By Rosemary Musachio
When I first learned that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) might be weakened, I was mortified. I thought, “Oh no, would customer service representatives, business executives, professors, and everyone else who serve the public still regard, or try to regard, persons with disabilities (PWD) as equal? Would braille numbers be removed from elevators, captions be stripped from media productions, buildings be renovated with steps only?” Perhaps I was overreacting a bit, yet this proposed amendment to the ADA would make accessibility and inclusion less urgent to achieve.
Actually, the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017 (HR 620), doesn’t sound threatening at first glance. The proposed bill would require the Justice Department to establish a program for state and business leaders to develop strategies to make products and services accessible and inclusive. The program can include training to avoid potential ADA violations. Sounds good so far. Businesses may learn how to make their websites accessible, their hiring practices more inclusive, their customer services more accommodating, and a hundred more ways to integrate persons with disabilities (PWD) further into society.
We start scratching our heads and blowing steam out of our ears at the second stipulation of the proposed bill.
“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 latter would affect Title III of the landmark disability act. It would mean a business owner might not make their building or office accessible unless we file a complaint properly. Even if we do everything correctly, the presumed ADA violator would have two months to acknowledge the complaint and another four months to start resolving the issue. The bill doesn’t require a deadline for the business to finish eliminating the barrier. This means a person may not be able to go to a grocery store, attend a movie or concert, eat at a restaurant, or appear for a job interview for months or even years.
While the passage of HR620 as law would be a threat to our civil rights, it is supposed to be a great reprieve to businesses. In fact, that’s why Rep. Ted Poe introduced HR 620. According to the Seyfarth ADA Title III News & Insights Blog, over 7000 ADA Title III lawsuits were filed in 2017, an increase of 16% from the previous year. Forbes’ The ADA Lawsuit Contagion Sweeping U.S. States says remediating an ADA issue costs a business $16,000 on the average. If the proprietor wants to litigate, legal fees run $75,000.
If fixing the issue is less expensive than letting the case go to the court, then why not make your business ADA compliant? Moreover, businesses who comply with the disability civil rights get a tax credit or tax deduction of $15,000 a year. So, if a company invests $16,000 to widen doorways and install a ramp, it would spend only $1,000 thanks to tax benefits.
Moreover, by complying with the ADA, a business’ reputation glows with the public. According to the Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD), 90% of people polled support ADA Title III. Another study conducted by the public relations and marketing firm Cone Communications and Echo Research showed that 90% of customers worldwide would rather do business with socially responsible companies. Being social responsible includes adhering to ADA guidelines. Not only companies who are social responsible to the disability community sustain a brilliant, profitable standing with the public, they also improve employee retention. It creates a positive work environment when employees become more motivated to perform better.
Therefore, contrary to what Rep. Poe and others believe the ADA Education and Reform Act would do for businesses, it would hurt them almost as much as it would harm persons with disabilities. The first part of the legislation should echo throughout the entirety: teach businesses how to become accessible. Then have inspectors assess as they do for other building codes. If violations occur, give businesses a set time frame to repair them or face penalties. Definitely a more logical reform act, wouldn’t you say?