What is the Alternative?

The next time someone tries to argue about the logistical difficulties surrounding compliance with the ADA, I want you to ask them a very simple question: what is the alternative? What is the alternative to the the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990? Instead of this law, what should be done instead?

Some might suggest that the law should focus less on making existing spaces accessible to disabled people and more on building alternative, separate, spaces specifically designed to meet the needs of disabled people. For example, if the local elementary school can’t be made more accessible—say, due to its age—then a separate school should be built that is specifically designed to meet the needs of disabled students. Okay, what about other stuff? Movie theaters? Grocery stores? Pharmacies? Banks? Doctor’s offices? Bars? Restaurants? Who pays for all this? Surely it won’t be the non‐disabled people. After all, they’re not the ones using these new spaces. Do the disabled people pay for it? How? With what money? From jobs? Which jobs? The ones in all of the inaccessible buildings?

Maybe I’m being a little hyperbolic. Maybe people agree things need to be accessible, but not unnecessarily accessible. A lot of pushback I get when talking about the ADA involves mentioning how extra special the law is because people can sue a business and force it to be made accessible. According to some, I should just sue any business that isn’t accessible instead of expecting every business to be accessible by default.

But accessible to whom? If I sue a restaurant for not being accessible to me because it doesn’t have a bathroom stall big enough for my wheelchair, that’s not going to help a blind person who tries to order their food without access to a braille menu. Does the blind person have to file a separate lawsuit against the restaurant so that they can have equal access?

And let’s take this one teeny, tiny step further. Let’s assume that each disabled person who sued the restaurant for being inaccessible first asked the restaurant super duper nicely to make the necessary changes, and only went through with the lawsuit because they were huge dicks about it and said no. Let’s also assume that everyone who sued the restaurant won and the requested accessibility changes were made immediately.

Do you think that anyone who sued the restaurant is ever going to actually get to eat there? I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable frequenting an eating establishment I’d just finished suing, would you? Win or lose, neither I nor any other disabled person, get to eat at this restaurant.

So the question still remains: what’s the alternative? What other direction are we supposed to take that lowers the burden on business owners and yet somehow ensures equal access to goods and services to people with disabilities?

There isn’t one. For nearly 30 years, the ADA has helped millions of Americans with disabilities live better and healthier lives. It’s provided access to employment, financial stability, and personal freedom and independence. 

The people who want to dismantle or weaken the law aren’t doing it because they care about small businesses. They’re doing it because they don’t care about disabled people. They know that bringing a lawsuit entails so much red tape and financial resources that most disabled folk will choose to not sue and instead go without necessary goods and services. They know that so‐called alternative schools and businesses will only serve to drive disabled out of society and back into the isolation and destitution we experienced for before laws like the ADA existed.

This isn’t about the cost of doing business. This is about one group of people trying to keep another group of people out of the public sphere because of their perceived lack of economic value. This is about discrimination, pure and simple. The ADA is a civil rights law. When people start demanding alternatives to and exemptions from the ADA, they are asking for alternatives to and exemptions from your civil rights.

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