Disability Rights Laws: What to Do

Let's dive into what we can do when broken technology, rigid policies, missing ramps, and other forms of societal ableism hollow out the intention of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and prevent us from living a full, spontaneous life.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements provide minimum access. While the promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is full integration and participation for everyone with disabilities in the United States, the requirements of the law are a “floor.” In other words, the rules of how to implement the law only make our spaces minimally accessible for many people.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is in many ways a compromise between business communities and disability activists. And like we shared last month, there are situations where accommodations and access improvements may be denied.

We have a long, long way to go before our culture, laws, institutions, and ways of doing things shape a world where everyone has full and meaningful access in all parts of our society. This is true for civil rights laws prohibiting discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, and on and on. The spirit of the laws and the reality of their implementation are vastly different.

Remembering that the Americans with Disabilities Act presents minimal requirements can give us courage to address a lack of access when it happens.  

“Could You Please Double-Check for Me?”

Let’s say you are merrily rolling through your day, and you make plans to try Portland’s latest hot new restaurant for lunch with your coworkers. When you arrive, a looming flight of steps tells your growling stomach that you will not be having lunch here today. Before you zoom away in a rage, what can you do?

First, make sure the accessible entrance isn’t “hiding” around the back or side door. You can call the restaurant before leaving to get a clear picture of what access they provide. Many business owners seem to forget the requirement to provide signage to the nearest accessible entrance.

This “check and make sure” tactic can be useful for all kinds of access situations, whether it’s the theater usher who doesn’t know where the audio description headset is, the hostess who is telling you to leave your service animal outside, the receptionist who won’t assist you to fill out a job application, or the doctor who insists that you have to bring a family member with you to help you understand your medication.

By asking the staff you’re working with if they could double check with a coworker or manager, a more knowledgeable staff might be able to resolve your concern right there.

Nope, Still Stuck

Polite inquiry didn’t turn those stairs into a ramp, huh?

After a delicious meal at an accessible restaurant, let’s take some action!

P.S.: Online lists of accessible restaurants can be a great resource. Yet remember that everyone’s understanding of “wheelchair accessible” and knowledge of ADA requirements varies widely. (Weird, I know.) Call a business or organization and ask specific questions to determine if the space and staff can meet your access needs.

Okay, now back to the action. Roll cameras!

  1. Find out who is in charge. If we want a building to renovate or a policy to change, it’s likely the front desk staff won’t be the last person we need to talk to. Who is in charge of those decisions? What is the best way to reach them for a direct conversation? Tip: Everyone who works at a place could be a potential ally and supporter of the change we want to make. For full access to any space, every staff person needs to be committed to it. Yelling at or being disrespectful towards anyone at the organization might make it harder to get what you need. It shouldn’t matter—everyone is entitled to their rights, rude or not. Yet it’s important to consider that part of creating change is helping other people to see why things need to change. And people are more open to change if they feel respected. Being respectful and being firm and direct can happen at the same time.
  2. Have a conversation. In person or on the phone are great ways to share your concerns. Introducing yourself and asking how you can support the business to change are great ways to open and close a conversation. Tip: If a decision maker says they need money to make changes, we might ask how much they could save each month towards a renovation. Saving even a small amount over time can show a good faith effort towards making a business more accessible. It will also keep access at the forefront of their mind and help them think creatively about ways to become more accessible.
  3. Follow up.  A follow up note can begin an ongoing relationship and remind them of the important parts of our conversation. If we send it by email, we also have a record of our conversation and any commitments made. If we send it by snail mail, we should be sure to keep a copy. Tip: If the person in charge tells us someone else is responsible for access to the space, we might see if there are ways to meet with all the people responsible in the same room. Often, multiple people are legally responsible for the accessibility of a space. Providing ways for them to talk to each other, with us there to offer information on the barriers, means that issues get resolved faster.
  4. Check in and stay connected. When we’re making changes, persistence and thinking long-term is key. Creating opportunities to meet about access or checking in for an update will help keep accessibility at the top of everyone’s mind. Keeping notes and confirming commitments with emails are key for this step, too.
  5. Find your friends. It can also be helpful to connect with people who’ve experienced a similar barrier and stay connected with the organization as a group. This shows that the concern goes beyond just one person. Contacting the local media to explain the situation can also bring attention, awareness, and allies to the barriers.

What if multiple phone calls, meetings, and letters have resulted in no change whatsoever?

Filing a Formal Complaint

Anyone has a right to file an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) complaint at any time, and this might be a good time to do so.

You can file a complaint at:

  1. Department of Justice. Use the online form at Department of Justice Website or call the ADA Information Line at 1-800-514-0301.
  2. The Bureau of Labor and Industry (Oregon). Use the online form at the Bureau of Labor and Industry Website or call 971-673-0764. This office enforces state nondiscrimination laws. Oregon’s nondiscrimination law is similar to some parts of the ADA, so an organization that discriminates may be violating State and Federal laws.
  3. Americans with Disabilities Act Coordinator or Human Resources. Government entities with over 50 employees are required to appoint an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Coordinator to ensure that government services are accessible. This person is often listed on a government’s website. They may have other roles in addition to this one. It is important to note that an ADA Coordinator’s role is to make sure that government programs and services are accessible to the public. An ADA Coordinator does not enforce disability rights laws with local businesses or organizations, that’s the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Labor and Industry. Human resources can be a good place to take employment-related discrimination complaints about a specific organization. They can sometimes provide mediation to resolve concerns, too. Find disability resources for employees and applicants at the City of Portland.

If I Can File a Complaint Any Time, Why Isn’t That the First Step

  • Formal complaints decisions often, reviews, and take months or years.
  • Part of the complaint information-gathering process is asking what individuals have already tried to resolve the issue. Remember those emails and notes you kept track of? Those will be valuable here. Any photos too.
  • The organization might perceive filing a complaint as hostile or they might become afraid of talking to you without a lawyer, which makes it less likely they will work with you informally on a solution. This is true for calling the media, too.
  • Filing a complaint, even a valid one, does not guarantee that the Department of Justice or another entity will investigate your case. They have limited resources to respond to complaints and focus on the ones that will impact many people or set a precedent for many places.
  • Entities might offer mediation instead of an investigation. In this case, all the conversation and relationship building of the previous steps is an investment in coming to a useful and fair solution.

In other words, anyone has the right to file a complaint at any time. Yet it is often not the fastest or most effective way to get an organization to be more accessible.

Why File a Complaint?

Filing a complaint won’t automatically fix things. So why consider it? Well, a complaint could:

  • Begin or continue to establish a record on the organization. This can be useful for demonstrating that an organization has a pattern of discriminating. If other people have complained, additional complaints can elevate the complaint and make officials take notice.
  • Show the business that an individual or group is serious about resolving access issues. A formal complaint can motivate organizations to change more quickly.
  • Support big changes over time. If the Department of Justice takes the case, they will examine all areas of the organization. And the organization may come to an agreement on a bigger accessibility plan than it would have otherwise.
  • Set a precedent. A formal complaint sometimes gets attention from other organizations. The explanation and resolution of the case can model why accessibility is important locally and nationally.  

What is it like to file an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) complaint? In this blog post Nickole Cheron, ADA Title II and Disability Policy Coordinator for the City of Portland, shares her personal experience. You can read another experience here. Check out the comments for more perspectives.

Now What?

We noticed an access issue, had conversations and meetings, filed a formal complaint, and now we…wait?

The resolution of a formal complaint, whatever the outcome, generally takes a very long time (six months to a year). In six months, the hot new restaurant will be old news!

And we have discovered one of the ways in which the idealistic promise of the Americans with Disabilities Act falls short. What do we do in the meantime?

Get Organized--Literally

Connecting with organizations focused on access and disability issues can be a great way to use our passion for accessibility and experience of ableism to create change. These organizations are often community hubs. We may find other people who have had similar experiences and a desire for change.

Some Local Organizations—Not an Exhaustive List—That Work on Disability Issues and Access

Mental Health Association of Oregon

Independent Living Resources

Real Choice Initiative

Northwest ADA Center

Disability Rights Oregon

A Few Additional Places to Explore

Rooted in Rights

Autistic Self Advocacy Network

National Council on Independent Living

American Association of People with Disabilities

Take Care

Advocacy can be exhausting! And getting more deeply involved in disability issues isn’t possible for everyone. It is also important to practice self-care. In a world that wasn’t built for people with disabilities, caring for ourselves can be its own form of activism and change creation.  


They changed their policy! They are talking with an architect! When we have big and small successes, let’s remember to celebrate them.

Thanking the business for their action is another way to celebrate. Posting on social media is a fabulous way to support accessible businesses (and make inaccessible businesses secretly jealous). Plus, it helps people with disabilities and their allies know which businesses are committed to improving access. Thanks to Nickole Cheron for this tip on using social media to promote accessible businesses and inclusive practices.

Now that we’ve explored some ways to respond when places need to create access, we’re ready to keep going! Join us next month as we dip our toes into more laws protecting the rights of people with disabilities.