The House on Thursday passed legislation that would create additional requirements for filing lawsuits under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The legislation, which passed 225-192 largely along party lines, would prevent people from filing lawsuits alleging violations of the ADA unless business owners are given written notice and fail to offer a written response describing improvements or to make substantial progress in removing the barrier by the end of a six-month period.
The measure would also require the Justice Department to establish a program for educating governments and property owners on how to enhance accommodations for people with disabilities.
“This bill makes businesses comply. Puts them on notice. If they don’t comply within the time period, then file the lawsuit. Go after them. But businesses should be able to have the notice of what the problem is so that they can fix it, which is the goal of the ADA,” said Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), the author of the legislation.
But the bill faced fierce opposition from disability rights advocates, who staged protests in the House chamber during the vote. Capitol Police escorted protesters out of the visitors’ gallery, many of whom were in wheelchairs and chanting “Hands off ADA!”
Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union warned that the changes would shift the burden to people with disabilities who aren’t able to access public spaces instead of the businesses in violation of the ADA. They also expressed skepticism that businesses need more time to comply with a law that was enacted in 1990.
“The idea that places of public accommodation should receive a free pass for six months before correctly implementing a law that has been a part of our legal framework for nearly three decades creates an obvious disincentive for ADA compliance,” Rep. (D-R.I.), the first quadriplegic to serve in Congress, said during House floor debate.
Langevin became paralyzed at the age of 16 after a bullet from a gun that accidentally discharged struck him during a Boy Scout program with a police department. He noted that his accident occurred a decade before
the ADA became law and recalled how he struggled with being able to access places like restaurants, libraries, movie theaters, restrooms and his first-choice college that lacked accommodations for people in wheelchairs.
“Has the Congress really become so divorced from the human experience of the disability community that we’re willing to sacrifice their rights because it’s easier than targeting the root of the problem? Are people with disabilities, people like me, so easily disregarded?” Langevin asked.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a double-amputee Iraq War veteran, was also on hand in the House chamber for the vote.
“If you don’t live with a disability, you might not think of #ADA violations as significant at 1st glance, but I assure you they’re significant for those of us who do live with disabilities,” Duckworth tweeted.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman (R-Va.) said that people with disabilities who own small businesses have themselves been sued for ADA violations for which they had been unaware. He gave an example of a woman in a wheelchair who owned a store that sold accessibility devices who was sued because the business had not painted lines and posted a sign for a “handicapped” spot.
“All this bill does is require those unscrupulous trial lawyers to do what ethical lawyers already do: give fair notice of a violation before thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees are racked up against a small business, diverting money from accessibility where it belongs,” Goodlatte said.