House of Representatives Votes to Gut the Americans with Disabilities Act

House Republicans vote to pass HR 620, a bill that will severely limit the enforcement power of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but advocates are hopeful for better results in the Senate.

House of Representatives Votes to Gut the Americans with Disabilities Act, But Advocates Hopeful for Better Results in Senate

Disability Rights Activists have been successful in "toxifying" the bill to drain support and increase likelihood of defeat in the Senate

On Thursday, February 15, 2018, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to gut the Americans with Disabilities Act by passing H.R. 620, the “ADA Education and Reform Act.” In a vote of 225 to 192, 12 Democrats joined Republicans in approving a bill that will hamper the enforcement of the nearly 30-year-old law that requires equal access to public accommodations (including, for example, retail stores, doctor’s offices, pharmacies and restaurants). Disability rights advocates were hopeful, however, after yesterday's vote as two co-sponsors of the bill withdrew their support and 19 Republicans voted against the bill. It is hoped that support for the bill will continue to decrease as it heads to the Senate where, according to the Washington Post, several top Democrats are opposed to the bill, including Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who tweeted about the bill in September:

“It's hard to believe this legislation advanced in the House this week. 27 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act became the law of the land, the notion that businesses in this country need more time to provide people with disabilities access to their services is ridiculous and offensive.”

The bill requires those bringing a lawsuit to allow a business 60 days to devise a plan to fix the problem, then another 120 days to fix the issue. The law is based on the idea that the burden of complying with rules that ensure access to public accommodations to people with disabilities is too burdensome for business owners. It essentially shifts the responsibility of enforcing compliance of the ADA to people with disabilities. 

In September, more than 200 disability rights supporters signed a letter in opposition to the bill, including the ACLU, the American Psychological Association, the NAACP, and others. The letter states:

“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. Such a regime is absurd, and would make people with disabilities second-class citizens.”

The ADA protects people with disabilities, including those living with HIV, from discrimination in virtually every aspect of their life. It was passed nearly 30 years ago with bipartisan support and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. It is important legislation that makes it possible for differently abled people to participate and contribute to society according to their talents, not their physical abilities. As former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge argues, that success must not be undone:

“Twenty-eight years after the ADA was passed, it is unacceptable to roll back the civil rights of people with disabilities. We should ensure access, not progress. We should expect businesses to know and comply with their obligations, not require our neighbors and colleagues with disabilities to shoulder the burden of informing and educating businesses about those obligations. We should not turn the simple business of everyday life into a complex and lengthy ordeal for people with disabilities.”

The law was introduced in 2017 by Ted Poe (R-Tex.) purportedly to address frivolous lawsuits brought against businesses. However, frivolous lawsuits are not an ADA issue, they are a state and court problem, says disability rights attorney Robyn Powell in a recent Rewire commentary:

“An analysis of ADA lawsuits in 2016 identified just 12 individuals and one organization that have filed more than 100 lawsuits each. But frivolous lawsuits are not an ADA issue; they are a state and court problem. Indeed, ethics rules bar attorneys from bringing frivolous lawsuits. Rather than go after people with disabilities, attention should be focused on stopping these few bad attorneys.”