The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote this week on a bill that addresses the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and has a number of disability rights advocates speaking out against it.
The ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017 (H.R. 620) would require the Disability Rights Section of the Department of Justice to develop a program to educate state and local governments and property owners on strategies for promoting access to public accommodations for persons with a disability.
Additionally, the bill prohibits civil actions based on the failure to remove an architectural barrier to access into an existing public accommodation unless the disabled person has provided a written notice specific enough to identify the barrier and the owner fails to provide the person with a written description outlining improvements that will be made to improve the barrier or if the owner has not made progress toward improving the barrier after providing a written statement.
“The bill’s proponents have forgotten the everyday experiences of millions of people with disabilities who cannot shop, transact personal business or enjoy recreation as most Americans take for granted because so many public accommodations across the country have ignored the reasonable requirements of the ADA,” National Disability Rights Network officials said in a statement. “Why should a wheelchair user be unable to join her family at a restaurant, just because the owner has resisted installing a ramp for 25 years?”
Title III of the ADA as it currently reads prohibits places of public accommodations, such as grocery stores, homeless shelters and doctors’ offices, from discriminating against people with disabilities. If an individual with a disability encounters an architectural barrier that prevents him or her from accessing the business, he or she can either speak with the business, file a complaint with the Department of Justice or file a lawsuit.
“Do not be misled by the name of this bill,” said political action committee Disability Action for America officials in a statement last week. “This bill is not an attempt to educate or reform, but an unabashed attempt by Congress to undermine the ADA and discriminate against individuals the ADA was meant to protect, by allowing public accommodations to remain inaccessible.”
The PAC said the bill would force people with disabilities to “jump through bureaucratic hoops” to secure the same rights that were promised to them under the ADA nearly three decades ago.
But Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, who co-sponsored the bill, disagreed.
“This bipartisan legislation allows small businesses a reasonable timeframe to fix Americans with Disabilities Act violations before involving lawyers or the courts. It also prevents time and money being spent on frivolous lawsuits that don’t help correct the problem,” Reed said. “It in no way negatively impacts disability rights. If a small business does not fix the disability accessibly issue, you can still take them to court.”
But the American Civil Liberties Union has said it’s a myth that H.R. 620 is necessary to stop lawyers who abuse the ADA by filing frivolous lawsuits.
“Although a very small number of lawyers have filed significant numbers of lawsuits that may be frivolous or fraudulent, a ‘notice and cure’ period would not eliminate fraud or frivolous suits. At best, it defers the lawsuit,” the ACLU wrote in a statement addressing myths and truths of the bill. “The true purpose of this bill is to allow businesses to delay meeting their obligations under the law—for weeks, months or longer—at the expense of people with disabilities.”
ACLU officials said H.R. 620 upends a key provision of the ADA by preventing people with disabilities from immediately going to court to enforce their rights and to press for timely removal of the barrier that impedes access.
H.R. 620 removes any incentive for voluntary compliance, Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund officials said, and rewards non-compliance by allowing businesses generous additional timelines, even though the ADA’s “very reasonable” requirements already are more than 25 years old.
“It is deeply concerning that at a time when we should be doing everything we can to guard against attacks on the rights of people with disabilities from this administration, members of the House of Representatives are instead pushing to pass a bill that would severely weaken the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act and make it harder to enforce the rights of those with disabilities in our courts,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., in a statement. “I hope my House colleagues on both sides of the aisle will immediately reverse course and drop any further attempts to move this bill forward.”
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