Here’s a plea for future lawmakers: If you want to enact a historic, comprehensive civil rights law, make a historic, comprehensive civil rights law. Please don’t puzzle with a series of waivers, loopholes, grace periods, and grandfather clauses.
Amtrak was given twenty years to comply with the ADA and did not come close to that deadline.
A painfully illustrative example of how this can undermine the meaning of a law can be found in the following sad but true story of Amtrak, the national passenger rail system. The Disabled Americans Act applies to Amtrak as it does to any other area of public life. And why not? Amtrak is a major form of public transportation. Disabled people need and deserve access to Amtrak trains and stations.
The ADA was incorporated into law in 1990, but gave Amtrak a twenty year grace period to ensure unrestricted access to all stations.
This could have been meant as an acknowledgment that it would take time, money, planning, and dedication to make up for so many decades of neglect. However, that deadline expired more than ten years ago, in July 2010. Amtrak had lagged behind in fulfilling this commitment that disability activists complained loudly to the US Department of Justice.
One of these complainants was Thomas Morgan, a paraplegic and wheelchair user. He attended college in Ashland, Virginia in 2016 and decided to bring Amtrak home to visit his family in Northern Virginia. However, when he got to the Ashland train station, he found that the path to the platform was inaccessible and he could not board the train without climbing stairs. So he couldn’t ride.
Justice Department attorneys investigated the complaints and found that Amtrak was, in fact, still a long way from complying with the ADA.
As a result, the department has been investigating and negotiating this deficiency with Amtrak for years and finally reached an agreement with Amtrak in December to avoid an ADA lawsuit. Under the agreement, Amtrak promises to add at least 135 stations to be accessible, ninety of those stations to be fully built, and at least forty-five more under construction over the next decade.
Let’s recap, shall we? Amtrak was given twenty years to comply with the ADA and did not come close to that deadline. It was more than ten years before the Department of Justice forced Amtrak to comply, and this agreement gives Amtrak an additional ten years to partially fulfill a commitment that it was supposed to fulfill in full more than a decade ago.
Let’s say the imaginable happens and Amtrak fails to team up. This could mean that on the fortieth anniversary of the ADA’s signing in 2030, Amtrak stations may not be fully accessible.
In response to an additional settlement requirement, Amtrak recently set up a $ 2.25 million fund to provide cash compensation to disabled people who, like Morgan, have been injured because certain Amtrak locations are inaccessible. Everyone out there who has had this problem should make a claim.
At least there is. But again, I hope this outrageous story provides a valuable legislative lesson. When it comes to granting exceptions and making exceptions to civil rights laws, some people are going to need an inch if you give them an inch.