President-elect Donald Trump in New York on Dec. 3. Photo by Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters
On a sunny July afternoon in 1990, on the West Lawn of the White House, Republican President George H.W. Bush signed into law the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), the nation’s first comprehensive civil rights law addressing the needs of people with disabilities, prohibiting discrimination in employment, public services, public accommodations and telecommunications.
“As I look around at all these joyous faces, I remember clearly how many years of dedicated commitment have gone into making this historic new civil rights act a reality,” he said during the signing ceremony. “It’s been the work of a true coalition, a strong and inspiring coalition of people who have shared both a dream and a passionate determination to make that dream come true. It’s been a coalition in the finest spirit — a joining of Democrats and Republicans, of the legislative and the executive branches, of federal and state agencies, of public officials and private citizens, of people with disabilities and without.”
And now, some 26 years later under a new Republican administration, disability activists are very fearful that this important and life-changing law will be weakened, not enforced as intended or, even worse, gutted. Look at President-elect Donald Trump’s history with the ADA, which includes numerous lawsuits filed over the lack of accessibility at many of the properties that bear his name. This includes, most recently, a complaint filed in September, alleging that his new Washington, D.C., hotel has only two of 12 room types accessible to guests with disabilities. The complaint, filed by a member of Advocates for Disabled Americans who wishes to remain anonymous, says the cheapest room option in the hotel is not disabled-accessible, and the bathrooms in the hotel’s common areas violate other ADA requirements.
Over the past 19 years, Trump’s properties have been sued at last eight times for violating the ADA. A 2003 lawsuit by James Conlon alleged that a Trump-owned casino in Atlantic City used buses that were virtually impossible to board from a wheelchair. He alleged that he was told on two occasions that there were no “buses available for use by persons who use wheelchairs who choose to leave from the Long Beach, N.Y., departure site.” The case was later settled.
The biggest lawsuit in financial terms, in 2015, concerned Trump’s Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City. It alleged multiple ADA violations, including no signs showing where the disabled parking was in the self-park garage, inaccessible areas of the gaming floor, and counter surfaces at the buffet that were too high for people in wheelchairs. (Trump settled the suit.)
Moreover, the ADA is enforced by the Department of Justice civil rights division, which is under the purview of the U.S. attorney general. Because Trump’s nominee for that position is Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, disability advocates are deeply worried that the Justice Department is likely to ignore ADA complaints.
A coalition of more than 200 national organizations committed to protecting civil rights and human rights sent a letter last week to Senate leaders of both parties, expressing “strong opposition” to Sessions’ confirmation. They cited, among other complaints, his opposition to efforts in Alabama “to provide community-based services to individuals with disabilities who were needlessly institutionalized.”
The Justice Department has the option of investigating complaints, then deciding if corrective steps need to be taken, such as mediation or litigation. If the department does nothing, the complaints will go nowhere.
In light of Trump’s history with ADA compliance and Sessions’ becoming the chief ADA enforcer, various disability organizations are wondering what will happen.
In the deaf community, for example, the fear is that, “An ADA weakened by lack of oversight and money could well mean continued police brutality against people with disabilities,” wrote author Sara Novic, who is deaf, last month on vice.com. “In the case of deaf people specifically, law enforcement already has a troubling record of arresting and detaining people without providing interpreters, or even a pen and paper, to explain the reason for arrest or Mirandize them.”
In the autism community, there are concerns that Sessions will halt the progress of community integration and inclusion for children and adults with disabilities. As the Autism Self Advocacy Network said in response to Sessions’ nomination: “For the past several years, the Department of Justice has actively enforced the Americans With Disability Act and the Olmstead decision (which advocates for integrated living), resulting in increased community inclusion for disabled people across the country. But Sessions has suggested increasing the segregation of disabled students in public schools, calling the inclusion of students with significant disabilities ‘the single most irritating problem for teachers throughout America today.’ ”
Watering down ADA compliance or creating more loopholes for businesses to evade ADA-related expenses runs counter to prevailing public support for a fully accessible America. Since the ADA became law, there has been a growing recognition that everyone is vulnerable to becoming disabled from a car accident or illness, especially the elderly. Also, ramps, elevators and curb cuts help everyone, not just people with a physical disability. As the article “The Curb-Cut Effect” in the Winter 2017 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, says, after the passage of the ADA, “a magnificent and unexpected thing happened. When the wall of exclusion came down, everyone benefited — not only people in wheelchairs. Parents pushing strollers headed straight for curb cuts. So did workers pushing heavy carts, business travelers wheeling luggage, even runners and skateboarders.”
So not enforcing the ADA won’t just harm the 20 percent of Americans with disabilities; it would harm all of us, no matter our presidential choice. That’s why the same coalition of Democrats and Republicans, and people with and without disabilities who worked to get the ADA signed into law 26 years ago, will need to come together again to make sure that this important law is upheld and fully enforced.
MICHELLE K. WOLF is a special needs parent activist and nonprofit professional. She is the founding executive director of the Jewish Los Angeles Special Needs Trust. Visit her Jews and Special Needs blog at jewishjournal.com/jews_and_special_needs.