Congress Weighs Changes To ADA
Disability advocacy groups are rallying to fight against legislation they say would undermine longstanding accessibility protections in the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The ADA Education and Reform Act, or H.R.620, is slated to come up for a full vote in the U.S. House of Representatives Wednesday or Thursday. But detractors say the bill would gut the part of the landmark ADA law which requires public businesses to make accommodations allowing for ease of entry for people with disabilities.
This bill would “eviscerate access rights,” said Jennifer Mathis, director of policy and legal advocacy at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. “It’s the equivalent of putting a sign on the door saying ‘People with disabilities not welcome.'”
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Proponents of the bill say it is intended to curb frivolous lawsuits against small businesses.
The ADA Education and Reform Act would require a person with a disability to provide written notice to businesses if they encounter barriers to entry. Under the legislation, businesses would have 60 days to acknowledge that written notice and an additional 120 days to initiate improvements. However, businesses do not have to fix problems within that time period — only show “significant improvement.”
“That’s pretty vague,” said Zach Baldwin, the director of outreach for the American Association of People with Disabilities. “Businesses can easily get away with kicking the can down the road.”
That means that people with disabilities might have to wait months to shop for groceries, see a movie, or dine out if businesses haven’t installed ramps, wheelchair accessible seating or accessible parking.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, said it is intended to protect businesses from improper lawsuits and it is endorsed by a number of business associations, including the America Hotel and Lodging Association and the International Council of Shopping Centers.
“There is now a whole industry made up of people who prey on small business owners and file unnecessary and abusive lawsuits,” Poe said after introducing the measure early last year. “This bill will change that by requiring that the business owners have time to fix what is allegedly broken.”
While the existing accessibility provisions within the ADA allow for lawsuits when businesses don’t comply, there is no provision for financial awards. Independently, however, some states do permit monetary damages for ADA violations. This has spawned an industry of fraudulent or improper lawsuits in some places, including California.
But H.R. 620 will not address that issue, Mathis said, which is better tackled by bar associations and state lawmakers. “This legislation does nothing to deal with the problem of frivolous lawsuits, but it changes the fundamental incentive structure” around ADA accessibility requirements, she said.
Businesses may choose to just wait until being alerted they’re out of compliance before even attempting to remove barriers, she said.
The ADA Education and Reform Act is endorsed by several Democrats and is likely to pass the House, advocates say, though no companion bill has been introduced in the U.S. Senate.
Kim Musheno, chair of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, said she believes some lawmakers have been misled by the name of the bill, mistakenly believing it will help people with disabilities.
“So few members of Congress are really familiar with the ADA,” she said. “This is really pushing us to re-educate members about the law.”