In May 2017, Rewire News published a story entitled “The Americans With Disabilities Act Is Under Attack in Congress,” which detailed the new challenges that the landmark bill has been facing in the last few years.
This piece was mainly centered around the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017, which at the time, was just a resolution in the United States House Judiciary Committee introduced by the Republicans.
The most substantial change to laws would be centered around accessibility in business, and the author of that piece, Robyn Powell, summed up these so-called reforms, writing, “Currently, if a person with a disability encounters an accessibility barrier at a business, they have two options. They can file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), which will investigate and decide if a violation has occurred. DOJ may enter into mediation with the person and the business, which is a low-cost approach to resolve ADA violations fairly quickly. DOJ may also sue the business on the person’s behalf. Alternatively, people with disabilities may file a lawsuit in court, bypassing DOJ altogether. The cornerstone of current enforcement options is that the violation can often be resolved swiftly.”
If the ADA Education and Reform Act is passed, a person with a disability would be required to give a written notice to a business owner who has barriers to access. The business owner would then have 60 days to even acknowledge that there is a problem, and then another 120 days to make substantial progress toward correcting the violation. In other words, people with disabilities would be forced to wait 180 days to enforce their civil rights.
If that sounds alarming, that is because it is.
Hypothetically, if a business was to be inaccessible to the deaf in a substantial way, the business would be able to bypass rightful litigation from the deaf community. Knowing how businesses work, they will (often) go as long as possible before they have to address a problematic practice. That is what Powell seems to fear, saying that written notices are not enough to enforce change, writing that “instead of complying, (businesses) can just ‘wait and see’ if they are caught.”
Unfortunately, Powell’s op-ed did not lead to a wider pushback against this proposal. This did indeed pass the House of Representatives in 2017, according to GovTrack.Us, a website that tracks the passage of bills. While the reasoning for the bill was that it would crack down on petty anti-business lawsuits, Democratic lawmakers said that the bill would set back civil rights for the disabled.
Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) was quoted on the matter, saying “I’m deeply concerned that this bill will bring our country back to the days when discrimination was commonplace. And I am saddened that Congress sent a message to people with disabilities that we are not equal, or worthy of the same civil rights protections as others.”
In the end, the bill was passed by a 225-192 vote. The votes were generally on party lines, with only 19 Republicans opposing the effort and 12 Democrats supporting.
Even though this is a bill that substantially affects the lives of millions, there was little to no mainstream media coverage of its passage. One could argue that the media does not have the time or manpower to burrow into the minutiae of every bill passed or specific issue.
Still, it is glaringly obvious that issues for the disabled, including the deaf, the community I will focus on, are largely glossed over. There are plenty of reasons for this, with a primary reason being the lack of deaf people in journalism.
Data journalist Sophie Warnes wrote on Medium about maneuvering the newsroom as a hearing-impaired person, specifically as someone with high-frequency deafness. In a piece entitled “Navigating journalism as a deaf person,” Warnes wrote about some of the unique challenges she faces.
In hectic newsrooms, “Instructions are left lingering in the air as they’re shouted across a whole room of people,” and Warnes noted how there is no clear indication of what is directed to her. She notes that such indirect directions can “confirm” people’s most base stereotypes about the deaf, writing, “I don’t really want to be treated differently, but I have to be, because otherwise mistakes are made, and deafness ends up being misconstrued as stupidity or belligerence.”
As a young journalist myself, working in a newsroom five days a week has made me accustomed to the issues she mentioned. There is plenty of indirect communication and talking on the fly, due to the pace of the work we are doing.
I am glad I am becoming aware, but seeing these aspects of journalism from a new angle is kind of befuddling. I will do my best to behave in a manner that is easy and accessible for all, but I am not sure what structural reforms could take place.
Whether it is in the halls of Congress or the halls of our media institutions, it is clear that there are still plenty of strides to take before we can claim to live in a fully equitable, accessible world.
Hopefully, we can head in the right direction together.
Jordan Levy is a School of Arts and Sciences and Mason Gross School of the Arts senior double majoring in journalism and art. He is the features editor at The Daily Targum.
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