You know things are serious when advocacy groups and non-profits as diverse as the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, National Disability Rights Network, the NAACP, and the National Association of Social Workers all oppose a bill now pending in Congress. The ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017, sponsored principally by Rep. Ted Poe, (R-Tex), would require a person with a disability who encounters an obstacle to allow 180 days for a business owner or government building to even start to fix an obstacle. Under this proposed bill, if a man in a wheelchair cannot get into a local restaurant because there is no ramp, he must wait 60 days before the restaurant owner to respond to his complaint and then another 120 days before the owner has a legal duty to start to fix the ramp. As if there are not enough delays already. When I worked at Disability Rights of Texas, we had several of these sorts of lawsuits at any given time. Every business owner had plenty of time to correct the access issue. DR Texas would file suit only if the business owner had plenty of time to comply and just refused.
The reality is that the access portion of the ADA has little teeth. A successful plaintiff can win nothing more than fixing the problem and attorney’s fees. Rep. Poe just gained a few new co-sponsors, making passage more likely.
Congressman Poe claims there are abusive lawsuits filed by persons with disabilities. It is true that some persons with disabilities have filed many access lawsuits across the country. But, the Americans with Disabilities Act has been in force since 1990. Business owners have had ample time to comply. If some business still has a doorway that is too narrow, it is because it has chosen to ignore the ADA. And, any such lawsuit results only in improved access. The plaintiffs in access lawsuits cannot sue for damages. There is no provision for damages under the access provisions (known as Title III) of the ADA. Plaintiffs can only sue for fixing the problem and attorney’s fees. See letter opposing the bill by the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities here.