Last April, I blogged briefly about the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017, also known as HR 620. Yesterday, this law passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 225 to 192.
The ADA was passed more than 27 years ago to protect disabled people’s right to participate in all aspects of public life. The ADA requires that all entities serving the public make their facilities, communications, and operating procedures accessible. Business owners have now had more than 27 years to learn about the ADA and to make necessary modifications, and ample technical guidance exists.
HR 620 weakens the enforceability of the ADA by placing a greater burden of proof on individuals filing complaints. It would require individuals to give a noncompliant business written notice of an ADA violation that details the specific section of the ADA being violated, wait 60 days for the complaint to be acknowledged, and then wait another 60 days for the access violation to be resolved before legal action can be taken. In some cases, a business can avoid litigation by claiming that they have made “substantial progress” toward removing an access barrier, without removing the barrier altogether.
A disabled college student can’t wait four months for a course using inaccessible software to be fixed. A wheelchair user who can’t access a social clubhouse with stairs doesn’t have four months to wait to be included in a meaningful social activity. A working-class American who was denied a job due to disability discrimination doesn’t have four months to wait for a paycheck.
But what concerns me most of all about this bill is the increased burden of proof it places on disabled people to identify and detail accessibility barriers. The purpose of the ADA was to make access a human right. Disability is a thing that affects all of us, directly or indirectly, and access should be a collaborative process between businesses and customers. Businesses should be incentivized to build access and universal design into their operations from the ground up. Instead, HR 620 may encourage businesses to ignore access considerations until a specific individual files a detailed complaint, and then take their time implementing a fix. The entire tone of the legislation seats disability as a problem residing in an individual, rather than inclusion as a right that ends up benefiting the entire community, including the businesses themselves.
I had an exceptionally busy workweek, so I spent less time than usual on social media. But when I did log on, I saw disappointment, sadness, and worry in the posts from my disability activist friends. I saw posts from individuals who came of age before the ADA was passed, and who worry that we are sliding backward into that pre-ADA era. I saw posts from younger people wondering if their own battles for access to courses and jobs might become even more challenging as a result of this bill. I saw disability activists of all ages, races, creeds, and socioeconomic backgrounds feel that their disabled identities were devalued and dismissed by the narrow Congressional majority who passed the bill.
We have lost a battle, but we have not lost the war. As of yet, there is no companion bill being considered in the Senate, and a companion bill must pass the Senate before the ADA Education and Reform Act has a shot at becoming law. We must stay vigilant, and we must make it clear to our elected officials that access is a universal human right.
Find out how your rep voted on HR 620