The House of Representatives passed H.R. 620, the misleadingly-named ADA Education and Reform Act, which disability and civil rights groups say guts the Americans with Disabilities Act, on Thursday with a 225-192 vote. The move sparked swift outrage from the disability community, who say the bill effectively makes them “second-class citizens.” All but 19 Republicans voted for H.R. 620, while all but a dozen Democrats voted against its passage.
The final version of H.R. 620 would give businesses up to four months to respond to an ADA violation complaint and start making “substantial progress” toward removing barriers to access. The bill does not contain a definition of “substantial progress.”
Supporters claim the bill is designed to stop so-called “drive-by lawsuits,” in which serial litigants make a profit by suing businesses for ADA violations. Opponents of the bill, including nearly every major civil and disability rights organization in the country, say it will have limited effect on such lawsuits, while further placing the burden of compliance on those who are being discriminated against.
“I am saddened and angered by the Congressional effort to undermine the well-established rights of Americans with disabilities. Most of those who supported this misguided legislation would not have abridged the rights of women, racial or religious minorities. They were attempting to stop abuse of the ADA by a few unscrupulous attorneys with cooperative clients who shake down businesses by filing a barrier removal ADA suit but take legal fees to dismiss the case without forcing barrier removal. The bill passed yesterday by the House will not prevent this practice or even slow it down. It will keep legitimate cases from being filed, however,” says James Weisman, CEO of United Spinal Association.
The disability rights organization ADAPT was active in protesting the bill, and even had several members removed from the chamber and arrested during the House vote.
Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, who had both legs amputated as a result of a combat injury in Iraq, said in a Twitter thread following the vote:
“Being unable to independently enter a movie theater, store, hotel or restaurant is not only humiliating, it limits the freedom to pursue certain jobs, access necessary services and enjoy basic conveniences that most Americans don’t think twice about. I understand that not everyone thinks about these things because for most of my adult life I didn’t either. But the truth is that everyone is just one bad day away from needing accessible options the #ADA requires to help them get around.”
The fight will now move to the Senate, where there is currently no companion bill to H.R. 620. A number of Democratic senators have vowed to fight passage of any similar bill in their chamber, including Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania.
“Today the House passed H.R. 620 which guts the Americans with Disabilities Act and strips away the rights of people with disabilities. We will fight to protect those rights in the Senate #DisabilityRightsAreCivilRights #HandsOffMyADA,” tweeted Sen. Casey after the vote.
If no companion bill is passed in the Senate by the end of the year, the House will have to start the process over and re-introduce the legislation. Advocacy organizations are now imploring the disability community to make their opposition heard at the ballot box.
“There must be consequences for elected officials who vote to rip away disabled people’s right to access public accommodations,” said Colleen Flanagan, co-founder and executive director for Disability Action for America, who is also an ADAPT organizer in Massachusetts. “It’s our time to defeat and unseat elected officials who refuse to promote disability rights and repeatedly commit disability wrongs.”