New Law Expands Opportunities For Disabled and Boosts Business

Federal act seen opening doors for the handicapped and industries

WHILE some American businesses are worried about the financial impact a new federal law benefiting the disabled will have on them, others see it as a big opportunity. The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed last summer by Congress, mandates access for people with disabilities to telecommunications, employment, public accommodations, and transportation. Increasingly, new products and the services of architects, designers, carpenters, printers, small businesses, and consultants will be needed to help the nation comply with the law.

The act requires that new or renovated hotels, retail stores, and restaurants be made accessible to those in wheelchairs. It also applies to all new buses, subway cars, and trains. Telephone companies must supply relay services to enable those who are deaf or hard of hearing to make phone calls. Businesses employing deaf people will be looking for sign language interpreters.

Specifics to come

Regulations nailing down the specifics of what businesses must do have yet to be written. When the Disabilities Act takes effect in July 1992, it will apply to businesses with 25 employees, and within four years those with 15 employees must comply.

But consultants are already getting work explaining the comprehensive act. Elaine Ostroff, co-founder of Adaptive Environments Center in Boston, which helps businesses make modifications, is doing a brisk business. Some of her firm's projects include a major redesign of the Prudential Plaza; one of South Station, Boston's subway, train, and bus complex; and 15 to 20 subway and commuter-rail stations.

Since the Disabilities Act was passed, Ms. Ostroff has received calls from others wanting to set up similar ventures.

She sees an expanded role for copy shops and printers: ``Now there are only a couple of dozen places in the US that you can send things to have things copied in Braille. I can see that could be standard business opportunity. We'll need more Braille, and large print and tactile signage,'' people with low vision use large print. Menus, instructions, ballots, banks, automatic teller machines could have larger print.''

No longer add-ons

Universal design, or designing for the lifespan, is a concept that has been around for a dozen years, but with the passage of the Disabilities Act, as well as the aging of America, it is getting more attention. ``People think of [designing for people with disabilities] as an add-on requirement that hinders the artistic process,'' says Ostroff, but ``with the need out there, we can't keep designing for the perfect person.''

Ostroff has just received a National Endowment for the Arts award to train the next generation of professors in universal design. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) sent a newsletter to members last summer reminding them that the new law creates a need for architects to help make changes. The newsletter urged them to be more entrepreneurial and offer their services.

New door openers

``Door hardware is one of the things undergoing great changes,'' says Robert Lynch, a member of AIA in Coroapolis, Pa. ``I keep telling people the round doorknob is on its way out; it won't be legal anymore. ''

What's replacing it is the lever handle, ubiquitous in Europe, but harder to find here, says Chris Palamas, director of Independent Living Resources, in Shuttsbury, Mass. ``A smart business owner might consider making those, and position himself or herself in a region as a supplier.''

``We think there's going to be money made in making the world more accessible,'' says Paul Hearn, president of the Dole Foundation, which promotes the employment of people with disabilities.

The law also means more jobs. Seventeen states provide telecommunications services that enable deaf callers to communicate with hearing callers through a special telephone operator. American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T), has dual party relay centers in eight states, and employs 700 special operators. Since 1987, AT&T has logged more than 4 million calls through these centers.

Ostroff expects that sales of products not specifically designed for people with disabilities to rise.

``Books on Tape were not done with blind people in mind,'' she says. ``Most of the products that work well for people without disabilities are also good for people with disabilities.

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