Last Thursday, the ADA Education and Reform Act passed in the House on a 225-192 vote. Most Republican and 12 Democrat leaders agreed to amend the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which mandates equal access to public places. The changes, they say, would stop “bad lawyers” from taking advantage of innocent business owners.
Lead co-sponsor Jackie Speier (D-CA), who claims to be more interested in accessibility than making lawyers rich, envisions a law against opportunistic “rip-off artists in California that are in it for just making a buck.” Another co-sponsor, Ted Poe (R-TX), condemns “a whole industry made up of people who prey on small business owners and file unnecessary and abusive lawsuits.”
But lawyers are the least of disability communities’ concerns. Advocates warn the bill in fact gives victimized businesses too much opportunity to do damage to the people who really matter: victims of discrimination.
‘Progress’ Is Not Access, Say Activists
Per the current ADA, any person with disabilities who faces barriers to public establishments – be they grocery stores, recreation facilities, schools, or doctors’ offices – are entitled to file suit. Legal intervention must be immediate.
Under the reformed Americans with Disabilities Act, however, anyone hoping to sue a business for violating the ADA’s public accommodations provision has a few new hoops to jump through. They are first tasked with notifying the business of the violation in writing. Next comes a 60-day wait, the generous amount of time given for the perpetrator to plan a solution. They are then granted another 120 days to “make substantial progress in removing the barrier.”
If enacted, activists say, the bill would give businesses no incentive to proactively protect people with disabilities before a complaint is filed. It may not even prompt businesses to go further than “substantial progress” – in itself, a vague term with room for interpretation – and provide full access. On the complainant’s part, suing for discrimination will be much harder.
“We know of no other law that outlaws discrimination but permits entities to discriminate with impunity until victims experience that discrimination and educate the entities perpetrating it about their obligations not to discriminate,” reads a letter from the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities signed by more than 200 disability rights groups. “Such a regime is absurd, and would make people with disabilities second-class citizens.”
Motivations without Merit
The bill comes on the back of nationwide reports of lawyers filing dozens of ADA complaints, at times after noticing violations from outside a building or via Google Earth. On the lobbying side are business groups, keen to curb these “drive-by lawsuits” or empty threats to inspect premises in person.
But the bill’s critics dismiss the so-called frivolous lawsuits as an ADA issue. Discrimination and abuse, they say, are better handled by state and local authorities. More importantly, rather than go after people with disabilities, lawmakers might want to try pursuing the “bad lawyers” in question.
“Instead of expecting businesses to own the responsibility of complying with civil rights laws,” wrote the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in a letter to congressional representatives, “it shifts the burden to the individual who is being denied access.”
Where Does This Leave Victims?
The ACLU put it plainly in a public document outlining the “ill-informed” bill’s loopholes: The bill will not achieve its goals. Though apparently necessary to stamp out lawyers who abuse the law and protect businesses who find it too complicated to respect, the bill will do nothing to stop frivolous lawsuits. At best, it will simply defer them.
It’s important to remember, above all else, that this bill will be bad for people with disabilities – that’s the bottom line. By taking away rights to timely litigation and barrier removal, people will be denied the access to which they have been entitled under the ADA for 28 years.
The bill’s prospects are uncertain until reviewed by the Senate. But it’s already clear that the proposed legislation “turns back the block on disability rights in America,” said The Leadership Conference on Civil Human Rights in a tweet. “This is deeply shameful.”