MHW: Advocates Up in Arms Over Bill They Say Violates the ADA

Advocates Up in Arms Over Bill They Say Violates the ADA
Mental Health Weekly February 19, 2018

Mental health and disability rights advocates have raised concerns over legislation they say would strip away the civil rights of people with disabilities. The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law on Feb. 8 is- sued an alert urging email actions, establishing a call-in day urging consumers  to  contact  members  of  the House to vote no on the bill and encouraging letters and social media postings of opposition.

The ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017 (H.R. 620) requires the Disability Rights Section of the Department of Justice to develop a program to educate state and local governments and property owners on strategies  for  promoting  access  to public accommodations for persons with a disability. The program may include training for professionals to provide a guidance of remediation for potential violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).

The bill also prohibits civil actions based on the failure to remove an architectural barrier to access into an existing public accommodation unless: (1) the aggrieved person has provided to the owners or operators a written notice specific enough to identify the barrier and (2) the owners or operators fail to provide the person with a written description outlining improvements that will be made to improve the barrier or they fail to remove the barrier or make substantial progress after providing such a description.

The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, in its alert, called H.R. 620 a “travesty” that “upends” the intent and purpose of the ADA. The legislation says that businesses no longer have to be proactive and make sure they are accessible to people with disabilities, according to the Bazelon Center. “Instead a business can remain inaccessible until a person with a disability who has been denied access jumps through multiple hoops to notify the business that it is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and then waits up to 6 months for the business to make ‘progress’ in fixing the problem,” the Bazelon Center stated.

“It’s very unfortunate that a majority of House members have supported a bill that, if enacted into law, will make compliance with the ADA’s access requirements less likely,” Mark Murphy, managing attorney at the Bazelon Center, told MHW. “Such an outcome only hurts people with disabilities for whom such access is a fundamental civil right that should be protected rather than attacked.”

The Bazelon Center noted that it has been 28 years since the passage of the ADA and yet people with disabilities still face enormous barriers. “This bill will only make things worse, not better,” they stated.

Bipartisan bill
The bipartisan bill was filed Jan. 25 by Reps. Ted Poe (R-Texas), Scott Peters (D-California), Ami Bera (D-California), Ken Calvert (R-California), Jackie Speier (D-California) and Mike Conaway (R-Texas). A spokesperson for Rep. Poe indicated that the bill has not been filed in the Senate yet.

In comments emailed to MHW, Poe stated, “The overall goal of H.R. 620 is to achieve compliance with the ADA by all businesses as quick as possible. Most of these business owners believe they are in compliance with the ADA and have even passed local and state inspections. However, despite their best attempts, certain attorneys and their pool of serial plaintiffs troll for minor, easily correctable ADA infractions so they can file a lawsuit and make some cash.”

Poe added, “Often, there isn’t even an ‘alleged violation’ specified in the demand letters. There is now a whole industry made up of people who prey on small business owners and file unnecessary abusive law- suits that abuse both the ADA and the business owners.

“The ADA is a vital law that is meant to make American businesses more accessible to the disabled. But the integrity of this important law is being threatened by frivolous law-suits that only abuse the ADA. This legislation restores the purpose of the ADA: to provide access and accommodation to disabled Americans, not to fatten the wallets of attorneys.”

Poe added, “Under current law, businesses must fight these lawsuits out in court, or settle (often leaving the alleged infraction uncorrected). These lawsuits are often time-consuming. H.R. 620 allows these violations to be fixed quicker (within 120 days) than a lawsuit would allow. The rights of individuals with disabilities  are  not  infringed  in  any way, and  the  right  to  pursue  legal action is retained if the violation is not fixed.” •

Bazelon Center ‘condemns’ House passage of ADA reform bill
As MHW went to press, we learned that the House passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Education and Reform Act by a vote of 225 to 192. Advocates had raised concerns about the legislation they say violates the ADA, and are calling on the Senate to reject such legislation.

The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, in a statement, condemned the passage by the House of Representatives of H.R. 620. “If this bill were to become law, it would drive a stake through enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act’s public accommodations provisions,” said Jennifer Mathis, director of policy and legal advocacy at the Bazelon Center. “The bill would remove any consequence for businesses that fail to comply with the ADA until they receive a written notice from a person with a disability who has been denied access, informing the business of its legal obligations and the specific violations that occurred.” The business would have six months to make “substantial progress” in removing the barrier.

“H.R. 620 would make it much harder for people with disabilities to enforce their right to access stores, restaurants, hotels, doctors’ offices, homeless shelters, and other places of public accommodation,” Mathis explained. “Twenty-eight years after the ADA was passed, businesses should be expected to know what it requires of them. It is absurd to require people with disabilities to shoulder the burden of educating businesses about their obligations.” Said Bethany Lilly, deputy director of policy and legal advocacy, “this bill would make people with disabilities second-class citizens.”

“We call on the Senate to reject any legislation that weakens the ADA,” stated Bazelon officials.