October 31, 2017 | Christine Griffin, AAPD Board Member
I have been a wheelchair user for 37 years. I didn’t become a disability rights activist until a year after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990 despite having had a disability for 10 years. This new law propelled me in my wheelchair into a career I never saw coming. I entered law school in 1990 with a different type of law practice in mind. I was an engineer and I had patent law in my sights, but it was a legal internship that gave me the opportunity to learn about the ADA. Tom O’Neill, Speaker Tip O’Neill’s son, asked me to learn everything I could about this new law and tell him how it would impact his clients. I was lucky enough, with his help, to get into the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and Department of Justice (DOJ) sponsored ADA Network training and that summer opened up a new world to me. I met the best advocates with disabilities from across the country and I fell in love with a law. I returned to law school knowing I would be part of a national effort that would help shape this new comprehensive civil rights law called the ADA.
While I have seen access to many places increase over the past 37 years, I become alarmed when I see any attempt to push disability rights backwards. Title III of the ADA currently requires businesses to remove architectural barriers, provide accessible parking if they provide parking for their patrons, etc. The ADA turned 27 years old on July 26 but the filing of HR 620 proves that the fight for our rights never ends no matter how old the law may be. Despite the “helpful” sounding title of this bill, the Education and Reform Act of 2017, the only people it helps are business owners, not the people whose rights continue to be violated. These business owners have made a decision to refuse to comply with Title III of the ADA and when sued about their non-compliance, they convince their legislator to file a bill allowing them “more time” because 27 years isn’t enough.
I will never forget the first time we saw a bill like this filed by Florida Congressman Foley, the ADA Notification Act of 2000. Foley received support for his efforts from someone who wasn’t even his constituent but applauded the ADA Notification bill Foley filed, Clint Eastwood. Yup, that’s right, movie actor and director, Clint Eastwood. Eastwood at the time owned a hotel/resort that had access problems. The suit filed against him was brought by a couple with disabilities under California Law and it was reported that Eastwood ended up spending more money opposing the complaint than it would have taken him to fix the access issues. A jury found him liable for non-compliance. This lawsuit pushed him into the national spotlight as a big supporter of the ADA Notification bill. Eastwood even showed up in DC for the Committee hearing on the bill and testified extra time was necessary for all small business owners who wanted to do the right thing but just weren’t aware of their legal obligations. So like him, he argued, they shouldn’t be punished by having complaints filed against them and the ADA should be changed. He even went on the Chris Matthews show that night and said that the reason the unemployment of people with disabilities was so high was because Hollywood celebrities like him aren’t asked to do PSAs saying “Hire the Handicapped” anymore. I have a hard time watching anything he is in or makes to this day.
And while that first bill went no-where in 2000, others were filed and frankly, we, as a community began to become complacent because the subsequent ADA Notification bills as they became known went no-where too. It wasn’t that long ago that I predicted the same for HR 620 and then it began gaining steam in Congress. I am now advocating for a change in our approach and it doesn’t include blaming the attorneys who file large numbers of complaints in various states and cities. While we may disagree with their style and ultimate settlement deals, the facts are that they have clients with disabilities who have every right to file a complaint and the complaints themselves are dead on black and white ADA Title III complaints. The business owner either has compliant parking spaces or doesn’t. The business owner either has an entrance that complies or doesn’t. It is as simple as that. And you can drive around every city or town in this country without ever leaving your vehicle and document plenty of examples of businesses that are non-compliant with simple Title III requirements that most likely are readily achievable. In addition, there are plenty of free resources available to these businesses explaining the law and how they can comply with it. Besides the ADA Network Centers, every Better Business Bureau or other business association is well informed and able to help. In fact, when I was attending the ADA Network Training mentioned above, other disability rights activists, including Itzhak Perlman, were making Government funded training materials and videos for businesses to educate them about their obligations under the law. Free education for businesses has been available since the law became effective in 1992.
The fact that a business waits for a complaint to drop before deciding what to do is just plain stupid and my rights should not be diminished because they want to wait for the lawsuit before complying. Would they wait for a health inspection before complying with health related rules? Would a business owner get lots more time to comply with non-compliance of food related laws while staying open and serving customers? I don’t think so. So why should these business owners get more time to comply with the ADA if HR 620 passes?
Supporters of HR 620 will tell you the bill only makes minor changes to the ADA. Not true. HR 620 removes any incentive that currently exists for a business to comply proactively. This bill will reward those who have waited for a complaint to be filed by requiring someone like me to give the business owner what could be unlimited time to provide access. If this law is passed, business owners won’t face any penalty as long as a person with a disability goes through an elaborate notification process beginning with filing a very specific complaint with the business owner, wait 60 days for a response and another 120 days for removal of the barrier to access before going to court. After that, if the business owner claims he/she is making “substantial progress” toward access, whatever that means, the wait for access to that business may be a lot longer. Is this really what we have waited 27 years for? No, it is not.
A vote on the house floor on this bill is imminent. So, I am asking all of my fellow disability rights activists and your family and friends to start emailing, tweeting and calling your Congressmen and Congresswomen right now to tell them to vote no on HR 620 and to insist that they ensure that our rights to equal access to all businesses open to the public are maintained and protected. Do it now!
Call the Capitol at (202) 224-3121. Your Message is: Vote NO on HR 620, the “ADA Education and Reform Act,” or tweet your member of congress: #DisabilityRights = #CivilRights! Protect the #ADA, Vote NO on #HR620
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Christine Griffin is the Immediate Past Chair of AAPD’s Board of Directors and current Executive Director of the Disability Law Center, the Protection and Advocacy agency for Massachusetts.
Review AAPD’s past Action Alerts on H.R. 620, The ADA Education and Reform Act