Rights for the Disabled

SOME discrimination is deliberate, the product of enmity or fear. Some is inadvertent, the product of ignorance or oversight. The discrimination that disabled people suffer is largely - though not entirely - of the latter variety. But unfair treatment of the disabled is not less painful or detrimental to its victims because it is unintentional. The disabled haven't just been relegated to the back of the bus; many are unable to get on the bus at all. Nor do they readily have access to restaurants, stores, hotels, museums. Even when they can get into offices, they've had trouble getting jobs they're qualified to perform.

Congress, with the backing of President Bush, is looking to alleviate bias against the disabled with the most sweeping civil rights law in 25 years. The proposed Americans with Disabilities Act, expected to be enacted before year's end, would bar discrimination against qualified disabled people (including AIDS victims) in hiring, firing, and working conditions, and would greatly facilitate the disabled's access to public, commercial, and transportation facilities. For the hearing impaired, telephone companies would be required to provide relay services linking voice and typed impulses.

The legislation is overdue; it deserves the expedited handling it's been getting on Capitol Hill.

Without meaning to be churlish, though, let's bear in mind that the bill's needed remedies will be expensive. Unlike earlier civil rights laws, which mandated only changes in attitudes, this bill mandates costly reconfigurations of buildings, buses, and trains. It also opens up wide new vistas of litigation for people with hundreds of conditions classified as disabilities. The costs of these rights will be passed along to the public.

These are costs American society properly should absorb. They do not militate against the legislation. But they require that rules of reason - fair, generous, but not excessive - should be applied by courts and regulatory agencies as the antidiscrimination remedies are put into practice.

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