Editor’s note: This interview was edited for clarity and length. To listen to the full interview or read the full transcript, visit the Off-Kilter podcast page on Medium.
While all eyes were focused on the latest effort by conservatives to take away your health care, Congress quietly advanced a bill that would roll back the civil rights of people with disabilities by exactly 27 years—to a time before the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017 would create onerous red tape for people with disabilities attempting to enforce their rights under Title III the ADA (the part of the statute that applies to places of public accommodation). It would not only shift the burden of compliance from business owners to people with disabilities, but would allow businesses to delay compliance with a decades-old civil rights law for months—if not years.
I spoke with Rebecca Cokley, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and the former Executive Director of the National Council on Disability, about the stakes of this fight for people with disabilities and allies.
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Rebecca Vallas: So the bill is misleadingly titled “The ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017”. It should probably be called the “Let’s throw the ADA in the sewer and stomp on it with really high sharp heels bill of 2017”. Is that a fair characterization and what would the bill do?
Rebecca Cokley: I think that’s more than fair—and after we step on it with some high heels we’re going to stick it in a paper shredder and then use that to line a bird cage. The bill itself would actually push back requirements around accessibility and accommodations. [The Americans with Disabilities Act] has been the law for 27 years. We’ve had whole generations grow up that have never understood life before it. And what this would do is: a) it would put the onus much more on people with disabilities to prove discrimination in very tedious ways, and b) it would then allow business even more time, a minimum of an additional six months after a complaint is filed, not even to remedy the barrier but to “make substantial progress.” So that could mean instead of having an actual ramp so people could access a place, somebody could come out and tell them what the ramp would cost.
RV: So say you are a person who uses a power wheelchair, and you get to a building and you find you can’t get inside. And you want to enforce your rights under the ADA. What new hoops would you have to jump through under this proposal?
RC: The way the complaint process will actually shift is it will require such technical language that the average person with a disability is not going to feel qualified or empowered enough to even understand where in the law their particular situation might fit.
RV: So is what we expect to happen basically the lack of enforcement of a law that’s been the law of the land for 27 years? Is that eventually where this heads?
RC: I think there’s no other destination for it to head than that.
RV: You are a member of what’s often called the ADA generation and I would love for you to paint a picture of what life looked like before 1990—and before the ADA was in place.
RC: I’m part of the 20 percent of people with disabilities that grew up with parents with the same disability that they had. My dad became paralyzed when I was a year and a half and both my parents were little people. I remember my mom being denied tenure because she could only use the bottom six inches of a chalkboard. That was actually used to deny her tenure at the college that she had worked for decades. I remember wanting to go places with my dad who used a wheelchair and not being able to enter buildings. I remember my dad wanting to go vote and them having to bring the ballot out to his car and him getting really upset. He had been very active in voting rights issues in the south and was upset that in 1988 he couldn’t vote for the presidential election the same way that everybody in his family could.
RV: So how did the ADA change things?
RC: I think for so many people with disabilities you don’t even think about it anymore. And people without disabilities don’t even think about it anymore. You’re walking down the street managing your luggage and you take it down a curb cut, which is typically the example people tend to use. Or trying to get suitcases up a flight of stairs and there’s a ramp. The ADA really did a number of different things that were historic, the first of which was laying out a definition of disability that was not based on an inability to work or a requirement for health care. It was really talking about having a condition that affected the activities of daily living.
So let’s say you are a burn victim, and it doesn’t impact your ability to do your job but you are still discriminated against because you’re perceived as a person with a disability. Or you have a history of impairment—if you’re an individual who had a substance abuse addiction and were in rehab and had come through recovery, you still have that past history that qualifies you as a person with a disability. So it really cast a net that included millions of individuals with similar experiences tied to being historically discriminated against.
RV: Attacks on the ADA are nothing new, but this latest wave is actually gaining steam in Congress. This comes on the heels of a 60 Minutes piece that alleges widespread so-called frivolous lawsuits—people with disabilities who didn’t actually face discrimination but are just trying to milk the system and maybe even get money out of it. Don’t we need to rein in frivolous lawsuits?
RC: Even in the original statute, there is means for dealing with frivolous lawsuits. State courts and state bar associations can punish attorneys who are filing lawsuits that are proved to be frivolous.
RV: So who is behind this bill and what’s really going on here?
RC: It’s important to note that both Democrats and Republicans are behind this bill. We continue to talk about disability rights being a bipartisan issue, but we’re also under bipartisan attack. You know we continue to hear that business feels attacked because they’ve been asked to comply with the ADA every year for the last 27 years. But the idea that after 27 years they should have even more time and then still refuse to be accessible—at what point are they going to have to comply with the law? Or are we just going to keep creating a slippery and slipperier and slipperiest slope—but actually not a slope because we’re not about accessibility, so a staircase.
RV: The 60 Minutes piece is part of a pattern of media coverage of pretty much only knowing, with very few exceptions, how to paint people with disabilities as takers or abusers of a system that they see a way to take advantage of. Am I off base here?
RC: Not at all. I think there really is a myth that people with disabilities are collecting monetary damages off of this. It is not like you have a bunch of disabled veterans swimming in Scrooge McDuck’s money bin based on ADA lawsuits. People cannot collect monetary damages on these claims. All you can do—the only remedy that’s available—is having that place made accessible.
RV: Attorney’s fees and some [compensation] for their time, but that was intentionally done to enable people to find lawyers who are willing to take those cases.
RC: Exactly. The disability community is a poor community— 50 percent of people with disabilities live at or below the poverty level.
RV: So is the fight that people with disabilities are facing in 2017 categorically different from what other groups that face discrimination are [fighting] at this point in time?
RC: In some ways yes, in some ways no. I think I can connect it most easily with how several of our allies in communities of color felt about the rollback of affirmative action programs. You want your children to have a better future than you. You want your children to have better access to services, to programs, to school, to the world. And if this passes, my children are going to have a tougher life than I had, and that just doesn’t seem right.
RV: And it doesn’t seem very American.
RC: No, not at all.