By: Kimberly Leonard

The House on Thursday passed legislation that would ease the enforcement of regulations against businesses that fail to be accessible to people with disabilities.

The bill, the ADA Education and Reform Act, would change the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act to give businesses accused of being inaccessible a grace period to fix structural problems with their facilities before they can be sued. Under the law, businesses must abide by specific regulations so that people with disabilities, including people who use wheelchairs or walkers or have other impairments, are able to enter buildings and use various facilities.

The bill passed 225-192.

Republicans said during debate that the bill was necessary because lawsuits can cause small businesses to shut their doors. They said that some attorneys were taking advantage of the system through "drive-by lawsuits."

The Americans with Disabilities Act, said Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., was "not intended to feed drive-by lawsuits and put good people out of business. 

Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, the lawmaker who introduced the bill, said the change he proposed still allowed for businesses to address issues so that their facilities could become accessible.

"If the goal of the ADA is to get problems fixed, the legislation today does that," he said.

Opponents said that regulators have made guidelines available about how businesses can comply with the law, but various Republicans pointed to gaps that might make it more difficult for them to seek information. Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., said 70 percent of the businesses facing these lawsuits were owned by immigrants or minorities, and said some of the Spanish-language guidelines for accessibility had not been updated.

Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Ga., said that because technologies are changing quickly, some businesses may not be able to keep up. He cited the example of businesses not having websites that were accessible to people with disabilities, such as people who had vision or hearing impairments.

Under the bill, people would be required to file a written complaint to a business alleging the violation, and then the business would have 60 days to acknowledge it and another 120 days to make "substantial progress." Critics said this was unnecessary because existing laws can already address frivolous lawsuits by disbarring attorneys, and that people with disabilities only receive injunctive relief and legal fees.

The legislation had was co-sponsored by 108 lawmakers, only 11 of which are Democrats.

Several Democrats said during floor debate they were worried that the legislation would roll back protections for people with disabilities.

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., said the law "strikes a devastating blow in the fight for civil rights."

"This bill is wrong. It is mean-spirited, and it is a shame and a disgrace that we would bring it to the floor," he said.

Rep. James Langevin, D-R.I., the first quadriplegic to be elected to Congress, spoke about how he was injured at the age of 16, before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. He had to decline his admittance to his first-choice college because the campus wasn't accessible.

"I certainly remember what life was like before," he said. "I remember that I couldn't go into a public building that didn't have a ramp ... I struggled to wash my hands at a sink, access a restroom, and enter a classroom."

As originally published in The Washington Examiner