The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 was a landmark civil rights achievement for the disability community—and now it’s under attack. House Republicans, joined by some Democrats, voted on February 15 to advance the misleadingly named “ADA Education and Reform Act” (H.R. 620), a bill that would roll back many of the hard-won protections in the ADA.
This document will explain how the ADA makes life in America more accessible for the disability community, how H.R. 620 would undermine the ADA, and how you can make a difference in this fight.
- What does the ADA do?
- How would the Republican bill set back civil rights for the disability community?
- Sample call script
The ADA includes broad antidiscrimination protections for people with mental and physical disabilities. The National Council on Disability—a non-partisan, independent federal agency whose mission is to advise the executive and legislative branches on disability policy—recommended that Congress enact the ADA to extend protections similar to those in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the disability community. The bill was introduced in 1988, and signed into law in 1990.
The protections in the ADA cover much of American public life. The original ADA had five titles, which protected against discrimination in:
- Employment: Title I of the ADA mandates that no employer with 15 or more employees “shall discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability” in the job application, hiring, advancement, or discharge process, or when considering compensation, job training, and “other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.” Employers must also provide “reasonable accommodations” to applicants and employees with disabilities, such as “making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities.”
- Public entities and public transportation: Under Title II of the ADA, people with disabilities cannot “be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of” public buildings (such as government buildings) and public transportation entities (such as Amtrak) because of their disability.
- Public accommodations: Title III of the ADA protects against discrimination “on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation,” such as hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, grocery stores, museums, and much more (you can see the full list of what is considered a public accommodation here). Title III specifically states that “a failure to remove” barriers as a form of discrimination in public accommodations, which means businesses are responsible for actively removing architectural and communication barriers that prevent participation by people with disabilities. (We’ll talk about this more in a minute, so keep it in mind!)
- Telecommunications: Title IV of the ADA stipulates that telecommunications companies “shall ensure that interstate and intrastate telecommunications relay services are available… to hearing-impaired and speech-impaired individuals in the United States.”
- Title V of the ADA does not protect against discrimination in any particular area, but it does protect people from retaliation if they exercise their rights under the ADA or assist others in exercising theirs—which is critical for enforcing the law.
The ADA required, for the first time, that businesses make an effort to become more accessible to people with disabilities. If businesses fail to comply with the ADA, people with disabilities are entitled to sue for “injunctive relief,” which just means that they can go to court to demand that the business comply with the ADA. It is important to understand that lawsuits under Title III of the ADA do not award monetary damages—that is, people cannot sue a business for monetary compensation if the business fails to comply (except for “a reasonable attorney’s fee”).
Here’s the bottom line: the ADA made American life accessible to the disability community, and it did so in a way that ensured that people with disabilities would not bear the burden of ensuring compliance. Now, Republicans want to flip that on its head using the “ADA Education and Reform Act.”
The Republican bill—H.R. 620, or the ADA Education and Reform Act—would undermine Title III of the ADA by shifting the responsibility for complying with the ADA on to people with disabilities.
People with disabilities will be forced to push through mountains of red tape before any action is taken. According to the National Council on Disability, H.R. 620 will “[shift] the burden of ensuring compliance with the ADA to individuals with disabilities while allowing business owners to remain out of compliance until they are alerted to the lack of access by a customer who encounters a barrier.” Once a complaint is filed, business owners have 60 days to acknowledge the violation and explain how they’ll fix it, and 120 days to make “substantial progress.” Only after all of this time, during which the business has been allowed to continue discriminating, can the affected person file a suit seeking injunctive relief. The bill doesn’t even define what constitutes “substantial progress,” so there is no guarantee that any concerns raised by people with disabilities would be fully resolved.
Business owners argue that people are filing numerous “frivolous” Title III lawsuits, but that just isn’t true. There are only a few large-scale filers who have driven most of the increase in Title III lawsuits in recent years. Gutting a critical provision of the ADA to address this is a massive overreaction that will significantly curtail the rights of people with disabilities. It is a particularly inappropriate response given that Title III only requires businesses to provide relief when it is “readily achievable” and when it won’t pose an “undue burden”—a compromise that was struck between the disability community and the business community while the bill was being written.
If your MoC voted for H.R. 620, call them today to hold them accountable for rolling back civil rights for the disability community.
12 House Democrats joined with most House Republicans to pass this bill (you can see how every MoC voted by clicking here). They are:
- Rep. Pete Aguilar (CA-31)
- Rep. Ami Bera (CA-7)
- Rep. Jim Cooper (TN-5)
- Rep. Luis Correa (CA-46)
- Rep. Henry Cuellar (TX-28)
- Rep. Bill Foster (IL-11)
- Rep. Scott Peters (CA-52)
- Rep. Collin Peterson (MN-7)
- Rep. Kathleen Rice (NY-4)
- Rep. Kurt Schrader (OR-5)
- Rep. Jackie Speier (CA-14)
- Rep. Norma Torres (CA-35)
If your MoC is on this list, you can use the script below to hold them accountable:
Caller: Hello! I’m calling to tell [MoC] that I am extremely disappointed [she / he] voted yes on H.R. 620, the ADA Education and Reform Act. It will set civil rights for the disability community back by decades by weakening the ADA, and make it harder for people with disabilities to go out to eat, see a movie, and participate in other activities with their friends and family.
Staffer: Thanks for calling. [MoC] supported H.R. 620 because [she / he] believes that it is critical that we end the frivolous ADA lawsuits that are increasingly crushing small business owners.
Caller: That’s shameful. This bill will make it significantly harder for people with disabilities to get relief when a business refuses to comply with the ADA. Undermining Title III of the ADA to combat frivolous lawsuits filed by only a few people is a massive overreaction that will hurt the 1 in 5 Americans who have a disability.
Staffer: I’ll pass your thoughts on to [MoC].
Caller: Please do, and take down my contact information so you can let me know what [MoC] decides to do.