As Barriers Fall

Laws to give the disabled greater opportunity in the workplace and the schoolroom are needed. But the process of lowering barriers to employment or education can be thorny, particularly with regard to disabilities - mental or emotional - that defy easy definition. In these cases, what are educators' or employers' obligations? Washington's lawmakers and regulators recently gave their answers.

The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, which swept through Congress on a wave of bipartisan cooperation, attempted to sort out the problem of disciplining students whose behavior is tied to a mental disorder. An earlier version of the law was criticized for tying teachers' hands, making it difficult to remove disruptive students. The revised law gives teachers and administrators a little more leeway, allowing suspensions, for instance, when weapons or drugs are involved. At the same time, it reaffirms the right of disabled children to receive a public education.

In practice, teachers may still feel caught between the need to maintain classroom order and the legal mandate to teach a disturbed child. Federal legislation can't sort out every circumstance. Principals, teachers, and parents have to make on-the-spot judgments. This law, passed with a spirit of flexibility and fairness, should be likewise applied.

Concerning the workplace, in late April the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission spelled out for employers steps that could constitute a "reasonable accommodation" under the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act for employees with mental handicaps. Changes in work scheduling, for example, or alterations in office or shop design. While the context is different, issues of definition and circumstance arise here as with schools. When is behavior so at odds with work demands that the employee can't be kept on?

Moreover, some experts question whether accommodating the workplace to a worker really helps that individual. They argue it's crucial for people to learn to function in settings that don't cater to emotional swings or outbursts.

Clearly, legislative and regulatory action is forcing society to open doors for individuals who face various kinds of disabilities, including mental ones. This can pose problems. But it's also an opportunity, not only for individuals labeled "disabled," but for countless others - teachers, bosses, parents, fellow students, and workers - whose compassion and involvement will be crucial. The most important accommodation is made in the heart.

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