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ADA WATCHHigh profile news such as the Supreme Court ruling on Casey Martin and President Bush's press conference touting the New Freedom Initiative may lead many Americans to believe that laws protecting the civil rights of people with disabilities are stronger than ever. While both of these examples hold great promise for people with disabilities, the reality is that disability rights are significantly endangered by threats from those who seek to weaken„and even eliminate„these important federal protections. To counter such threats, members of the disability rights community have mobilized grassroots responses utilizing media campaigns, organized protests, email action networks, along with traditional lobbying, and have united together in various coalition activities. One such effort is the ADA Watch, a coalition of disability organizations working together to protect and strengthen the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The adawatch.org website, in addition to providing regular Action Alerts, facilitates petition signing, letter writing, and media contacts at no expense to advocates. ADA WATCH is rapidly building an online community of disability rights advocates as we combine the power of coalition work with the electronic age to inform and activate the grassroots in response to threats to the ADA.

The threats we are facing are serious and include:

  • Ruling on the Buckhannon Case„a decision that was quietly announced on the same day as the Casey Martin decision„the Supreme Court limited the awarding of attorney fees in ADA claims. An act that will make it almost impossible for people with disabilities to obtain legal representation. This ruling follows the Garrett decision in which the 5-4 Supreme Court majority declared parts of the ADA unconstitutional. The Garret case involved the firing of a nurse, diagnosed with breast cancer, from a University of Alabama hospital.
  • Bills before Congress, including the ADA Notification Act, which if enacted into law would significantly weaken and delay enforcement of the ADA and create disincentives to voluntary compliance. This bill was first introduced by Congressman Mark Foley (R-Fl) and received widespread public attention due to a media blitz created when Clint Eastwood fought complaints that he failed to make his California restaurant accessible. Despite extensive renovations costing millions of dollars, wheelchair users were forced to leave the restaurant and cross a parking lot to use a segregated bathroom.
  • The nomination of Jeffrey Sutton to the 6th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals by President Bush. Sutton has successfully argued before the Supreme Court to weaken protections under the ADA, Age Discrimination Act, and other federal civil rights laws. He is an active member of the Federalist Society that seeks to eliminate these federal protections, leaving people with disabilities to the patchwork of inconsistent and often inadequate state laws against discrimination. Responding to the disability community's concerns, a Bush Administration official, refusing to put a human face on the potential consequences of this activist ideology, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying that Mr. Sutton's views that have antagonized interest groups "aren't about disability rights. They are about federalism„and reflect President Bush's views."

Most of these civil rights dangers linger below the radar, barely generating attention. The disability community still has to struggle to get even minimal media coverage of the civil rights perspective on disability as mainstream media coverage is still driven by an attraction to individual human interest stories that often focus on pity rather than power. But with a fast and active communication network, the grassroots is abuzz and motivated by fear, anger, and conviction. As a result, people with disabilities and their supporters are mobilized like never before.

Disability advocates have been busy on many fronts including: Aggressive strikes by ADAPT and the National Council on Independent Living; lobbying efforts of the Consortium of Citizens with Disabilities (CCD); legal challenges led by members of the National Association of Protection and Advocacy Systems, and the growing influence of individual members joined under the auspices of the American Association of People with Disabilities. Additionally, among those who have been fighting in this movement for some time, there is great enthusiasm and relief regarding the active student movement most visible in the efforts of the National Disabled Student Union.

ADA WATCH has entered this arena as a loose coalition of national, state, and local organizations united specifically in a campaign to protect and strengthen the civil rights of people with disabilities. A marker event for reviewing the genesis and young history of the ADA WATCH was July 26, 2000„the 10th Anniversary of President Bush's signing of the Americans with Disability Act into law. In the preceding months, as the disability community prepared to celebrate the enactment of this monumental civil rights law, it seemed almost incomprehensible that opponents of the ADA would choose the same time to step up there efforts against it. But indeed we were faced with a well-financed effort by special interests seeking to weaken federal protections including the ADA. Their opposition only hardened our advocacy initiatives.

In May of that 2000, to counter the special interest money from the likes of the National Restaurant Association and other lobbying groups, hundreds of people with disabilities filled the halls of Congress to protest the introduction of the ADA Notification Act before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution. Disability advocates gathered and planned to defeat this amendment which would weaken the ADA, delay enforcement, and discourage voluntary compliance. Testimony before Congress included that of Christine Griffin, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Disability Law Center who movingly told how the ADA has allowed her the freedom to access mainstream American life and to spend her dollars in some of the same businesses seeking to weaken the ADA. The ADA Notification Act, now joined by it's equivalent in the Senate, continues to attract co-sponsors in Congress, the result of strident lobbying efforts by those opposed to the ADA. It remains a significant threat and the adawatch.org web site includes a petition against its passage. Misguided in it's own right, this bill provides an opening for even more weakening amendments should the ADA be opened up in the legislative process. We will be calling on President Bush to publicly indicate that he will not sign this legislation should it go forward.

As ADA anniversary celebrations went forward last year, advocates and consumers prepared to influence public opinion and educate lawmakers regarding the Supreme Court Case, University of Alabama v. Garrett. The fundamental issue that was to be decided by the court was whether Congress had the constitutional authority under the 14th amendment to enact the ADA. The 14th amendment, passed after the Civil War, guarantees all citizens equal protection under the law and a right to due process of law. With former Ohio state solicitor, Jeffrey Sutton representing Alabama, Garrett was the latest in a series of cases in which states have challenged Congress' power to enact legislation regulating state conduct. In a lower court argument, the Alabama Attorney General argued that parts of the federal law known as the "Civil Rights Act for People with Disabilities" violated States rights and that under "Sovereign Immunity" public entities could not be subjected to such suits. Advocates were motivated by the knowledge that an adverse decision would wipe out all protections against discrimination by state employers on the basis of mental or physical disability. Besides the Garrett case, Sutton, a state solicitor, successfully argued in support of states' rights in the Kimel case, in which the U. S. Supreme Court ruled, in Dec., 1999, that the Age Discrimination Act was unconstitutional. Many of the same arguments used in Kimel were used by Sutton in what he called an "across the board challenge" to the constitutionality of the ADA.

Last October, as the oral arguments approached for the Garrett case, thousands of people with disabilities came to Washington for the "March for Justice," an event sponsored by numerous disability rights, service, and consumer organizations. Justin Dart, the Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient widely respected as the "father of the ADA" described the rally as the largest gathering ever of disability rights supporters. Besides it's size and the urgency of our message, the "March For Justice" was significant because it represented a major union of the disability rights movement with traditional civil rights groups. Justin and other disability leaders were joined by Martin Luther King III, Rev. Jessie Jackson, Dick Gregory, Wade Henderson, Ralph Neas, as well as Patricia Ireland of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Together we marched from the U.S. capitol to the Supreme Court chanting: "Civil Rights not States Rights."

On October 10th, the eve of the oral arguments for the Garrett case, disability rights advocates held a candlelight vigil and camp out on the steps of the Supreme Court. The event received national attention including coverage on NBC Nightly News. At the conclusion of the arguments, Pat Garrett left the Court and greeted the activists who had camped out on that unseasonably chilly night, thanking them for standing with her as she fought for her legal rights.

In February, the Supreme Court announced the 5-4 decision in the University of Alabama v. Garrett. By the narrowest of margins, the Court ruled that Congress exceeded its authority when it legislated the right to sue states under the ADA. The new ADA WATCH network was notified and, joining forces with the CCD Rights Task Force, more than 60 leaders of disability organizations quickly gathered in Washington to plan a media response to the Garrett decision. While the news was bad, we had succeeded in bringing together diverse groups to the same table to analyze the decision and respond as rapidly as possible.

 

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More stories from Laura San Giacomo issue:

Laura San Giacomo Interview

James Cameron; PCRF Saves the Coral Reefs

National Recreation & Park Association; Inclusion

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