This year, it’s seemed as though every time I open Twitter I get news of Trump’s latest disaster—whether that involves attacking healthcare, banning trans people from service in the military, or rescinding DACA. If you're not a straight, cisgender, white, abled rich man, then odds are you are just as exhausted as you possibly could be. I've lost count of the protests we've had since even before the inauguration—waves of people coming out en masse, every time, in an effort to stand up to Trump. But as a black, queer disabled woman, I've noticed something: every time there is a protest, no matter what it is, disabled people are present to the best of their ability. The last round of healthcare repeal attempts saw dozens of people with disabilities camping out in the offices of their state reps, getting arrested and shouting as loud as possible. (And it wasn't just because we had a lot to lose: after all, all Americans had a lot to lose.) But when we’re faced with disability-specific things that don’t apply to the rest of the population, how come the only people that seem to care about our civil rights are other disabled people?
Currently in congress right now, there's a bill that will undo every bit of civil rights that Americans with disabilities have fought for. HR 620—or the ADA Education and Reform Act—reads as follows:
"This bill requires the Disability Rights Section of the Department of Justice to develop a program to educate state and local governments and property owners on strategies for promoting access to public accommodations for persons with a disability. The program may include training for professionals to provide a guidance of remediation for potential violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).
The bill prohibits civil actions based on the failure to remove an architectural barrier to access into an existing public accommodation unless: (1) the aggrieved person has provided to the owners or operators a written notice specific enough to identify the barrier, and (2) the owners or operators fail to provide the person with a written description outlining improvements that will be made to improve the barrier or they fail to remove the barrier or make substantial progress after providing such a description. The aggrieved person's notice must specify: (1) the address of the property, (2) the specific ADA sections alleged to have been violated, (3) whether a request for assistance in removing an architectural barrier was made, and (4) whether the barrier was permanent or temporary."
The ADA, which has existed for nearly 30 years, mandates that all barriers to access a building must be removed so that those with disabilities may access it. If an establishment fails to comply with that requirement, then a consumer has the right to file civil action to make the business accessible. If HR 620 passes, that will mean disabled consumers must write the business a letter specifically addressing the barrier. The business will then have a certain amount of time—6 months, to be exact—to show substantial progress before civil action can be taken. That would sound reasonable to me—if businesses hadn’t already had the last 27 years to get their shit together! The law will allow for businesses, schools, etc to do what they want until someone complains. In addition to that, "substantial progress" is ambiguous and objective. Therefore, a business could say they consulted a contractor 6 months ago, and the federal government could accept that as substantial progress. In this way, the process could drag on forever without any tangible improvements ever being made—all in the interest of protecting inaccessible businesses from supposedly money-hungry “ambulance chasers”.
Here's the thing, though: disabled consumers who sue businesses for lack of accessibility don't get paid. That's right: no money is given to the plaintiff. In fact, Title III of the law forbids it, with the exception of attorney's fees. (Some states do allow damages if injury is caused because of lack of accommodation, but businesses have always been liable for injuries incurred on their grounds.) The only outcome of winning an ADA lawsuit is success in making the business remove any and all barriers that caused the lawsuit. So, again, why do we need to give people 6 months to comply if they've had 27 years? Knowing that you need to comply with ADA guidelines in order to operate a business is no different from knowing you need a business license.
Disabled people are 20% of the population. So why are we counted out so much? Perhaps it's because of the misconception that disabled people are greedy freeloaders who are well-cared for by the government. Or maybe people just don't know about disability rights issues and don't feel the need to be informed because it's not happening to them. But being disabled is the one identity that can forced on anyone at any time, for any reason. If nothing else, most of us will reach old age someday, and disability at that point is more than likely. And when that day comes, this policy will affect you, too. So, yes, you should be paying attention to HR-620—for your own sake, if not for ours.
Here’s how able-bodied people can take action against HR-620:
1.) Talk to disabled people. Find out why this bill upsets us, and ask us what you can do to show your support.
2.) Look up what life was like pre-ADA. Google "capitol crawl" and watch what comes up. Wild, right? That’s what we risk returning to if this bill passes.
3.) Contact your reps and tell them you won’t stand for this bill. A moment of empathy is not enough. There are more abled people on the planet than disabled people—we need your help moving the needle.
4.) Spread the word on social media and at protests. While I don't you shouldn’t be taking the mic from a disabled people, there's no reason you can't grab another one and stand next to us. Sadly, people tend to listen to abled people more than to disabled people. That means your voice matters—so use it for good.