One of the most dangerous bills put forth under the Trump administration to date is currently being fast-tracked through the Senate. The problem is, few people have heard of it.
On Feb. 15, while the country had its eye on allegations of Russian election meddling and the senseless murder of 17 people in the Parkland school shooting, the House was quietly gutting the Americans With Disabilities Act, passing H.R. 620 with a vote of 225-192.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) grants civil rights to people with disabilities by ensuring that we have equal access to public places and businesses and requiring owners to supply “reasonable accommodation.” Sponsors of H.R. 620, also known as “The ADA Education and Reform Act,” tout the bill as a supplement to that legislation. But in reality, this bill renders the ADA's protections moot by making it much more difficult, and a lot more time-intensive, to force businesses to accommodate the millions of Americans with disabilities.
As a Deaf woman, I am fearful of this bill. Under H.R. 620, a business could legally wait a minimum of six months as they “make progress” toward hiring an interpreter, captioning content or installing visual alarm systems — essentially rendering Deaf people like me powerless in the interim. And this is just one of the many far-reaching implications of the bill.
Similar bills seeking to destroy the ADA have been brought to the House floor for decades, usually by representatives of retail interests. Its current form, sponsored by the International Council of Shopping Centers lobby, has found a particularly friendly audience in an extremely partisan Congress, a president whose personal businesses have been sued at least eight times for ADA violations, and a Secretary of Education who is outspoken in her belief that schools should get to choose whether to take on students with special needs.
Currently, H.R. 620 has two main components. The first requires “more education” for businesses on how to comply with ADA requirements. But the bill has no built-in funding for said education, and the rescinding of 25 ADA guidance documents by Jeff Sessions’ Department of Justice in 2017 makes it evident that clarity is not the true goal of this bill.
The second component reflects a familiar American conundrum: Should we protect the rights of businesses, or the rights of individuals? Currently under the ADA, if a business is found to be in violation of the ADA — say, its entrance is not wheelchair-accessible — the disabled person barred access can file a lawsuit to get the business to comply. H.R. 620 would instead require a disabled person to file “written, technical notice” (usually requiring a lawyer), wait 60 days for a response, then wait 120 more days to see if “substantial progress” is made on remedying the violation, before the issue can even be brought to court.
The bill’s sponsors say this waiting period protects businesses from frivolous lawsuits, but this is patently false. Firstly, no monetary damages are awarded for suits filed under Title III of the ADA, so the incentive to file a false lawsuit in the first place, is, for disabled people, nil. There is perhaps potential for lawyers to trawl for ADA suits to collect fees, but the Center for American Progress reports that the recent uptick in these suits can be traced back to a single law firm. Stripping disabled people of their human rights to punish 12 lawyers seems like a poor solution for that particular problem.
And while some states do allow people to seek monetary damages for ADA noncompliance, changing the federal law would have no effect on those suits. In all cases, H.R. 620 wouldn’t eliminate lawsuits, just delay them. (Not to mention the fact that lawyers who win lawsuits — impure motives or not — win because the businesses being sued are in violation of the ADA.)
This is not a matter of giving small businesses (ahem, shopping malls) more time to make themselves accessible. The ADA has been on the books for 28 years. At this point, noncompliance is nothing short of willful neglect.
With this vote, Congress literally weighed the lives of disabled people against the burning desires of the shopping mall lobby and decided the latter were the worthier cause. And as surprised as we were to find our rights to life and liberty pegged slightly below those of the Piercing Pagoda, let it be a warning: the price for which politicians are willing to sell off your rights is probably far lower than you think, too.
H.R. 620 pushes the clock on disability rights back to 1989, making violating the ADA virtually consequence-free. If passed by the Senate, businesses will soon be able to wait until they get complaints to even consider accessibility, just as they did before the law existed. Andy why not? There is no reason to think ahead. Why would a business voluntarily put in a ramp or elevator when it can just hang around and see if it receives a complaint, then wait another six months before even beginning to make progress toward building it? Meanwhile, disabled people would have to wait months or even years for access to places and services.
At best, such a change could prevent disabled people from traveling, shopping, eating out, going to the movies and socializing with friends and family. At worst, it is life-threatening. What if not malls, but schools, doctors’ offices, and hospitals are the businesses in noncompliance? 180 days is an entire school year lost. One cannot wait six months to go to the doctor, or the ER, or birth a child; one cannot give written technical notice to a fire and ask it to wait until someone gets around to installing an accessible emergency exit or flashing alarm.
Of course, many businesses are accessible. And while I would hope that if H.R. 620 does pass, businesses would continue to act in good faith to accommodate the millions of Americans with disabilities.
But no one has ever hoped a ramp, or closed captions, or an interpreter into existence.
One’s basic human rights — access to education and medical care and participation in society — shouldn’t have to rest on the whim of retail lobbyists. Acceptance of H.R. 620 is a silent affirmation of the House’s power to pick and choose civil rights, effectively putting the gender, sexuality and race-based protections we have in place up for grabs, too.
The ADA was signed in to law by President George H.W. Bush, and its gleeful dismantling by the current Congress is an indication of how far right this administration has pushed the country already. The system of checks and balances written into our Constitution is perhaps the only thing that makes America truly exceptional, and whittling away at who can bring an injustice before the courts is a strategic step in the destruction of our democracy.
When a government comes so blatantly for its citizens, such legalized breaches of human rights rarely stay contained. It is not an exaggeration to say they are coming for our rights to get to yours. Indeed, it's the way it's always been done.
Sara Nović is the author of the novel “Girl at War” and an assistant professor of creative writing at Stockton University. Find more about her writing on her website.