I helped pass disabilities reform — I know the cost if it's gutted

I helped pass disabilities reform — I know the cost if it's gutted
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The experience of having a disability profoundly shapes one’s life. It affects how one lives, where one learns, if one works, what our personal relationships are like, and how we interact with our community. This is not just because of the disability, but also because of the responses from people around us  — their attitudes, their interactions and their inclusion — or exclusion — of us.

My epilepsy (defined as chronic seizures), which I’ve had since I was a teenager, has been a defining characteristic of my life. It influenced my decision to focus my career while in Congress and afterwards on improving the lives of people living with disabilities. I was a lead sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when it was introduced in the House of Representatives in 1988, and I am proud to see that the ADA continues to open doors and change lives. The ADA has become a worldwide model for codifying equal opportunity, equal access, full inclusion, and maximum independence for people with disabilities.

Now, that legacy is under attack. Last year, the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives voted to advance HR 620, disingenuously named the “ADA Education and Reform Act.” This legislation would undermine the ADA and so much of the progress we have made, decreasing access for people with disabilities by removing the substantive requirements businesses and services have to meet — no longer guaranteeing access, but instead mandating a business only make “substantial progress” towards access.  


HR 620 prevents people with disabilities from seeking immediate legal recourse to protect their rights. Instead, the bill would require people with disabilities to go through a bureaucratic process to inform businesses exactly what portion of the ADA has been violated and what changes need to be made to meet its obligations. It then requires people with disabilities to wait up to 6 months or more before they could go to court to protect their rights.

This law would mean people with disabilities have to become legal experts just to participate in society, and it removes any incentive for businesses to proactively comply with the ADA. This is not how civil rights laws are supposed to work.

This is not an abstract or anachronistic problem. We’ve made meaningful progress towards accessibility in this country; technological innovations, curbs cuts, accessible government buildings and websites, as well as services allowing people with disabilities to live in their communities rather than be institutionalized.

But still, people with disabilities are more likely to live in poverty, to not own their homes, and to be unemployed than any other group of Americans. In my home state of California:

  • A woman who uses a wheelchair had to leave a wedding party in Sacramento because the restrooms in the refurbished mansion rented out for private events had doors so narrow that she could not enter.
  • A small café on the Sonoma County coast has a small steep ramp. A young man and his mother, a wheelchair user in Sonoma County, have been prevented from eating at a café when the owner let the ramp leading to the only accessible seating become overgrown with plants. The woman has written two letters asking the business to fix the problem and informing it about the tax credit available for small businesses of up to $5,000 per year. She has never received a response.
  • A restaurant in Sebastopol has only tall tables with high chairs, impossible to access by most people who use wheelchairs and people of short stature.

These are just a few examples of the injustices and insults people with disabilities experience every day across the country. So why are members of Congress pushing a bill to weaken the rights of people with disabilities? Why are they destroying the intent and spirit of the ADA?

Proponents of HR 620 insist that businesses need more time. They assert that businesses need to be protected from unscrupulous lawsuits. Yet the ADA has been the law of the land for almost 30 years. During that time, the federal government has conducted thousands of trainings for businesses and established ADA technical assistance centers that serve every state, free to any business owner. Businesses receive tax credits and tax deductions to reduce costs for access features.

We can address the problem of unscrupulous lawyers without taking away the rights of millions of Americans. I have been a strong supporter of the business community, and believe businesses can play a role in creating a better community for us all. I also believe it is good business to provide access to people with disabilities. Sixty million Americans with disabilities are a customer base that businesses cannot afford to ignore.

The irony here is that there are real problems with ADA compliance and enforcement that we can — and should — be working to fix. Almost 30 years after its passage, despite millions of government dollars spent on educating and supporting business owners, too many stores and public businesses are still inaccessible. The same companies who are so concerned about the cost of making their businesses accessible are, by ignoring their customers with disabilities, also missing the real opportunity to increase their bottom lines by providing services for more people.

People with disabilities deserve better. Nearly three decades after passage of the ADA, we should be encouraging businesses to open their doors, not slam them in the face of paying customers.

Instead of bringing this bill to the floor of the House of Representatives for a vote, I urge Speaker Ryan to shelve HR 620, and focus instead on improving access for all Americans and full integration of people with disabilities into their communities. This bill is bad for America, bad for business, and bad for the consuming public.

Tony Coelho is a former U.S. representative from California’s Central Valley and one of the authors of the Americans with Disabilities Act.