07:19, November 14 51 0 theguardian.com

2017-11-14 07:19:04
Mary O'Hara: Lesson from America  
 A law that would segregate disabled people? We must all fight to stop it

Amid the chaos of US policymaking under Donald Trump it could be easy to miss all manner of damaging manoeuvres. However, when it comes to attacks on the rights of people with disabilities, far too much is at stake to let a single thing fly below the radar.

Right now a proposed new law is on its way through Congress that stands to put hard-won disability rights enshrined in the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into reverse. The ADA Education and Reform Act could be on the floor of the House of Representatives any day now – yet this “quiet attack” on disability rights, as the Center for American Progress (CAP) calls it, would directly undermine protections against discrimination.

Since its enactment 27 years ago, the landmark ADA has required that “places of public accommodation”, including businesses such as restaurants, take proactive steps to make reasonable adjustments so that disabled people have access in the way any other citizen would. Under Title III of the act, lawsuits can be filed against businesses that fail to comply. These legal mechanisms have been the cornerstone for upholding the ADA’s provisions, but the proposed legislation (backed by business lobbies and inflated arguments about frivolous lawsuits) seeks to make it harder for disabled people to challenge businesses and exercise their rights under the ADA.

Among the bill’s requirements are that complainants must provide business owners with a written notice of contraventions of the ADA – and that businesses would have an extended period of time to acknowledge the complaint, and even more time to demonstrate that they have made “substantial progress” towards remedying the violation.

However, as campaigners have repeatedly pointed out, businesses have already had 27 years to comply. Plus, as a recent CAP article on the issue detailed: “[under the ADA] businesses are only required to provide accommodations when doing so doesn’t present an “undue burden” and when they are “readily achievable” – that is, technically feasible and affordable”.

This latest policy assault is symptomatic of a wider unease surrounding the rights of people with disabilities. The Affordable Care Act (usually called Obamacare) is being undermined in the US to the detriment of millions of people with a disability, and in the UK the fevered culture of cuts and dismantling of protections continues under the guise of austerity.

Just as in Britain, disabled campaigners across America are taking the fight to the politicians responsible. In the past few months, activists have been dragged from congressional offices and even arrested for standing up against the dismantling of Obamacare and drastic cuts to Medicaid, the national insurance programme that provides health benefits to over 70 million Americans, including those with disabilities.

Over the past month many protests have focused on the ADA education and reform bill. Opposition from disability groups to the proposal has been swift and pointed. Activists, such as the grassroots rights group Adapt, which has been at the forefront of fights to salvage Obamacare, have vigorously highlighted the damage the bill could do. The Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, meanwhile, issued a formal open letter of opposition saying the legislation would “create significant obstacles” for disabled people to exercise their rights and “impede” full participation in society.

Activists have also been urging Democrats to openly reject the bill, some of whom are backing the proposal despite its potentially perilous ramifications for disabled Americans. Others, however, such as Illinois senator and Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth, who lost her legs while on active duty, are fighting the bill. Duckworth has penned a passionate rebuttal in the Washington Post, calling the legislation “offensive” and a move that would “segregate the disabled community”. And senator Patty Murray, who is on the Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP), pledged in a public statement to fight to make sure that should it pass in the House of Representatives, the bill would be “dead on arrival” in the Senate. One positive sign that pressure from activists is having an impact came earlier this month when Democratic congressman Bobby Rush withdrew his sponsorship of the bill.

As disability rights campaigner and Adapt organiser Bruce Darling summed it up, the bill: “sets the tone that we are the problem and that our rights are the problem. It opens the door to cutting the rights of the disabled”.

The extraordinary battle against the repeal of Obamacare has shown that when disabled and non-disabled people join forces to reject regressive policies, moves to push them through can be stopped in their tracks. The same must happen now. Silence by the wider population on brazen attempts to strip away fundamental rights for disabled people is not an option.