disabled people (for example, wheelchair users who drive wheelchair vans), an absence of accessible parking spaces means not going anywhere at all.
Disability rights activists fought valiantly against the attempt to dismantle the ADAour rights, with many ADAPT protesters arrested or removed while demonstrating at the Capitol building and in the House gallery on the day of the vote on H.R. 620. ADAPT condemned the passage of the bill, writing that “the House decided that the burden of getting justice for discrimination against people with disabilities lies with the victim.”
It noted that “more than 500 disability rights organizations sent letters to Congress opposing the bill.” Now, ADAPT is shifting its attention to the Senate, where it is trying to prevent a companion bill from being introduced.
The ADA has, for many, meant the difference between between second-class citizenship (or worse) and equality; between institutionalization and independent living; between poverty and the right to establish oneself financially. H.R. 620 is not so much an addendum or an amendment but a total rollback of the ADA, or at least its most valuable components.
The ADA provides vital support to an increasingly disabled society, in which almost all of us will experience disability, whether our own or a loved one’s, over the course of our lives. Dismantling the ADA doesn’t just hurt disabled people and their families. It hurts all of us.
Laura Dorwart is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California-San Diego with an MFA from Antioch University. Her website is www.lauradorwart.com.