The Americans with Disabilities Act is under attack

Something foul is afoot in the halls of Congress, and I’m not just talking about the threat of President Donald Trump’s millionaire handout — known as the Republican tax bill — or the snowballing of sexual assault accusations. The stink I’m referring to is emanating from HR 620, which, like the tax bill and current sexual harassment procedure on the Hill, overtly favors the powerful at the expense of the vulnerable.

“The ADA is under serious attack,” said Marilyn Golden, a lawyer at the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. “HR 620 would weaken the Americans with Disabilities Act. It would remove any incentive for voluntary compliance with the ADA requirements for disability access to businesses such as stores, restaurants and hotels.”

Unfortunately, even as Rep. Jackie Speier is calling for an end to the “cooling off period” for sexual harassment complaints on the Hill, she is throwing people with disabilities under the bus by supporting HR 620.

You heard that right, folks. After 27 years of expanding opportunity and making society as a whole more integrated, prosperous and, quite frankly, human, HR 620 would give businesses from Walmart to Starbucks a pass to deny services to people with disabilities by dramatically slowing their already slow compliance with ADA regulations.

The truth is the ADA has changed the face of society. Republicans want to talk about entitlement reform and their unwillingness to pay people not to work. And at the same time, progressive people with disabilities want to talk about putting people with disabilities to work, too. More than ever before, people with disabilities who were previously excluded from the workforce are paying taxes and contributing to the economy.

Thanks to the ADA, businesses have received a whole new customer base due to an entire population literally being able to get in the door to spend their money. The landscape of possibility and integration for people with disabilities has changed dramatically since 1990 — it always does when we extend the ladders of economic opportunity. But HR 620 would take people with disabilities back more than a quarter of a century and would make the aspiration of a fully accessible society unattainable, all while coddling a business community that, unfortunately, all too often remains unreceptive to change even with the tool of the ADA available to advocates. We’re taking a step backward.

Several years ago, the Independent Living Resource Center San Francisco received a $25,000 grant to offer free architectural access services to small businesses in San Francisco to help them understand their responsibilities and to come into compliance with the ADA. We had sufficient money for approximately 250 businesses and were worried it would run out. After a year of extensive outreach to more than 1,500 businesses — and a lot of publicity — there were a total of three businesses that took us up on the opportunity.

“The sad truth is that businesses are not acting in good faith,” said Susan Mizner, disability counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. “What we need is enforcement and more support for compliance, not a change in the ADA aimed at making it impossible to do any enforcement.”

Disability rights activist Dara Baldwin also reminds us: “It is a privilege to own a business in this country not a right; and with that privilege comes a lot of responsibility. Businesses learn how to pay their taxes, follow human resources laws and to be in compliance with all civil and human rights, including the ADA.

“Should HR 620 become law, it will create a subset group of people within the protected classes in the civil rights laws of this country,” Baldwin continued. “No other protected class has to provide notification prior to defending their civil rights. Why should people with disabilities have to do this?”

Accessibility changes over time, in both physical and digital spaces, have slowly, but surely, allowed people with disabilities to work with businesses to increase the public good. And, though this isn’t simply about widening a door — though, in some real way, it is — if Americans allow HR 620 to move forward, we are saying to people with disabilities: Go back home. Get out of society. You don’t belong here.

Jessie Lorenz is executive director of the Independent Living Resource Center San Francisco. 

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