n 1990, Republican President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. The legislation prohibited discrimination against disabled people in all areas of public life. In many ways, it was similar to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and is similarly revered by disability rights activists. While not perfect, the ADA provided major protections to disabled people that they had never been guaranteed and validated the hard work of those activists who struggled to ensure that the government recognized that disability rights are civil rights.
Enter Ted Poe, a Republican congressman representing Texas’s second district. His website describes him as a “leading advocate in Washington for limited government, free markets, low taxes and individual liberty.” Known as one of the more conservative members of the House, Poe has spent his time in Congress advocating both for causes that would make Vassar students squeamish, such as stronger border security and limiting abortion, and ones that ought to be universally celebrated, such as fighting human trafficking. He’s also a climate-change denier who believes that President Barack Obama is not a United States citizen.
His most recent project has been the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017. The bill is pitched as a measure to protect small-business owners, but in practice would create a mandatory waiting period for disabled people who want to file an ADA lawsuit.
Currently, if a business violates the ADA— which could range from a hotel not having a ramp to blatant job discrimination—a disabled person can file a lawsuit against them or complain to the Department of Justice. There is currently no other way of enforcing the law. While this situation isn’t ideal, at least those affected may seek immediate recourse.
A disabled person, however, is unable to receive any monetary benefits from an ADA lawsuit. The only thing the courts can do is force the business to comply. The only state in the country where this is not the case is California, where business owners have to pay lawyers’ fees and could be required to pay damages to disabled people who visit their business and don’t have access.
If the Reform Act is passed, a disabled person would have to wait 180 days before proceeding with an ADA lawsuit. This supposedly gives the business time to acknowledge the problem (which they have 60 days to do) and correct the violation (which they have another 120 days to do). There is no other right guaranteed by the Constitution that has a mandatory waiting period (a reminder that there is no mandatory federal waiting period before purchasing a gun and even advocates of waiting periods have proposed it to be only three days).
The logic behind the law stems from an egregious misunderstanding of the ADA. Many more conservative outlets have lamented a supposed rise in frivolous lawsuits as a result of the Act. This stems from two misconceptions: firstly that the complainant can profit from the process (which I already addressed), and secondly that the complaints in question are unimportant. What these critics fail to understand is that the specifics are necessary. A parking space being too narrow by a few feet means the space isn’t van accessible.
Yet critics claim that businesses should have time to make these changes once they are aware of the issue. I agree, and I think they’ve already had more than enough time. It’s been 27 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed; businesses have had nearly three decades to comply.
And disabled people needing access to these buildings often can’t wait 180 days. They need to get into the building now. If the only CVS you can easily get to isn’t accessible and you can’t pick up vital medication because of it, you can’t wait 180 days before doing something about it. That wait could be the difference between life and death.
Instead of prioritizing the lives of disabled people, Poe prioritizes defending small businesses from what he refers to as drive-by lawsuits. According to Poe, these lawsuits are filed by people who are not customers of the store for the purpose of making money, which is not directly possible through the ADA. Popular newscaster Anderson Cooper has a different theory. In a report for “60 Minutes,” he claimed that lawyers would hire disabled people to drive around and sue different businesses that they find have ADA violations.
In his report, to be fair, he did find Daniel Delgado and John Morales, two disabled folks who admitted to being hired by attorneys to go to businesses simply to file lawsuits against them. Delgado told Anderson Cooper that he been promised “$1,000 per lawsuit” and that by doing so he “would help improve access for the disabled” (CNN, “What’s a Drive-By Lawsuit,” 12.4.2017).
Yet Poe’s preferred solution does little to alleviate the problem and further limits access for disabled people. Lawyers who are so committed to making money that they violate ethical practices could still go on doing what they’re doing, and likely could even increase the number of lawsuits or engage in even less ethical practices such as blackmailing owners to guarantee return on investment. This bill doesn’t protect businesses from crooks, it protects businesses from legitimate lawsuits.
And while it would be easy to blame this on the Republicans, a great many Democrats have signed onto the legislation. These left-leaning sponsors include Representatives Ami Bera of California, Jackie Speier of California, Pete Aguilar of California, J. Luis Correa of California, Bill Foster of Illinois, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Bobby Rush of Illinois, Terri A. Sewell of Alabama, Henry Cuellar of Texas and Jim Costa of California. Representatives Peters, Bera and Speier were also among the original co-sponsors. These representatives are selling out the disabled community to create the illusion of being pro-business.
Ironically, if these Democrats really wanted to be pro-business, they would urge compliance with the ADA. Those businesses that are not accessible to disabled people are leaving a large amount of people unable to financially support them. The most responsible thing for Congress to do, both in terms of supporting the economy and protecting disabled people from discrimination, is to let the ADA stand.