U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and 42 of her colleagues wrote to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) today pledging to block a House Republican-led effort to curtail the civil rights of Americans living with disabilities. Together, the group of 43 Senators is large enough to defeat the discriminatory ADA Education and Reform Act (H.R. 620), which civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) described as, “a bill that turns the clock backwards and strikes a devastating blow in the fight for civil rights.” The legislation would isolate Americans living with disabilities as the only federally-protected class of citizens forced to rely on “education,” rather than strong enforcement, to exercise their basic civil rights.
H.R. 620 would gut the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by eliminating incentives for businesses of any size, including the largest corporate hotel, restaurant and movie theater chains, to make their facilities accessible to people with disabilities. Instead, businesses would be encouraged to avoid complying with the nearly 30-year-old law until people with disabilities notify them that they are unable to enter their facility. Businesses would be allowed to discriminate for at least 120 days following notification, and they would only need to make “substantial progress” towards accessibility to make their facility ADA-compliant. That would set a dangerous precedent by forcing Americans living with disabilities to personally experience the humiliation of discrimination – and then be required to educate those who violate their civil rights – before having violations of their civil rights remedied.
Notably, special interests lobbying for H.R. 620 have misleadingly implied that the ADA allows people to sue for monetary damages even though the ADA does not, and has never, authorized damage awards. That’s because Congress modeled the right of private action under title III of the ADA after title II of the seminal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which authorizes private lawsuits to enforce the prohibition against discrimination on the basis of race, religion, and national origin in certain places of public accommodation. To help businesses achieve compliance, Congress also crafted the ADA to only require removal of barriers when it is not too difficult or expensive, and Congress established a small business tax credit and a tax deduction for businesses to lower the costs of making their facilities accessible.
Duckworth has been a vocal critic of H.R. 620, which only narrowly passed the House of Representatives last month. She went to the House floor last month ahead of the vote on the bill to urge her House colleagues to vote against the bill. She also penned an op-ed in The Washington Post about how this legislation would make Americans with disabilities second-class citizens again and send a signal that their civil rights are not worthy of strong enforcement. Civil Rights organizations like The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and Veterans Service Organizations like the Paralyzed Veterans of America have also urged Senators to strongly oppose the legislation while the U.S. Department of Justice warned that H.R. 620 “would also unnecessarily limit individuals’ abilities to obtain much-needed barrier removal in a timely manner (and) may instead result in additional areas of litigation.”
The letter was also signed by U.S. Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Bob Casey (D-PA), Patty Murray (D-WA), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Tom Carper (D-DE), Chris Coons (D-DE), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Edward Markey (D-MA), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Gary Peters (D-MI), Jack Reed (D-RI), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Tina Smith (D-MN), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Jon Tester (D-MT), Tom Udall (D-NM), Mark Warner (D-VA), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Ron Wyden (D-OR).
A full copy of the letter is available online here