“The ADA gave us a remarkable opportunity” – Reflections on the Americans with Disabilities Act’s 33rd Anniversary
By: Mary Kett and Nick Adjami
July 26, 2023
In 2004, Rabbi Bruce Kahn met with members of the American Association of People with Disabilities at the ERC’s former office on Dupont Circle. He asked what the number one crisis facing people with disabilities in the United States was. All of them said, instantly: finding accessible housing.
Over the course of the next several years, Kahn, founder, former Executive Director, and emeritus board member of the ERC, sent civil rights testers to some of the country’s largest housing developers. They assessed compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 that added protections for people with disabilities.
What did the ERC’s testers find? The majority of developers ignored these major accessibility requirements that had been in place for over a decade. They also ignored the ERC’s calls and letters. So, the ERC and Washington Lawyers’ Committee (WLC) often had to sue. In 2005, the ERC settled a historic lawsuit against Archstone-Smith that resulted in 12,000 apartments units in 71 complexes across the country being retro-fitted to meet accessibility needs. By 2016, the ERC had reached agreements with 16 national, regional, and local multifamily companies requiring them to make their units more accessible to people with disabilities.
As we celebrate the 33rd anniversary of the ADA becoming law this month, Kahn reflected on the remarkable disability rights cases the ERC worked on during his time as Executive Director.
“I think we may have affected hundreds of thousands, if not millions of units across the country,” Kahn said.
Rod Boggs, who was the director of the WLC at the time, says that these systemic disability discrimination suits reveal both the potential shortcomings of federal accessibility law and the importance of groups like the ERC.
“These laws simply were not going to be able to be self-enforcing, they needed people who would stand up and go to court, and they needed legal support,” said Boggs.
Aside from housing, public accommodations access was also a major concern for people with disabilities. Kahn recalled feeling frustrated at the lack of accessibility in D.C.’s restaurants in the early 2000s.
“I would walk along Connecticut Avenue, and I would look at these restaurants, and you know what I would see? I would see huge banners hanging from the roofs of these buildings down to the front door, saying people with disabilities need not enter,” Kahn said. “Because of the steps that shouldn’t have been there.”
According to Kahn, one new restaurant owner at the time even removed a ramp that had previously been installed and put in steps for aesthetic purposes. He also described a deli downtown that refused to unlock their only accessible entrance over fears that their potato chip display would be stolen.
Retail stores also frequently presented barriers to equal access. In 2014, the ERC and several plaintiffs with disabilities filed suit against Kohl’s, after an investigation revealed ADA violations at 41 stores across 13 states that made those stores inaccessible to people with mobility disabilities who used wheelchairs or other similar assistive devices. In that case, Judge Ronald A. Guzman of the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Illinois issued an important ruling, determining that the moveable displays at Kohl’s are in fact covered by the ADA. That decision was a major win for people with disabilities, and spoke to the ADA’s scope and impact.
“The passage of the ADA gave us a remarkable opportunity to address issues that hadn’t really been addressed before,” said Boggs. “It provided legal tools to attack problems that otherwise would have been difficult to challenge.”
Unfortunately, barriers to access persist, but legal tools allow the ERC and others the ability to challenge them. Just last year, the ERC settled a case against Walter Reed Military Hospital requiring them to make their restrooms accessible to wheelchair users, after a client reported that they were not and an ERC investigation confirmed his experiences.
Recently, digital accessibility has come to the forefront of issues facing people with disabilities. As daily life moves more and more online, it is crucial that information is accessible to people with disabilities. In 2019, the ERC published From Click to Visit, a report that documented barriers blind people faced when searching for housing online. In 80% of desktop computer tests and 72% of mobile tests, blind testers who used a screen reader did not receive the same information about rentals as did sighted testers.
Thankfully, the Department of Justice has begun to take the lead on ensuring websites and mobile apps are accessible to people with disabilities. Yesterday, they announced a rule intended to clarify how public entities “can meet their existing ADA obligations as many of their activities shift online.” “This marks the first time in the history of the Americans with Disabilities Act that the Justice Department has issued a proposed rule on website accessibility,” noted Attorney General Merrick B. Garland. Advocates are hopeful that best practices will be adopted by the private sector as well.
This month, we celebrate the tools – including the ADA – that allow us to challenge barriers to access, and vow to continue using them to create a world where everyone can thrive. Our long legacy of increasing accessibility is ongoing, and we’ll continue to work until the ADA’s promise is fully realized.
The ERC is a civil rights organization that identifies and seeks to eliminate unlawful and unfair discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations in its home community of Greater Washington DC and nationwide. The ERC’s core strategy for identifying unlawful and unfair discrimination is civil rights testing. When the ERC identifies discrimination, it seeks to eliminate it through the use of testing data to educate the public and business community, support policy advocacy, conduct compliance testing and training, and, if necessary, take enforcement action. For more information, please visit www.equalrightscenter.org