Editor’s Note: Rebecca Cokley is the Senior Fellow for Disability Policy at the Center for American Progress. She served at the US Department of Education, US Department of Health and Human Services, the National Council on Disability and the White House during the Obama Administration. The views expressed here are solely those of the author. The next episode in the third season of CNN’s “United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell” is about the disability community, which airs on Sunday, May 20 at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been law for 28 years now – and I can honestly say that rights for Americans with disabilities, including accessibility to public spaces, are now facing more uncertainty and outright hostility than at any time in recent memory.
Recently, Delta Airlines began pushing back on service and support animals, introducing a new policy that requires increased documentation to register the animals at least 48 hours in advance of flying. No other population is required to submit additional paperwork 48 hours before a flight. This will undoubtedly impact people with disabilities’ access to the ability to “get up and go” with the same level of flexibility as individuals without disabilities.
While there have been stories of people without disabilities taking advantage of rights that are clearly not theirs – to transport animals who are not used for service or support, and in some cases behaved inappropriately – the lasting impact of the airline’s misguided efforts to address the problem will fall on travelers with disabilities (including those with hidden or nonvisible disabilities and chronic conditions), making it harder to travel for business or pleasure.
Imagine being asked to present before an important client, or getting a call that a relative is gravely ill and being asked, “Can you get there in 24 hours?” For the average nondisabled person with the means to travel, yes, you can. But for a person with a disability who requires use of a service animal, the answer will now have to be no. And this clearly flies in the face of a disabled person’s right to equality of opportunity, one of the four key promises laid out in the preamble of ADA, along with full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency.
The Trump administration is on the attack, and so are many states. Across America, marginalized communities – LGBT, Muslim, African-American and more – are having to advocate for their right to access society, in a way unseen since the 1960s or ‘70s. This is equally true for the disability community, which represents anywhere from one in four to one in five people in this country, and which is having to defend against a sweeping assault on their rights and protections.
These attacks, while egregious, are just the tip of the iceberg compared to a broader bipartisan assault on the rights of Americans with Disabilities Act: the ADA Education and Reform Act (H.R. 620), which is expected to come up for a vote this week. If successful, this regressive law would significantly hinder a person with a disability’s right to file a lawsuit for violations of access. It would require creating a written claim with specific legal requirements to document the violation (which would be onerous for an attorney, let alone your average John Q. Public with little experience with accessibility requirements and measurements). Businesses would then have 60 days to respond and an additional 120 days make “substantial progress” – a term still undefined. In practice, business owners could spend decades failing to comply with the accessibility requirements of the ADA as long as they claim to be attempting substantial progress.
This attempt to undermine the civil rights of Americans with disabilities is happening largely in response to several stories claiming that there is a growing army of disabled people cruising the streets, looking for potential lawsuits wherever they go, and are getting rich off of the spoils. The reality, of course, is that the only thing that can be collected in ADA lawsuits are attorney’s fees, so no disabled person who brings charges can actually get monetary damages from a lawsuit. All they can achieve is the business remedying its inaccessibility.
Furthermore, in cases where it’s assumed that there are hundreds of lawyers repeatedly filing case after case to the point of appearing fraudulent, the Center for American Progress (where I am a senior fellow) has traced the number of attorneys doing so to only 12 lawyers, and there are disciplinary actions available to take action against them in state bar associations or district courts. A federal law – especially one that would harm more than help – is hardly necessary here.
There is a significant countermovement against this legislation, comprised of a mix of social media (with groups like Crip the Vote and others using #HandsOffMyADA), traditional civil disobedience by ADAPT and others, visits to legislators and phone banking by older disability organizations like the ARC and the Autism Society. These organizations are also working with groups like Little Lobbyists and other parent/family organizations who organized last year to protect Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act.
For those of us who are parents and working in the disability justice space, these alliances are proving to be interesting examples of not having to choose one group or the other.
As someone who was 10 years old when the ADA became law, I have little memory of life before it, beyond what I’ve heard from my parents and elders in the community. The notion that I will need to start thinking about life without the ADA or with extremely limited access, paired with additional bureaucratic measures required to access public spaces, feels like I forgot to turn off Netflix before bed and an especially dark episode of “Black Mirror” is still playing in the background. This shouldn’t be our reality.
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Disabled Americans have fought so hard to access education, find jobs and contribute to society, but at the same time attacks like these give us a sense that certain lawmakers and those with political power still see us as beggars, takers, and undesirables. In this light, what progress has been made?