Businesses Warned Of Act's Impact

County Sponsors Seminar On Falloutfrom Civil Rights Law For Disabled

April 21, 1991|By Samuel Goldreich | Samuel Goldreich,Staff writer

Sometimes the most basic mistakes in design make the simplist thingsin life more difficult for people with disabilities.

Take the bathrooms at the Guest Quarters Hotel in Linthicum.

"The stalls are nice and wide. The toilet's the right height for my wheelchair," said Marian Schooling Vessels, the governor's specialassistant on disability issues. "They have grab bars. But they're three feet away and out of reach. They met the code, . . . but nobody ever thought how a person with a disability would use them."

Persuading employers to begin removing barriers was the goal Friday of a county-sponsored conference on the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.

Considered the most sweeping civil rights law passed since the 1960s, the measure outlaws discrimination in employment, public services and accommodations.

In compliance with ADA, the General Assembly passed a law this year mandating a tax-supported network that wouldmake phones universally accessible to Maryland's hearing-impaired.

It is no longer enough that buildings have ramps and elevators to allow access for people in wheelchairs or with limited mobility.

"They can get to the office, but they can't go to the bathroom, they can't get coffee, they can't reach the file cabinets," Vessells told about 90 people who attended the conference.

More than 43,000 Anne Arundel residents have disabilities that challenge their chances of employment, said Anne Gibson, coordinator of the county's Office of Disability Services.

The new law requires employers to pare job descriptions down to their "essential functions" and modify office routines, machinery and computers to give work opportunities to people with disabilities, Baltimore attorney Rochelle S. Eisenberg said.

That means Anne Arundel employers -- including the county -- must change employment standards and attitudes to accommodate people with conditions including orthopedic, visual, speech and hearing impairments; tuberculosis; AIDS; cerebral palsy; epilepsy; heart disease; cancer; muscular dystrophy; multiple sclerosis; dyslexia; spinal injuries; emotional illness; rehabilitated drug addiction and controlled alcoholism.

The law would allow a construction firm to reject a blind applicant at a job site. But Eisenberg wrote that the county could be required to hire a reader for a blind teacher or an administrator. The county does not have employment or workplace standards that would allow for such an arrangement, Gibson said.

As an employers with more than24 employees, the county must comply by July 26, 1992.

"That's going to be hard," Gibson said.

The county has formed an ADA task force, but Gibson said nobody from County Executive Robert R. Neall's transition team has interviewed her.

Although the ADA was passed last July, the federal government is still accepting public comment, and detailed regulations are not due until July 26. Employers with 15 to 24 employees must comply by July 26, 1994.

In workshops Friday, employers learned that many of the changes they must make are relatively inexpensive, given a certain amount of creativity.

Cristine Mickley demonstrated problem-solving exercises she uses at Alliance Inc., a private non-profit vocational rehabilitation agency in Baltimore.

"It doesn't matter how crazy the idea is. Just get those wheels turning," she said.

Faced with a woman in a wheelchair unable to drink from a water fountain, participants suggested that her employer buy a lower fountain or give her some telephone books to sit on.

Another simple and relatively cheap solution -- installing a cup dispenser -- was overlooked.

"The problem is getting the person a drinkof water, not drinking from a fountain," Mickley said.

Harry Rizer, technological resource director at the Maryland Rehabilitation Center in Baltimore, acknowledged that some barriers are much more expensive.

For example, he said three legally blind workers -- an Internal Revenue Service tax collector, a bank credit card specialist and a procurement specialist -- were all able to do their jobs when theircomputers were modified.

The machines were adapted using either aspeech synthesizer, electronic Braille or a screen enlarger, allowing the employees to perform their duties.

"It doesn't require that you can see. It doesn't require that you can type 60 words a minute. It doesn't require that you walk," he said. "If $800 to $2,000 is needed to make a person with a disability as productive as a person without a disability, to me, that's not such a large investment."

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