Monday, March 12th, 1990, was a Monday quite unlike any other in American history. After a day of rallies and speeches in Washington D.C, 60 disability-rights activists abandoned their assistive devices and wheelchairs and crawled up the steps of the U.S. Capitol building. The purpose of their protest? Bring attention to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was introduced to give equal rights to those with disabilities. Within 4 months, the bill was signed into law by George H.W. Bush, marking yet another instance where America extended the rights it was so famously founded on to another disenfranchised group.
The hard-fought victory scored by these activists is under attack in the form of HR 620, a bill recently passed by the House of Representatives that would significantly weaken the ability for individuals with disabilities to bring civil lawsuits to ensure their rights to fair access to private businesses. Under current law, specifically Title 3 of the Americans with Disabilities Act, if there is a violation at a private business, an individual with a disability can file a civil suit for the correction of the said violation. These cases offer little in the way of punitive damages, and even some states offer none at all. The judges take intention of the business into account, and it is rare for a business to be laid low under the weight of these lawsuits. Even this supposed threat to private industry proved too much for House Republicans, who recently voted to weaken these protections. What would the new bill look like? It would require disabled individuals to be expert in the exact statutes of the law and navigate them without the assistance of a lawyer in most cases. Let’s break it down a bit.
Complaints would have to cite the exact statute of Title 3 that is being violated.
This is, perhaps, the most egregious change in the new bill. Imagine being robbed on the street, and rightfully calling the police. Instead of rushing to support you, the victim, they ask you “Well what SPECIFIC part of the penal code did the person violate when stealing from you?” Can you even imagine such a world? Yet this would be the reality for people with disabilities. Under the proposed changes, an individual with a disability would have to cite the specific statute being violated when filing their complaint with a business. Could they hire lawyers to help them navigate this process? That’s how the law currently works, but there are changes that could jeopardize this if HR 620 passes.
There would be delay periods far beyond what is currently in place.
Currently, lawyers take these cases on the assumption that they’ll be paid when legitimate complaints are addressed, pursuant to a lawsuit. You see, not only do the defendants have to fix the access problem, they pay the lawyer fees that were required to file the complaint. With the new bill, however, there would be a 60-day delay from receipt of the complaint and the company being required to acknowledge the problem, and then a 120-day delay from acknowledging the problem to DOING something about it! Here’s the kicker though…only after these 6 months are people allowed to file a lawsuit.
Prior to a lawsuit being filed, there is no chance for a lawyer to bill for their services pursuant to the case, and thus no longer any incentive to assist with the case. Unless the plaintiff can pay out of pocket for months prior to filing, they may be unable to navigate the process at all.
These two changes, when combined, create a quagmire that makes it much more difficult to hold businesses accountable for the access that individuals with disabilities deserve. To file a complaint, you need a lawyer to interpret the law. To get a lawyer, you’ll need to have filed a lawsuit…which can only happen 6 months AFTER the complaint. This is the broken circle that the bill hopes to inject into the law. Just imagine that in 1990, as those brave activists ascended the stairs, they were presented with Title 3 and asked to point to what specifically was wrong? Imagine if they had found the exact line and were then told to come back in 6 months to see if any progress had been made?
The people this law was originally written to protect aren’t using the law to gain an advantage or get rich. They’re using it to gain the same access to the world that everyone else takes for granted. Removing these protections to shield businesses from providing this access isn’t just misguided, it represents a deprivation of equal rights to those who fought so hard to secure them.
As physical therapists, advocacy cannot just extend to laws that result in higher reimbursements or more patient access to our services. It must extend to the protection of our patients themselves. We must come out against HR 620. If we leverage our voices only for our own benefit, and not those of our patients, we will be lost as a profession.