August 20, 2020

Duckworth: Republicans gut Americans with Disabilities Act in coronavirus relief bill

Source: USA Today


I gathered my notes, took a sip of water and spoke out in the Senate chamber this month on behalf of the millions of Americans living with disabilities — and on behalf of the many more who, whether they know it or not, are just one bad day, one bad diagnosis, away from acquiring a disability as well.

I went to the floor on their behalf, because I came to the floor by rolling through the Capitol’s corridors in the wheelchair I’m writing this from. And I could come to the floor because 30 years ago, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, granting millions of Americans like me better access to the full, independent lives we deserve.

That landmark legislation passed primarily because of the dedicated activists who in 1990 crowded in front of the same Capitol building I spoke from a few weeks ago to demand that their country finally give those with disabilities the basic rights the Constitution promised. It only became law because dozens of those heroes climbed out of their wheelchairs and inched their way up the 83 steps of the Capitol building — and along the way, they refused to let any one of them struggle alone, offering each other support when they needed it, one step, one shoulder to lean on at a time.  

Thirty years ago, those activists changed elected officials’ hearts, minds and votes.

Thirty years ago, the Senate said people like me mattered.

But this summer, Senate Republicans proposed a bill that said we don’t.

Destroying the ADA legacy

On July 27, a day after celebrating the 30th anniversary of a Republican president declaring that the ADA would bring us “closer to that day when no Americans will ever again be deprived of their basic guarantee of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Senate Republicans introduced the HEALS Act: legislation that threatens to deprive our community of those same fundamental rights. I watched on in shock — frustration, outrage — as some of the very senators who once championed the ADA attempted to reconstruct, brick by brick, the shameful wall of exclusion that Congress sought to tear down three decades ago. 

The timing of the bill might confirm an alarming fact: The GOP has declared war on the disability community and the ADA. While I hope that this is not the case and that the timing was a deeply unfortunate coincidence, at the end of the day, actions speak far louder than words.

If Senate Republicans want to demonstrate that they value life — that they value the civil rights of all Americans — they must join Democrats in supporting two measures that would show the disability community that the GOP even remotely cares about them.

The real reforms we need

First, we need to save lives by preventing mass institutionalization. Placing individuals with disabilities into congregate care facilities where the risks of serious illness and death are high is reckless and unacceptable. Yet the GOP refused to provide the urgently needed 10% increase in funding for Medicaid Home and Community Based Services — despite that we know that Americans with intellectual and developmental disabilities are killed at staggering rates when infected with COVID-19, and despite that Republican and Democratic governors alike desperately need us to pass this commonsense policy that would save lives.

Second, Senate Republicans must abandon efforts to gut the ADA, once and for all.

Disability rights are human rights, and these civil rights must never become optional benefits that can be stripped away whenever it’s convenient or cheaper for employers or others in power. Allowing businesses to exclude employees with disabilities from reopening plans is exactly the type of discrimination that the ADA sought to abolish. Yet the Republican HEALS Act could relegate millions of Americans back to second-class status, sending the message that our community can be cast aside if the costs to companies are too high. 

The passage of the ADA was supposed to consign workplace discrimination stories to the history books. Those outrageous examples of injustice were supposed to represent the nightmares of yesterday, not the reality of a tomorrow made possible by a Republican proposal today. Yet here we are in 2020, and Senate Republicans are shamelessly using a deadly pandemic as cover to gut the ADA and hoist that brick wall of exclusion right back up.

Fulfill our nation's promise

No one is asking for special treatment. What we are asking for is to not take away those basic rights the Constitution promised all those centuries ago and this chamber affirmed those decades ago.

As we debate this next relief package, the questions that senators must ask themselves are simple: Are we going to leave Americans with disabilities behind? Are their lives worth saving? Are their jobs expendable?

For anyone with a conscience — for anyone with an ounce of compassion or even just a lick of respect for the rule of law — the answers should be obvious.

In the Army, our Soldier’s Creed includes never leaving a fallen comrade behind. The activists who crawled their way up the Capitol steps had much the same mentality: helping one another make their way up, inch by inch, closer to that final 83rd step, refusing to let any one of them struggle unnecessarily.

I was only able to become a senator because of that act of courage and kinship — a real life example of the motto that this nation was founded on: "E pluribus unum." Out of many, one.

How Republicans act in this moment will show whether they, too, hold sacred those founding words. We can move past this national trauma. But only if we think not just of the one, but of the many. In the midst of this crisis, with lives hanging in the balance and our economy hanging by a thread, it’s the duty of every one of us lucky enough to call ourselves Americans to act in a way that ensures no one — no body, disabled or otherwise — will be left behind.

By:  U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth