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Disability Advocates Say Republican Bill Weakens Americans With Disabilities Act

Advocates for people with disabilities are fighting to keep a bill passed by House Republicans Thursday from becoming law. The ADA Education and Reform Act would make it harder for people to sue businesses that do not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The legislation’s proponents argue the changes could improve the ADA. But Jennifer Mathis, director of policy and legal advocacy for the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, says criticism from disability groups speaks volumes.

“It tells you something that every single disability group, hundreds and hundreds of disability groups, have signed these letters opposing this bill,” Mathis tells Here & Now‘s Meghna Chakrabarti. “If it supposedly helps people with disabilities, I think you’d see support from people with disabilities. They don’t believe that. And it’s because it’s not true.”

Mathis says she doesn’t expect the bill to pass in the Senate.

“I think that it’s gonna be a different story in the Senate, now that people with disabilities are fired up about this,” she says. “I think their senators will hear from them, and the Senate, I think, is not gonna pass something like this.”

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Interview Highlights

On the potential impact of the ADA Education and Reform Act’s passage

“The bill that passed the House would really fundamentally change the way the ADA works. And I think most concerning, it would take away any incentive for businesses to comply with the ADA, and specifically with its public accommodations provisions. So if a business doesn’t comply with the ADA, and they exclude people with disabilities — could be for months, could be for years — we’d be sending the message, ‘That’s fine with us. We think it’s too much of a burden on you to understand what your obligations are to people with disabilities. And so we’re gonna wait, and you can wait and see if a person with a disability who is harmed, who is excluded, then sends you a complicated written legal notice explaining to you what your obligations are, and telling you the circumstances under which they were excluded. Until then, there’s no consequence for not complying.’ ”

On ADA Education and Reform Act supporters saying the bill gives businesses a chance to become compliant with the ADA, without the threat of immediate legal action

“I think there’s two problems with that: I mean one is, [the ADA] has been on the books for 28 years. So we’re also saying, ‘You don’t even need to start thinking about how you make yourself accessible until somebody gets harmed, is excluded, and sends you this complicated notice.’ That means that before that, there might be dozens and dozens of people with disabilities that come to your business, see the step, realize they can’t get in in their wheelchair, and go away. So what we’re doing is saying, ‘It doesn’t matter that you’re not complying with the law. It’s not your responsibility.’ ”

On some of the ADA Education and Reform Act’s sponsors saying the ADA has left businesses vulnerable to “drive-by lawsuits”

“There are — as there are with any other law — some lawyers who have engaged in fraud, or unethical practices, and it’s actually a very, very small number of lawyers. But they have engaged in these extortionist demand letters, where they’ll send a demand letter saying, ‘Hey, you’re violating the ADA, send me money and I’ll go away.’ Incidentally, it’s important to point out that the ADA itself, this part of the ADA, provides no money damages. So most of those people that are filing a lot of lawsuits, they’re also filing with state law claims. And it’s the state laws, not the ADA, that have the damages in them, and so changing the ADA is not gonna change that.

“But in any event, the courts around the country have used the ordinary mechanisms to shut those kinds of activities down. And there are lawyers who are in prison, there are lawyers who have been disbarred, there are lawyers who are suspended, there are lawyers who have paid hefty fees. We have the ordinary means to deal with that kind of conduct, and we don’t need to take away people’s civil rights in order to fix fraud.”

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