Disability Act Rollback Will be Devastating for Disabled Americans

ADA Education and Reform Act
“ADA Education and Reform Act” would significantly roll back the civil rights advances made by the bipartisan ADA. Photo: AFP

Millions of Americans benefit from the ADA—the Americans with Disabilities Act—which has protected the civil rights of people with disabilities since it was passed 27 years ago under President George H.W. Bush. Modeled on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the ADA allows people with disabilities to access employment, purchase goods and services, and participate in local and state-run services and programs.

My husband is one of the millions of people who benefit from the ADA. He’s been a quadriplegic wheelchair user since an injury at the age of 23. He’s now a professor and a devoted father to our 6-month-old daughter. Because of the ADA, we are able to participate as a family in everyday life. Without it, and the elevators, ramps, and other necessary forms of access it provides (as well as many others for people with varying disabilities), our quality of life would be significantly diminished.

H.R. 620, which is (confusingly) named the “ADA Education and Reform Act,” was passed by the House last Thursday in a 225-192 vote. If passed by a companion bill in the Senate, it will significantly roll back the civil rights advances made by the bipartisan ADA.

H.R. 620 is posited as legislation that will prevent “frivolous” lawsuits, which largely dismisses the reality that the heart of the ADA isn’t about legal action at all. Disabled people already have to undertake costly and time-consuming measures in order to file ADA lawsuits, and even if they win, they are not entitled to anything but injunctive relief and court fees. The hoped-for outcome of an ADA lawsuit is accommodation, not monetary compensation.

H.R. 620 will require disabled people to wait even longer (60 days for a response to a written demand, and another 120 days not for accommodations, but for “significant progress”) for a business to respond to even a simple demand like the need for a ramp. We’ve never filed a suit ourselves and have instead, as is most common, issued informal requests for accommodations directly to businesses.

The bill provides virtually no incentive for new businesses to take accessibility into account when considering layout and construction, and will, if ultimately passed, instead excuse flagrant violations of civil rights while disabled people and their families wait.

Before we were married, my husband lived alone for 17 years and was able to care for himself. After we were married, when I was pregnant and very ill, he did most of our shopping and ran our errands. Without the ADA, he couldn’t participate equally in society, if at all.

Without the protection of the ADA, many equal partners would have to become constant caretakers. Disabled people would experience isolation and increased levels of poverty. Some might be unable to live independently.

The statistical majority of us will become disabled either temporarily or permanently at some point in our lives. And if we don’t, it’s virtually unavoidable that a spouse or family member will. When—not if—that day comes, we will all need the protections of the ADA that will allow us to support ourselves, access clinical services, and participate in public life. And if we roll those protections back now, it’s not a tiny minority that won’t be able to access them; it’s everyone.