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Sen. Duckworth: ‘Offensive’ law would weaken landmark ADA

The veteran and Illinois politician protests law that would roll back accessibility protections

Tammy Duckworth, then in the House of Representatives, on the fourth day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center on July 28, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
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Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) has been called a trailblazer ever since news broke in late January that she’ll be the first sitting senator to have a child during her term. As she works to determine maternity leave policies for the Senate, Duckworth is making equal access easier for future pregnant politicians.

But equal access has long been a core issue for Senator Duckworth. Ever since the former helicopter pilot was wounded in battle while serving with the army in Iraq, the first female double amputee from the war, she’s made the rights of Americans with disabilities a key part of her work. Before her political career, she served in the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Most recently, she has spoken out against a new law making its way through Congress. H.R. 620, which passed the House earlier this month with a 225-192 vote and will move to the Senate, would roll back many of the protections enshrined in the Americans with Disabilities Act. The 1990 civil rights bill sought to guarantee equal rights for then roughly 40 million American citizens with disabilities, in part by mandating that buildings, transportation, and public accommodation provide equal access and reasonable accommodations, such as entry ramps.

The ongoing attempt to roll back protections enshrined in the landmark act has led Duckworth to go on the offensive.

“This offensive legislation would undermine civil rights in our nation and reward businesses that fail to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act,” she said. “Passing it would send a disgraceful message to Americans with disabilities: their civil rights are not worthy of strong enforcement and they can, once again, be treated like second class citizens.”

The new legislation, known as the ADA Education and Reform Act, would alter the ADA in a pro-business direction, making it more difficult and costly for plaintiffs to sue businesses that don’t comply with the law. H.R. 620 would require someone to file a “written, technical notice” if a building wasn’t following ADA rules, wait 60 days for a response, and then wait an additional 120 days to see if there’s been progress before the issue can be brought to court. In effect, as opponents of the bill argue, the burden of compliance shifts to the person with the disability, who must spend months advocating for change at a business-level.

Businesses and co-sponsors claim the law would get rid of “frivolous lawsuits” against small businesses, but with the International Council of Shopping Centers as a co-sponsor, it’s debatable the law is geared solely toward the protection of independent stores.

But there has been plenty of time to comply, as Duckworth points out. The ADA has been the law of the land for nearly 30 years.

“Remember, businesses have had almost three decades to make their facilities fully accessible for all,” she said. “It’s astounding that they are instead investing their time and resources on a propaganda campaign to convince Congress to sanction discrimination.”

A 2005 photo of Senator Duckworth, then identified as helicopter pilot Major Ladda Tammy Duckworth, of the Illinois National Guard, demonstrates the improved use of her right arm as she talks to DAV member and Vietnam Veteran Don Sioss about her injuries and treatment as members of the Disabled American Veterans visit wounded soldiers who have recently returned from Iraq and are now at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC.Duckworth said she was interested in flying again.
David S. Holloway/Getty Images

Duckworth’s own experience as someone who came face-to-face with accessibility issues after an injury later in life has made her especially passionate about retaining the protections in the ADA. After her injury, Duckworth was fitted with prosthetics and is now fully mobile. But, as she has detailed in interviews and on social media, she faces problems entering public places and some businesses, and the humiliations and limitations even small barriers in environmental design can cause.

Duckworth also highlighted disability rights during Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s confirmation hearing. The former Alabama Senator had previously voted against providing additional funding for poorer school districts to meet the needs of students with disabilities, and has called the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities “unnecessary” and “dangerous.

H.R. 620 is especially frustrating to Senator Duckworth because businesses supporting to legislative change don’t deny they’re violating the law, they just think they shouldn’t be penalized for so-called “minor” infractions—like the ones that limit access for Senator Duckworth and others.

“I understand that not everyone thinks about these things because for most of my adult life I didn’t either,” she wrote on Twitter. “ But the truth is that everyone is just one bad day away from needing accessible options the #ADA requires to help them get around.”