Disability Rights Laws Take Effect This Week

Many firms are unsure about how to respond

PATRISHA WRIGHT calls the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) the "end to second-class citizenship" for people who, like herself, are disabled but capable of working.

Yesterday the second and most significant phase of the ADA took effect for 2 million companies in the United States. It bars businesses that employ 25 or more employees from discriminating against the disabled in hiring or access as customers.

Until yesterday, "we were the only class of people in this country who did not have protection," says Ms. Wright, director of government affairs for the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund in Berkeley, Calif. Historically, civil-rights laws have not been broadly applied to those who are disabled.

The ADA is intended to integrate as many disabled people as possible into the economic mainstream, making it easier for them to earn and spend.

The rules that took effect yesterday prohibit discrimination in hiring against disabled applicants who can perform the "essential functions" of a task given "reasonable accommodation" by the employer. If reasonable accommodation of disabled workers causes "undue hardship" for businesses, they are exempt.

It will be up to the courts to decide what "reasonable accommodation" and "undue hardship" are. "A lot of this is going to get hammered out in the courts in the next few years," says Wendy Webster, spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association. "It's really a brave new world."

As time goes by, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will use the courts' definitions to determine whether discrimination has taken place on a case-by-case basis. In appropriations hearings for the ADA, EEOC chairman Evan Kemp said that his organization expects to receive between 12,000 and 15,000 discrimination complaints in the first year of the new rules.

Increased liability has businesses concerned about how this phase of the ADA applies to them. Fines of up to $300,000 can accompany an ADA violation. The potential for substantial judgements against companies is sending many running into the arms of corporate law firms.

"I've seen a serious effort on the part of businesses both to understand and comply with the regulations," says Morrison Cain of the International Mass Retail Association (IMRA).

Wright considers the concerns of business to be overblown. "We get more out of sitting down and working with the entity than we do through litigation," she says. "There may be parts of the ADA that are litigated, but that is not my desire. My desire is to get in that store, bank, or restaurant to spend my money.

"I am a tax-generating person with a disability," Wright adds. "I work, I pay taxes. I am able to work because the place where I work accommodates me. If they didn't accommodate me, I could stay home and collect money from the federal government."

For disabled people who are ready and trained to hold jobs, there is a 68 percent unemployment rate, labor specialists say. Last year, in a Louis Harris and Associates poll of public attitudes toward the 43 million Americans with disabilities, 82 percent of those polled see getting disabled people into the work force as a "boost to the nation" rather than a threat to the jobs of others.

Ms. Webster says restaurant companies have had excellent experience with disabled workers. "This pool of workers stays with the job much longer," she says. "They have far better attendance records, less absenteeism, and much better safety records."

As far as complying with the ADA, few companies have moved beyond initial investigation into what the laws mean. A June survey conducted by the Alexander Consulting Group shows that of the responding companies, 71 percent had reviewed application forms, job descriptions, and personnel policies in light of the ADA requirements. Half had appointed a specialist or task force to respond to the ADA mandates. Almost half of the companies, however, had spent less than $1,000 on initial ADA compliance.

Mr. Cain of the IMRA advises companies to take the law seriously. If you are not "looking at the law, figuring out how to make it work in your setting, then you're making a serious mistake" he says to employers.

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