Republican lawmakers assault disability rights
As we usher in 2018 and bid farewell with balled fists to 2017, many of us in the disability community are exhausted from a year that kept us bracing for repeated attacks on our quality of life. It began with a new presidency and administration that almost immediately began making strides to weaken provisions and protections. In the crosshairs were the Affordable Care Act, Medicare and Medicaid protections, and Social Security, to name a few, and disability rights advocates responded strongly with a clear message that we’d not go gently and passively concede. Disabled women took center stage and were quite vocal in protest and arrests.
The year ended with the recently enacted tax plan, dubbed #TaxScam and #TaxOnDisability by disability advocates noting the negative impact to disabled people, many of whom live at or below the poverty level. Most recently, the Department of Justice rescinded 25 Americans with Disabilities Act guidance documents that provide technical support on employment service systems to people with disabilities. What has been continually communicated is that the needs and quality of life of disabled persons are of no priority to this administration. The curtailing of our civil rights has been a well-displayed and aggressive effort.
These civil rights are supported by key legislation known, of course, as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in the public sector and, among many facets of protections, requires businesses, schools, public transit, and other such places open to the public to be accessible where “readily achievable” and without incurring any “undue burden.”
The ADA is an imperfect law, but even its basic promise has been the target of relentless attacks from the current administration and congressional leadership. The latest attempt is a new bill threatening to further weaken ADA protections that has been making its way through Congress — the deceptively named ADA Education and Reform Act (HR620), which would give business owners more latitude and lag time when a compliance complaint is lodged against a business — 60 days to answer and another 120 days to provide proof of progress, for a total of 180 days. Currently, a complainant can speak to the business, file a complaint, or lodge a formal lawsuit with the Department of Justice.
If HR620 were to pass, a business could drag out the process, since they’d only be required to show “substantial progress” without actually removing any barriers, effectively making people with disabilities wait, yet again, for access and answers months, perhaps even years. This circumvention of the law and side-stepping of civil rights is a dance that is getting old and tiresome.
Hasn’t 27 years been ample time for our rights to be recognized when the ADA already provides leeway for businesses? As it stands, the ADA stipulates that businesses are required to provide accommodations only if those accommodations will not create an “undue burden” and when they are “readily achievable,” which translates to being economically feasible. Also, there is no monitoring arm of the ADA, no party tasked with periodic inspections for compliance, leveling fines for infractions. The onus lies squarely with the aggrieved party to initiate and follow up on all violations.
What’s also concerning about HR620 is how antagonistic this approach is — as if people with disabilities are more interested in adding the stress, expense, and labor of pursuing complaints than they are in patronizing a business, participating in a social outing, or otherwise getting on with their lives. This cynical approach of “us” versus “them” isn’t about facilitating solutions or creating fairness or justice. The age-old cliché of the “customer is always right” apparently loses merit when disabled persons are part of the equation. There’s a tendency to dismiss our grievances as whines and wants of something special or extra.
Disabled persons’ presence in the community matters; our consumership and lack of streamlined access should matter as well to businesses who want us to spend generously and leave satisfied. Our citizenry should matter to this administration instead of repeated shows of disrespect in the form of bills that threaten our quality of life. If HR620 does pass and weakens current requirements for access, the message, once again, is that it is permissible to discriminate against the disability community. That’s a troubling thought, and the discrimination is not static to one identity since disabled persons live intersectional lives.
Disability often intersects at race, gender, sexuality identity, religion, etc — a wide swath of folks who will be facing further harm. Systemic inequality impacts some groups more than others, typically low-income people and communities of color. According to the U.S. Census, 57 million are counted as having a disability — roughly 20 percent of the population. That number will rise with our aging Baby Boomer population, who number around 75 million, many of whom are living longer with chronic illness and different range of disabilities. They will require and benefit from more accommodations, not less.
One thing that may have prompted this bill is the false belief that there’s rampant abuse of the ADA and “gaming of the system” due to “drive-by lawsuits.” A recent study debunks that myth and illustrates a relatively small number persons/firms filing frivolous lawsuits compared to the hype stirred by stories and lore circulated about unbridled abuse.
However, there’s a proactive remedy businesses can take, as Robyn Powell, attorney and former counsel at the National Council on Disability, affirms: “I believe HR620 is part of the mounting assault on people with disabilities. The ADA was passed more than 27 years ago, and businesses have no excuse for not complying. There are a plethora of free resources available to help businesses comply with the ADA. If businesses are so concerned about litigation, the solution is simple: Comply with the ADA and you won't be sued.”
In September, HR620 was sent to the subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, where a markup session was held and the bill was reported out favorably 15-9. Now it may move to the floor of the House. Let’s hope it dies there and ensure that it does by contacting our elected officials and urging them to oppose this bill, which would cause “undue burden” on our quality of life and create unnecessary hardship. The protections mandated in the ADA are about equity, not getting something extra. Chopping away at current protections and blatantly disregarding them is disrespectful and dangerous. We can’t allow that to happen, not now, not ever.
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