Imagine this scenario:
A person who uses a wheelchair arrives at a restaurant only to find out that every entrance to the building requires them to climb a few stairs. There is no ramp for people who have mobility issues.
Or perhaps the restaurant has a ramp that a person in a wheelchair can use, but the restroom doors are not wide enough for the wheelchair to actually enter.
Does this person have the power to ask the business owner to solve the problem? Is there a requirement that the business owner make changes? If you answered “yes” to both, you’d be right.
Purpose of the Americans with Disabilities Act
The two scenarios presented here are clear violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – the federal law that protects people with disabilities from discrimination. The ADA requires places of public accommodation – like restaurants, hotels, stores, and more – must meet certain accessibility requirements. The goal of this law is to remove barriers in society that prevent people with disabilities from fully participating in daily activities.
Under the ADA (as it was originally written in 1990 and later amended in 2008), a person with a disability can sue the business owner to have the accessibility problem fixed. However, the person seeking the fix cannot sue for money. The purpose is to make places of public accommodation more accessible and hold businesses accountable for doing so.
Complications Brought by State Law
Since the passage of the ADA, a few states have passed their own disability laws that do allow people with disabilities to sue businesses for accessibility violations and actually receive money as part of that lawsuit. This has led to some problems in those states.
Since allowing people to sue for money, the business community has become concerned about the rising number of legal threats being made. For instance, they claim that lawyers seeking to make quick money will find minor accessibility violations at businesses, notify the business owner, and offer to settle the suit for a certain amount of money before going to court.
Harmful Proposals to Change the ADA
In response to the concerns of the business community, Members of Congress have proposed changes to the ADA. These changes that will impact people with disabilities across the country and in states where these lawsuits have not been an issue. These bills are referred to as “ADA notification laws” because they change the process by which a person with a disability can sue when a public place is not accessible.
The latest bill that tries to make changes to the ADA is H.R. 620, the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017. The bill requires – before a person files a lawsuit against a business – that the person first give the business owner 60 days to acknowledge the problem. Then, the business owner has 120 days to begin to fix the accessibility problem before the lawsuit can be filed. If the business even begins to address the problem and makes “substantial progress” toward making the business accessible, the lawsuit cannot be filed. Thus, not only does a person with a disability have to wait weeks, months, or possibly years as the lawsuit proceeds, but the business owner may never fully address the accessibility violation.
The Way Forward
To uphold the purpose of the ADA and ensure accessibility in public places, people with disabilities must continue to have avenues for recourse. Stripping them of this legal option will only allow barriers to remain and fail to incentivize business owners to comply with the law. You can take action and tell your Members of Congress to vote “no” to H.R. 620.
Instead, we must focus on helping business owners understand the law and their responsibilities. There are many resources available to help businesses comply with the accessibility requirements of the ADA. If small business owners are not aware of their obligations under the law, they can learn from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). The DOJ has created an ADA website (http://ada.gov), operates an ADA hotline, and has produced technical assistance materials. Additionally, there are 10 federally-funded regional ADA Centers that provide training and resources in every state (www.adata.org).
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