THE Americans With Disabilities Act is about to take its place alongside other civil rights legislation. Several years in the making, the bill passed the Senate last September, the House last week. President Bush is ready to sign it. While some business interests still worry that the outcome will be expensive, passage of the act is a victory for fairness. It will give to people with disabilities the same protection from discrimination in jobs that now exists for minorities and women.
New or renovated hotels, retail stores, and restaurants would have to be made accessible to those in wheelchairs, as would all new buses, subway cars, and trains. Telephone companies would have to supply relay services to enable those with hearing problems to make phone calls. Employers with more than 25 employees will have to make their buildings accessible to people in wheelchairs. But businesses that can demonstrate that the changes are too disruptive or costly would be exempt.
The costs are substantial. American Telephone and Telegraph sees a $250 million-plus tab; Greyhound Lines estimates $40-$80 million a year.
But disability rights representatives say that designing accessibility into facilities from the beginning will eventually reduce added costs. And it's good to remember the social payoff: enabling more people to use equipment, facilities, and transportation meant for ``the public.'' And initial expenses will be balanced by the savings to society that occurs when an unemployed person is able to take a job.
This legislation has been a long time coming. Over the last two decades the disability rights movement has been gaining political clout. Its members have reminded those without disabilities that their full participation in society has been far more governed by blockades (job discrimination, buses without ramps, no curb cuts, too-small doorways) that society would not remove, than by their own disabilities. The rallying cry has been ``Take down the barriers, and let us show you what we can do.''
It's a first step. As Rep. Bruce Morrison (D) of Connecticut says, ``Writing words in the statute books is only half the job. The bigger half is translating the words into reality through day-by-day deeds.''