Jewish disability advocates are concerned that a bill being considered by Congress will lead to increased bureaucracy and less access for the disabled.
The bill, known as HR 620, would roll back a portion of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by including a provision requiring people with disabilities who encounter a barrier to access, to submit a written notice to a property owner and observe a waiting period before suing.
Disability advocates say that would lead to more negligence toward the disabled from business owners who are out of compliance with the ADA.
Last week, 55 Jewish organizations from across the religious and political spectrums signed a letter from the Jewish Federations of North America urging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to oppose the bill, which was introduced last year in the House by Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas). It moved to the Senate in February.
“If enacted, this legislation would take our country backwards after we have seen great progress in making our country more accessible for people with disabilities,” wrote William Daroff, the senior vice president for public policy at JFNA. “No other members of a federally protected class have to wait to exercise their legal rights alleging discrimination, and neither should people with disabilities.”
The ADA, passed by Congress and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, requires businesses to provide accommodations for people with disabilities, among other things. Under Title III of the law, all “places of public accommodation,” mainly businesses, must take steps to ensure their facilities are accessible to the disabled.
Last month, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), an Iraq war veteran who had both legs amputated, wrote a letter to McConnell vowing that she would attempt to block the passage of the bill in the Senate. More than 40 of her Democratic colleagues co-signed the letter. JFNA was involved in assisting Duckworth’s effort, said the agency’s associate vice president for public policy, Stephan Kline. Kline said JFNA has had a lobbying presence on Capitol Hill several times a week since then and has been working with other disability and social service agencies.
The bill “is an effort to push back on the law, and it’s propelled by people who are interested in rolling back all sorts of regulations,” Kline said. “We don’t see it as a well-meaning tweaking of a law. We think it’s an effort to undermine completely the ADA.”
Alexis Kashar, president of the New York-based Jewish Deaf Resource Center, wrote in an email that the proposed change to the law would function as an “ADA test” for people with disabilities.
“It forces people with disabilities to become legal experts and explain how each entity is in violation with the statutory or regulatory code of the ADA,” she wrote. “Moreover, HR 620 would force every person with a disability to have no expectation of access despite 28 years of the ADA, but instead to hope for the best each time they go to a restaurant or hospital or hotel or museum or any other public facility. If it is not accessible, the only thing they can do is to notify the facility of the inaccessible features.”
Kashar, who is deaf, wrote that she often encounters facilities that are not ADA compliant and said the process of educating the owner of a building about accessibility can be exhausting. Common examples of ADA violations, she said, are a lack of interpreters, lack of accessible signage for blind people and physical barriers such as stairs and narrow doorways that deny access to people in wheelchairs. Virtually every person with a disability would be affected by the legislation, she said.
By adding the waiting period, the bill would drastically change the outlook of business owners on issues of accessibility, said Ari Ne’eman, an adviser to the American Civil Liberties Union and a former member of the National Council on Disability.
“If you’re told that when you enter a restaurant or a hotel, or another place of business and you need to go through a complex procedure, people with disabilities will be pushed out of the public sphere,” he said. “We’re really talking about a situation that would put the ADA into a second tier as a civil rights law.”
Ne’eman said he thinks the bill will lead businesses to be less proactive about ensuring accessibility, which he said is “a matter of prejudice,” and is part of a “broad assault” on civil rights that has taken place since the beginning of President Donald Trump’s administration.
Kline said that he, too, thinks HR 620 is part of the broader effort to strip away federal regulations that have existed for decades.
“I think parts of the country believe there are too many regulations covering too much of the world,” he said. “They think nanny state has too many requirements, whether it’s environmental regulations or social welfare regulations.”
But Kline said he still does not understand why after 28 years the ADA is being questioned.
“It’s not like a law just passed and you’re getting your bearings,” he said. “We’ve had generations of people that have been trying to get into those buildings.”