Here’s why Voting Matters to Disabled People

Earlier this year The House passed a bill that would strip down the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), a bill that is widely considered one of the most expansive pieces of civil rights legislation in America.

Signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, it was modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The ADA was later amended to defend its original text and signed by President George W. Bush.

Within the ADA’s dense text is Title III, which establishes regulations for businesses and non-profits to comply with accessibilities for disabled people.

While no piece of legislation is perfect, the ADA’s Title III is certainly fair. But some don’t feel that way, most notably Rep. Ted Poe of Texas, the most vocal sponsor of the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017 (HR 620).

Last year HR 620 passed the House in a 225 to 192 vote. The vast majority of Republicans, along with 12 Democrats, voted for the bill, which then moved to the Senate, where for months I dreaded it would make it to a floor vote and eventually be signed into law by President Trump. Thankfully that hasn’t happened … yet.

The main point of HR 620, as I see it, is to prevent frivolous lawsuits brought against businesses for not complying with regulations established by the ADA. But I don’t see how frivolous lawsuits actually exist in this case. Is there really such a thing as a frivolous lawsuit as it pertains to ensuring that disabled people can gain access to a facility, like say, a doctor’s office where they seek treatment for their condition?

HR 620 makes a meager concession to disabled people by developing “a program to educate state and local governments and property owners on strategies for promoting access to public accommodations for persons with a disability.” The only problem is that the ADA has already established this kind of program and yet lawsuits are still necessary to make business owners comply with the law.

The irony of HR 620 is that it aims at reforming a law which has been vigorously supported by two Republican presidents from Texas, yet Rep. Poe and other members of Congress from Texas, the nation’s second largest state, are the ones sponsoring HR 620. What’s more, while the bill aims at eliminating “frivolous” lawsuits, the entire state of Texas only had 267 ADA lawsuits in 2016.

According to HR 620’s official press release, “There is a now whole industry made up of people who prey on small business owners and file unnecessary abusive lawsuits that abuse both the ADA and the business owners.”

But as the American Civil Liberties Union points out, lawsuits seeking “money damages” are not allowed under Title III, except for some state laws, which would not be changed by HR 620 anyway. As it stands, all lawsuits brought against business owners and non-profits under the current ADA regulations are about compliance, not financial damages.

For the sponsors of HR 620 to claim that disabled people are “preying” on business owners is absurd and offensive. It would be impossible for a disabled person to profit from the lawsuits. Their attorneys may profit from the lawsuits, but disabled people are the ones at the heart of the matter. We shouldn’t be punished because some lawyers are capitalizing on the ADA. People with disabilities still need access to buildings and barriers to those buildings still need to be removed. We — disabled people — are the ones trying to buy groceries, but can’t because the buildings don’t meet regulations.

Under HR 620, when someone with a disability first identifies an architectural barrier they would have to serve the business owner with a written complaint in which they would have 60 days to provide a written outline of how the barrier will be removed. Then the owner has another 120 days to “make substantial progress” on those plans. So minimally that’s six months that the disabled person has to wait for the barrier to even be improved. The bill’s crafty language presents the possibility for the business owner to draw out the barrier’s removal for months depending on whether the progress is deemed substantial.

Now, for me, and I suspect most disabled people, six months is an unreasonable amount of time to wait for substantial progress of a barrier removal. And that time frame doesn’t include how long it would take if the progress wasn’t deemed “substantial.” At that point a lawsuit would finally be allowed and the issue would likely be tied up in court for many additional months, or even years. For a business owner (or a politician who supports the bill) six months may not matter, but when a disabled person’s health depends on seeing a doctor in a building that isn’t wheelchair accessible, that six months is critical.

If you read my blog then you know I am a disabled person. I suffer from a chronic illness called myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), a multi-system disease that studies have shown is both an inflammatory condition and a metabolic disorder. ME has left me unable to walk. While I’ve been sick for eight years now, I’ve only been officially disabled for the last three. Last year I bought my first wheelchair. When I’ve been well enough to use it I have discovered how unimaginably difficult it is to get around my house. And that’s just at home, I can’t imagine how much trouble I would have navigating in public. That is a whole other issue — there are more objects and people to bump into, but most difficult is trying to get in and out of buildings. Doors must be opened and closed, stairs must be detoured, objects must be avoided.

Filing a lawsuit against a business that makes it impossible for me to navigate would certainly not be my first course of action. For starters, it would almost guarantee that the problem would not be fixed in a timely manner. My goal is to be able to get around, not be tied up for months in court.

Luckily, the bill has stalled in the Senate, mostly thanks to the outspokenness of Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois. She is disabled and back in April quickly gathered a group of 42 of her Senate colleagues to sign a letter saying they all oppose HR 620 and would essentially filibuster any attempts to vote on it. She also wrote an Op-Ed for The Washington Post about her views on the bill. And it seems that her efforts have paid off, least for now — it appears HR 620 is dead and The ADA and rights of disabled people are safe.

But that the bill made it through The House is alarming. Those who support HR 620 grossly overestimate the desire of disabled people to bring lawsuits against businesses and non-profits. Disabled people, especially those like myself who suffer from a chronic illness, have limited energy and resources, filing a lawsuit is a last resort for us. But sometimes it’s the only option we have in order to get an accessibility barrier removed promptly. If HR 620 had been enacted, not only would it have jeopardized the health and quality of life of disabled people, it would have put us at a further disadvantage in defending our civil rights. But thanks to Sen. Duckworth and others, we can save our energy for other issues.

It’s a good reminder that voting the right people into office — the people who are going to look out for the issues that mean the most to you, the issues that directly impact your life — is crucial. I didn’t vote Sen. Duckworth into office because I don’t live in her state, but I did vote for two of the senators who signed her letter to the leadership opposing the bill. And that is the kind of representation that matters, at least to me.

With the midterm elections less than a month away, I want to encourage everyone to vote, regardless of your political affiliations. At the very least it’s the best way to ensure bills, like HR 620 or another bill that impacts your life, are handled properly.


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The Ends of the Earth 

For the last week or so it has been in the triple digits in the Sierra foothills where I live. Judging by the weather reports this seems to have been a heat wave stretching through most of California and perhaps beyond. But the high temperatures haven’t even been the worst part. What is most frustrating is how it doesn’t cool off at night. The other day, for instance, the high temperature was 104 degrees and the low was 71. It was also 80 degrees at midnight, which is about as hot as I can handle without AC blasting in my face. Now, I realize that a lot of people who read my blog use celsius, so I’ll save you going to Google and converting those temperatures: it’s been really hot and hasn’t stopped. 

I realize that although the hot weather certainly isn’t pleasant by any normal standards, it is considered fairly typical for this region during the months of June through September.

What is not typical, however, is that merely a week before this heat wave started, it was snowing. Yes, SNOWING. HERE. IN JUNE. Sorry, I hate using all caps, but this is ridiculous. To go from snowing with thunder and lightning to triple digit temperatures is far from normal. 

Now I don’t want to get all liberal and preachy on you, but in my mind it’s pretty easy to recognize the source. It’s hard to argue that this unusual weather is anything but climate change. Perhaps this kind of crazy shift in the weather has happened in the past, I’m sure it has, but how do we know that wasn’t related to polluting the Earth during bygone times?

I recently got an invitation to attend the screening of a new documentary called “In This Climate,” an event in NYC hosted by a group called Liberatum. There are a lot of great pundits in the documentary who say some very insightful things. 

In particular, there was one line in the trailer from a pundit (whose name escapes me at the moment) and it stood out to me the most. I’m paraphrasing, but it was something along the lines of: the climate change we are experiencing today is a result of the emissions and other pollution from 20 years ago. 

This makes me think that the dramatic shifts in the weather -– snowing one week and triple-digit temperatures the next– that have happened in previous years, or decades, may have been repercussions of even earlier pollution. In other words, if the weather was dramatically shifting in 1990, perhaps it was a result of the ballooning fossil fuel emissions from the 1970s. 

Now for those who think I’m just being a biased liberal when it comes to climate change, let me just pose this question: what exactly am I biased about? 

I have no ulterior motive or anything to gain from preaching about climate change. I’m not going to get rich from people using solar energy and driving electric cars. I merely have the same interest that, frankly, everyone should have: to keep the Earth habitable for as long as possible. 

Having said that, I know how difficult it can be to reduce your eco-footprint. It is extremely difficult, as someone chronically ill, to not harm the environment. The number of nitrile gloves alone that I go through each day are enough to give Al Gore a heart attack. I wrote about these struggles in an Op-Ed for the Oregonian a few months ago and not much has changed for me since. If anything, in fact, my eco-footprint has grown as I have increased my treatments. 

I try to cut myself slack in this regard because ultimately the governments and corporations of the world are the ones who can make the biggest difference in reversing climate change. And I do realize that as individuals, we have to look out for ourselves first, especially when it comes to our health, but at the same time, that doesn’t mean we have to show a blatant disregard for the environment. I mean, maybe it’s too late to save the environment (though I honestly don’t think that’s true), but I certainly think it’s worth trying to save it. And while it’s certain that one day — whether it is in 100 years or a million years — the Earth will cease to exist, as will all of us (sorry I had to go there), but when the end does come, I guarantee nobody will be saying: “Damn, I should have used more plastic.”

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Marching: From a Still Perspective 

Briefly, I want to do a round-up on the January 21st protests. I will, for the most part, keep my commentary to a minimum. However, I do want to say how proud I was to see such an enormous amount, and diverse group of people coming together, not just for the greater good of our country and humanity, but for the issues closest to their hearts. I saw people marching for science and climate change, for women’s rights, for disability rights, or for no other reason than we elected a man unfit to be president. It was such a beautiful thing. And from my physical vantage point it was almost shocking to see so many people congregate. When you’ve been stuck in a room, which at most holds five people, you forget how many people are actually out in the world. 

Throughout the day friends and family sent me photos of their respective protests. My lovely godmother sent me some great shots from Seattle, where nearly 200,000 people gathered to protest. 

My dad sent me photos from my hometown, Santa Cruz, California, where an estimated 10,000 people marched. 


Santa Rosa, California, near where I went to college, had more than 20,000 people assemble. 

To the south, 3,500 people formed a human chain across the Golden Gate Bridge. 

Then, of course, there were the random and absolutely hilarious signs that I saw online. Here are a few of my favorites:

Lastly, in all seriousness, I think it is important to note that if, on any given day, any one of the protests from last weekend occurred, it would surely have made national headlines or gone viral on the Internet. But there were literally hundreds of these protests around the world, which is truly remarkable, unprecedented, really. Never before have I seen such wide-spread, simultaneous, mass protesting. I mean, something in our country must be really messed up, right? When that many people gather, they must be trying to say something. And I don’t care who you are or what you believe, you better listen, or one day soon you’ll wish you had. 

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