by Mark Riccobono
From the Editor: This article first appeared on July 26, 2017, in The Hill, a political journalism newspaper published daily when Congress is in session. Here is what President Riccobono had to say about what passage of this proposed legislation would do to one of the cornerstones of the legal foundation of disability rights:
Exactly twenty-seven years ago, the United States took another in a long series of steps toward actualizing our founding principles of equality and justice for all. On July 26, 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became the law of the land. With its signing by President George H.W. Bush came true progress in the fight for equality and opportunity for the nation’s blind.
The National Federation of the Blind, the country’s oldest and largest nationwide organization of blind people, has always been determined in our efforts to break down barriers that hinder us from transforming our dreams into reality and living the lives we want. The ADA, while not the only means through which we achieve these goals, has been and continues to be indispensable. Specifically, Title III of the ADA provides legal remedies for the blind when we encounter accessibility barriers as we work, study, shop, travel, and generally avail ourselves of the things that society has to offer. Such barriers are daily occurrences in our lives, and, in the worst cases, threaten our employment, education, and ability to function in our communities.
It is therefore incumbent upon us to defend against the many assaults upon the ADA. Using a tactic deployed by critics of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, opponents of the ADA falsely accuse us of wanting special privileges or treatment. But we demand only equal treatment and opportunity; no more, no less.
The latest misguided attempt to undermine civil rights and equality for the blind and other Americans with disabilities is the ADA Education and Reform Act, a House bill that would purportedly mitigate the scourge of “frivolous” lawsuits brought by shady lawyers and “serial plaintiffs.”
The crux of the argument in favor of this bill is that people with disabilities, such as the fifty thousand members of the National Federation of the Blind, are abusing the ADA in order to make a quick buck by unfairly targeting small businesses. There are several things wrong with this thesis. First, there is no systematic evidence that large numbers of illegitimate complaints are being filed. Proponents of this legislation, which would insert 180 days of unnecessary lag time between when a violation is encountered and when redress can be expected, can only point to anecdotal and extreme cases. For example, a report that analyzed all Title III lawsuits filed in 2016 found just twelve “serial plaintiffs.” Given that 6,600 suits were filed in total, claims of abuse are exaggerated.
Second, this bill cannot and does not make any distinction between meritorious and frivolous complaints. Therefore, legitimate complaints would be discouraged because of a tiny number of bad actors. The blind are disgusted by any abuse of the ADA for personal enrichment, but we do not believe that the problem is pervasive enough to weaken the most critical tool that we have to protect our rights.
Third, the number of violations that we encounter daily dwarfs the number of lawsuits. Lawsuits are expensive and time consuming, and we do not pursue them lightly. In most cases, we find acceptable work-arounds and move on.
In short, this bill is a solution in search of a problem. While it is true that Title III complaints have risen substantially in recent years, it is also true that awareness of our rights as blind people and the mechanisms of redress available to us have risen in equal measure. It is also true that new opportunities driven by technology bring with them new accessibility challenges. Whether we are attempting to engage in e-commerce, book travel plans using digital platforms, or conduct banking activities using mobile applications, we are consistently met with roadblocks that clearly violate the ADA.
The National Federation of the Blind strongly opposes this bill. On this day we commemorate a milestone in our nation's history. We acknowledge that passage of the ADA was another move toward a more perfect union. To support a bill that would undermine the ability of the blind and others with disabilities to ensure equal access and opportunity would be to repudiate that project and dishonor our shared legacy. As we use this anniversary to reflect on what the ADA means, we will also take concerted action to buttress it against those forces that would undermine it. The National Federation of the Blind calls on those who have already signed on as co-sponsors of this bill to withdraw their support and for those who may be asked to support it in the future to refuse. To do otherwise is to scale back hard-won gains and hinder our progress toward true equality.