The Evisceration of the Americans With Disabilities Act
On February 15, 2018 the US House of Representatives passed a bill that could dramatically alter the lives of over 40 million Americans, destroying a huge swath of civil rights, and erasing 28 years of progress working towards equality. And no one has heard of it.
I am referring to a bill called H.R. 620. I don’t expect you to have any idea what this means, as it has gone largely unnoticed, flying under the radar in a storm of discussion about gun reform, climate change, immigration, healthcare, and minimum wage issues. While every single one of these topics are of great importance, and conversations must be had about them, they most certainly do not outweigh the importance of this little, time-sensitive bill.
H.R. 620 is a bill that was introduced to the House under the alluring name of the “ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) Education and Reform Act,” but if you peel back the feel-good words like “education” and “reform” what you are left with is a proposed piece of legislature that moves to eviscerate the ADA, reducing, and potentially eliminating, regulations put in place to help create equal and safe spaces for people with disabilities (PWD). The ADA is an incredibly comprehensive piece of civil rights legislation, which was enacted on July 26, 1990 after a brave group of over 1,000 disabled protesters joined together and demanded equal access to public spaces, equal employment opportunities, and laws protecting disabled people from discrimination and harm.
Today, the ADA provides regulation and protection for PWD in areas ranging from equal employment , to housing and healthcare, to discrimination protection laws, to, of course, accessibility. And this is a big issue not only because PWD are, in fact, people too, but also because disabled folks are the largest minority in the entire country. And we are a demographic who are consistently overlooked, especially in political arenas. And as with any minority or marginalized group, there is an intersection. All issues overlap disability issues. From PWD who are immigrants, women or transgender, people of color, to people who are domestic violence victims, gun violence victims, low income, and so on. But also, not only are disabled individuals, especially people with mental illnesses, often fraudulently framed as dangerous or untrustworthy, blamed for gun violence and other issues, but they are actually statistically far more likely to be the victim of violence and abuse than their abled counterparts. Approximately 1% of gun violence (not counting suicides) is caused by PWD, and coming from the largest minority in the country, that’s an astonishingly low percentage.
The primary goal of H.R. 620 is to reduce restrictions on making public spaces accessible, the premise being it would reduce the financial burden on business owners. And, as a small business owner myself a few times over (as well as a disabled woman), I understand the financial struggles of keeping your head above water and trying to turn a profit. And while fewer expenses sound great, the truth of the matter is reducing regulations is not only discriminatory and inconvenient, but potentially dangerous or even life-threatening. There are already many stipulations in place to keep accessibility issues from bankrupting business owners, such as not requiring accessibility modifications for any small renovations on buildings older than 1995, exemptions for business owners who claim “exorbitant expense” or “inconvenience,” and ADA regulations not being enforced (such as by random inspections) unless a formal complaint is filed. And sure, it’s not perfect, but neither is accessibility. Many places, especially in older areas like New England, are inaccessible to people who use mobility aids. And while it seems nice to not have to spend a lot of money to upgrade your space, the truth of the matter is that at some point inaccessibility becomes discrimination and willful exclusion. From having to use the back entrance and go up the freight elevator, to creating spaces that are not wheelchair accessible or that violate laws put in place to protect visually impaired folks from protruding objects, to having separate disability seating areas, malfunctioning accessibility devices, to misuse of mobility aids, to just not having access at all, inaccessibility is a very big issue. It is eerily similar to having an alternate entrance or drinking fountain for coloured people, or not allowing people of color into your establishment.
And as things stand now, any space that is currently in existence should be up to ADA code, or qualify for an exemption. So removing ADA restrictions doesn’t actually do much for small business owners for whom finances are a very real concern. Rather, they provide big breaks for companies building structures like shopping malls and skyscrapers. Companies large enough that the money saved by skipping accessibility requirements hardly warrants batting an eyelash.
I would like to think that businesses and companies would create accessible spaces regardless of legal requirements, but if history, and even current events is any indicator, I fear that hope would be deeply misplaced.
But here’s the deal. H.R. 620 has passed through the House. And that is disgusting and tragic. But it is currently on the floor of the Senate, and has not been voted on as of the writing of this piece. So here is your task, fellow American and person who thinks civil rights is important: Contact your senators, your governor, your representatives, everyone you can think of. Tell them you strongly oppose H.R. 620, and request they vote no on this bill. Tell them disabled people matter more than kickbacks from special interest groups. Tell them PWD matter to you, that civil rights matters to you, and that you will not accept a government that puts the good of cell phone kiosks above their citizens. End of story.