Last week, 60 Minutes aired a 13-minute segment on "drive-by lawsuits." Hosted by Anderson Cooper, this piece described the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as a law that enables a money-making scheme that results in an overabundance of unnecessary litigation. Rather than feature disability rights advocates, 60 Minutes interviewed businesses who claim they had been frivolously sued and the attorneys that take such egregious action. As an attorney and a person with a disability, I am outraged by this segment and urge CBS to air a follow-up, showing an accurate depiction of the ADA and why it is necessary.
On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush, signed the ADA into law, proclaiming "Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down." I was only eight-years-old at the time, but still understood that my life would be forever changed. I knew I would finally be able to access restaurants and movie theaters. I would be able to shop wherever I wanted. It would no longer be lawful to be discriminated against. Contrary to what I would consider 60 Minutes' bias reporting, the ADA has opened countless doors, both literally and figuratively, for millions of Americans with disabilities.
Among the program’s criticisms was the specificity of the ADA and its regulations. To highlight, 60 Minutes described regulations about the height of light switches and mirrors. As John Wodatch, former chief of the Disability Rights Section at the Department of Justice explained, "inches matter." Indeed, they do. As a wheelchair user with limited use of my arms, if light switches, elevator buttons, and door handles, are not correctly placed per ADA's guidelines, they are entirely useless to me.
Another example of what 60 Minutes portrayed as too specific was the required width of accessible parking spaces. Interviewing a store owner who was sued for violating the ADA, the segment portrayed this requirement as pointless. However, for people who drive accessible vehicles, such as myself, the width of parking spaces matter. I drive a wheelchair accessible van. If someone parks too close, I am stuck. This has happened to me on numerous occasions, leaving me stranded outside for hours, until the person returns to their car. This is why these regulations are so important.
Cooper also interviewed the owner of a hotel who complained about a new regulation that require hotels to have a lift that enables people with disabilities to access pools. According to the owner, no one has ever requested a lift before. Contrary to this owner, I am thrilled with this regulation. For far too many years, I have stayed at hotels that did not have a pool lift. I was paying for an amenity I could not use. Since this regulation has been in place, I am able to enjoy what I am paying for and I love it! Because even if a lift has never been used by a customer, it could be necessary for use one day, and what 60 Minutes missed is that’s the point of these regulations in the first place.
Since this piece aired, countless advocates have called out CBS, 60 Minutes and Cooper for what they consider an incredibly biased depiction of the ADA. According to the American Council of the Blind, "The segment, featuring the well-known anchor Anderson Cooper, mischaracterized the ADA as an instrument of opportunism for drive-by lawsuits, rather than focusing on the role our courts have played in protecting the fundamental human and civil rights of more than 55 million Americans with disabilities...CBS failed in its responsibility of providing fair and accurate journalistic integrity when it refused to air any of the positive gains that has been pioneered through the judicial branch of our government."
Likewise, the National Council on Independent Living strongly condemned the segment, stating, in part, "The segment, hosted by Anderson Cooper, was one-sided, rife with inaccuracies, and glaringly dismissive of the disability community."
Disability rights attorneys, such as Lainey Feingold, are equally alarmed. Feingold was actually filmed for this piece more than a year ago. Despite being interviewed by Cooper for hours, she was not featured in the segment. Concerned by the negative portrayal of people with disabilities in the piece, Feingold states, "The disabled people Anderson Cooper chose to feature in his story were presented as dupes of unscrupulous lawyers."
Along with Feingold, several disability rights advocates were also interviewed. Ingrid Tischer, a woman with muscular dystrophy, met with Cooper and explained how the ADA has benefited people with disabilities. Tischer’s interview was omitted from the segment. However, they did include b-roll imagery shot of her after the interview, and boy is she angry! According to Tischer, “And they used that footage to undermine and dishonor the law that made me — a woman with a disability — a full citizen in 1990. 60 Minutes came to OUR house, used us, and told the world people with disabilities are either dupes, greedy, or both.”
CBS is well-aware that the disability community is rightfully outraged over this incredibly one-sided piece. Indeed, they posted a brief article on their website, stating "Viewers react to Anderson Cooper's story about lawyers who exploit laws meant to help the disabled." However, rather than admit any wrongdoing or offer any analysis, they simply included a number of tweets they had received. Among those who had taken to Twitter to express concern was Marlee Matlin, an Oscar-winning Deaf actress, who tweeted, “#60minutes @60Minutes where are the stories of how people with disabilities continue to be discriminated against and the #ADA is ignored?" Matlin is right, where are those stories?
Another person who took to Twitter in response to the story was Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), "My bill stops frivolous #ADA lawsuits featured on @60Minutes by giving small businesses a chance to fix problems." The bill he introduced to Congress last session requires a person with a disability to give a business owner who has barriers to access a written notice and 60 days to even acknowledge that there is a problem, then another 120 days to begin to fix it. Notably, no other class is forced to wait 180 days to enforce their civil rights. Although the disability community strongly opposes bills such as Flake's, he intends to reintroduce his bill. With a Republican majority in both houses and a President, who himself has violated the ADA, there is a strong likelihood that this will soon become the law of the land.
To be fair, I certainly don’t agree with these so-called "drive-by" ADA lawsuits, where people seek to use the ADA for their own monetary gain. Indeed, I cherish this law and hate hearing that some misuse it. However, as an attorney who has practiced disability law for nearly a decade, I have a very hard time imagining these frivolous lawsuits are as prevalent as the 60 Minutes piece would make you believe.
The solution is not to burden people with disabilities more by requiring they first notify business owners of their violations. These frivolous lawsuits are a state and court problem, not an ADA problem. Indeed, attorneys are barred from bringing frivolous lawsuits. Instead of going after people with disabilities, attention should be focused on these few bad attorneys.
The ADA was passed more than 26 years ago. Surely, this has given businesses plenty of time to comply with its requirements. Rather than see the ADA as a burden, business owners should see it for its potential. People with disabilities offer a huge consumer base. Rather than view compliance as a nuisance, recognize our buying power.
Like many in the disability community, I call on CBS and 60 Minutes to right this wrong. Air a follow-up segment that shows an accurate depiction of the ADA and its many benefits.