The ‘ADA Education and Reform Act’ and its Impact on Americans with Disabilities

by: David Titmus

A number of disability rights and advocacy groups, including the Hearing Loss Association of America, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, are voicing their concern over a bill they say would weaken the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017 (H.R. 620) would prohibit lawsuits and civil actions based on improper access to existing public accommodations unless the business or property owner has first been provided a written notice specifically identifying the barrier. Under the legislation, businesses would then have 60 days to acknowledge the written notice and an additional 120 days to initiate improvements. Businesses, however, would not have to fix those problems within that period but, rather, only show that “substantial progress” has been made in addressing the notice.

It also would require the Disability Rights Section of the Department of Justice to develop a program to educate state and local governments and property owners on providing access to public accommodations for people with disabilities. The program would include training for professionals to provide guidance on potential violations of the ADA.

The bill passed the House of Representatives by a 225-192 vote late last week, and will next come before the Senate.

Critics fear that instead of requiring actual compliance with ADA standards, the bill would allow businesses to claim “substantial progress” for years without actually removing the barrier. Moreover, some are saying the bill undermines the very purpose of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Big business is trying to bamboozle…the American public into supporting an unnecessary law  misleadingly titled the ‘ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017’ that would make it even harder for people with disabilities who have been waiting to listen to the same programs, use the same restrooms, shop at the same department stores, and eat at the same restaurants as our non-disabled friends and family members, for almost 30 years,” the Hearing Loss Association of America said in a statement last week.

The Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund argues that the bill would remove incentives for voluntary compliance; reward non-compliance by allowing businesses additional timelines to make improvements; and ignore the extensive educational resources already available to businesses on how to comply with the ADA.

Those supporting the bill include the United States Chamber of Commerce, American Hotel and Lodging Association, International Council of Shopping Centers, International Franchise Association, National Apartment Association, National Association of Convenience Stores, National Association of REALTORS, National Association of Theatre Owners, National Council of Chain Restaurants, National Restaurant Association, National Retail Federation, and the Retail Industry Leaders Association. Those groups say that the bill is intended to protect businesses from lawsuits with financial gain — not access — as their primary objectives.

“Over the past year, the number of ADA Title III lawsuits — those dealing with public accommodation —  surged by more than 37%, undermining the objective and effectiveness of the law,” proponents of the bill said in a letter. “The majority of ADA ‘drive-by’ lawsuits do little to actually remedy access problems; rather, they serve to line the pockets of certain attorneys and their pool of plaintiffs.

“Alleged ADA access violations could be addressed more quickly and cost-effectively through the widely accepted practice of providing the property owner with proper notice and a time-frame to fix the alleged problems.”