As the first quadriplegic to serve in Congress, I’ve spent the last 17 years navigating the hallways of our nation’s Capitol Building in a wheelchair. My ability to enter the House chamber, cast my vote, and carry out my responsibilities as a member of Congress was made possible by extraordinary leaders who fought for passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the civil rights law that protects Americans from discrimination due to a disability and promotes inclusion within our society.
However, the more than quarter century legacy of the ADA is being threatened. Today, the House of Representatives will vote on the cynically named ADA Education and Reform Act (H.R. 620), harmful legislation that fundamentally weakens the protections of the ADA.
The ADA Education and Reform Act is marketed as a bill to aid ADA compliance and promote greater inclusion for people with disabilities. Make no mistake, though, this bill undermines years of progress for the disability community by preventing disabled individuals from asserting their rights under the ADA. Ironically, H.R. 620 adds legal barriers, including long court wait times, to a law that is all about bringing down barriers -- and we have had more than 27 years to comply. The excessive requirements and extensive waiting periods decimate the right to public accommodations for an entire vulnerable population and set a dangerous precedent for the future. After all, justice delayed is justice denied.
The sponsors of the legislation point to some unscrupulous lawyers who have taken advantage of certain laws that allow monetary awards for violations of accessibility standards. However, these are state laws – suing for damages is not permitted under the federal law. Instead of addressing this problem at its source, proponents of the bill are opting to reduce accessibility and inclusion for people with disabilities in schools, restaurants, public transportation, commercial facilities, recreational sites, sales or rental establishments and more.
I remember what it was like before the ADA became law. We did not have access to public buildings, employment opportunities were scarce, and there were no legal protections against discrimination. I remember wanting to attend certain schools, family functions, or even professional events, but my participation was always dictated by the barriers I encountered. Each lost opportunity was a reminder that I am not like everyone else. Even if our country was founded by a belief that we can celebrate our differences while finding strength in our commonalities, I – like so many people with a disability – should not be limited because I cannot have a seat at the proverbial table of life – no matter the occasion.
Despite the sea of change brought by the ADA, people with disabilities continue to face significant obstacles to meaningful inclusion. I do not wish to go back to a time where discrimination was commonplace and accepted under our laws.
We must not undermine the fundamental rights of people with disabilities by passing this misguided bill that encourages businesses to ignore the ADA. Every vote of support will be a message to people with disabilities that we are not equal or worthy of the same civil rights protections as other individuals. The stakes could not be higher for people with disabilities and everyone who looks to our elected officials to fight for what’s right and reject all forms of discrimination. After nearly three decades of amazing progress, let’s not turn back the clock.
Langevin represents Rhode Island’s 2nd District and is co-chair of the Bipartisan Disabilities Caucus.