Phil Pangrazio spends a lot of time thinking about accessibility.
As the president and co-founder of Ability 360, a group that advocates for independence for people with disabilities, Pangrazio has considered whether or not the ticket stations on the light rail platforms can be accessed by a blind person.
He’s thought about how doctor’s offices accommodate the deaf.
He knows the tourist destination Tovrea Castle (known by many Valley residents as the building that looks like a birthday cake) cannot accommodate modernized wheelchairs. Pangrazio, a person with quadriplegia and a wheelchair user himself, has never been, although it’s just across the street from his corner office.
The soft-spoken 57-year-old considers accessibility a crucial part of life.
That’s why Pangrazio, like many others in the disabled community, was distraught this March when he heard Representative Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat from Arizona’s 9th district who's running for the U.S. Senate against Jeff Flake, had cosponsored HR 620, known as the Americans with Disabilities Act Education and Reform Act.
Many disabilities advocates see the bill as a quiet attack on their civil rights snaking its way through Congress, while proponents of the bill like Sinema believe it would close a loophole that allows for frivolous lawsuits.
The landmark Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, often referred to as just the ADA, was the nation’s first comprehensive civil rights federal law prohibiting discrimination against individuals with disabilities in the public sector. This meant places like schools, businesses, public transit, and all spaces open to the general public needed to comply with a set of rules that allowed disabled people to function in the world.
Under the ADA, if disabled people cannot access a public space such as a pharmacy, they can immediately file a complaint with the Justice Department, which would, in turn, investigate and determine the legitimacy of the violation.
If a business fails to cooperate, the Justice Department can sue on the disabled individual’s behalf, but the individuals may also file a lawsuit in civil court without federal involvement.
This is where things get tricky. A few of what Pangriazio called “unscrupulous, unethical attorneys” have trolled for minor ADA violations, later filing lawsuits and collecting cash.
For example, in February, The Maricopa County Superior court dismissed more than 1,000 lawsuits filed by Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities.
ABC 15 (KNXV-TV) reported that AID sued 1,700 businesses, originally demanding between $5,000 to $7,500 to settle. Although the lawsuits were dismissed, the local economy still felt the effects, Sinema and others proponents of the bill say.
“Lawyers will file lawsuits to shakedown local businesses and attempt to make a profit by settling the lawsuits out of court,” Sinema said a statement emailed to Phoenix New Times. “These lawsuits put a strain on the local economy and undermine the legitimacy of the ADA.”
Larry Wanger, the chair of the Arizona Disability Coalition who has a lifelong visual impairment, said most people wouldn’t file a lawsuit but opt to mediate with the business.
“We talk to the business and say we encountered this issue and ask that it be addressed,” he said. “Nationally, relatively few lawsuits move forward.”
But HR 620 seeks to prevent these “drive-by” lawsuits by requiring a person with a disability to send a written notice to a business if they come across an access barrier. After the notice is received, the business owner will have 60 days to acknowledge the problem, and then another 120 to show they’ve taken steps to fix it.
Advocates like Pangrazio and Wanger say the bill is punishing the wrong people for the lawsuits.
“It puts the burden on people with disabilities to give notice to a business when they’re out of compliance with the law,” Pangrazio said.
It would be more effective to put sanctions on the bad actors and attorneys taking advantage of the ADA, advocates say.
“We talked about various solutions that could be enacted,” Wanger said. “It’s the responsibility of the Bar Association to regulate the bad behavior of attorneys. If they’re abusing the system, pull their license or sanction them, but do not take away rights from people.”
Wanger likened disability rights to those of other minority groups.
“If an African-American person or a Latino person or senior citizen goes to a business and if they’re refused service, we don’t say to those folks, 'Put something in writing and give them six months to serve you,’” he said. “That doesn’t fly.”
Wanger’s Arizona Disability Coalition has created an “advocacy toolkit” regarding the bill, urging disability rights proponents to call their representatives to stop the bill.
But representatives like Sinema say the issue is more complicated than advocates make it out to be.
“I do not support diminishing civil rights protections enshrined within the ADA, but I do believe we must create a more effective remediation process than malicious lawsuits,” Sinema said in the email statement.
Pangrazio notes a lot can be lost in the potential 180 days it could take a business to comply with the ADA.
“Where people could get harmed significantly is certainly medical facilities,” Pangrazio said. “If they’re not compliant, someone might not be able to get medical care that they need.”
But the losses could also be financial. Pangrazio offered that if a student at a public university requested an accommodation such as a note-taker because of a physical disability and a school waited 100 days to accommodate him, the semester would be over and the student could potentially fail the class, losing money.
Pangrazio said HR 620 could also give businesses an “overwhelming incentive” to ignore the laws and stifle the compliance process.
“If they don’t have to be compliant until someone gives notice that they’re out of compliance, then why would they fix their parking lot or fix their curb cuts or make their bathroom accessible,” he said. “They can take a latency approach. They can say, ‘Hey, we’ll wait and see and if someone complains we’ll deal with it at that time,’”
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“Property owners are still liable under the ADA, and it does not make financial sense to construct or maintain a facility that could be subject to legal action,” Sinema said in her email statement. “Most access issues were not created with malice or intent and similarly most property owners will quickly address access issues when raised. The bill creates a reasonable and non-adversarial path to quickly address physical access issues.”
Of the current 73 listed sponsors, 61 are Republicans — including Arizona Reps. David Schweikert and Paul Gosar. Sinema is one of 12 Democratic co-sponsors.
A bipartisan group including three Democrats and three Republicans introduced the bill in January.
“We really feel it would be appropriate for her to remove her name as a co-sponsor,” Wanger said.