WESTMINSTER — When the Americans with Disabilities Act is completely phased in Jan. 26, 1993, virtually every small business in Carroll will have to make adjustments, a labor and employment law specialist said Thursday.
"You can see that the ADA is going to present some rigorous challenges to businesses," Jay R. Fries told a crowd of about 65 at a luncheon sponsored by the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce. "You are definitely going to have to go out of your way to accommodate people with disabilities."
In a 45-minute speech, the attorney from Towson, Baltimore County, explained the employment provisions and public-access requirements in the act, which was passed by Congress last year to protect "qualified individuals with disabilities."
"Any individual with a physical or mental impairment that limits a major life activity," such as walking, breathing or working, is considered disabled under the law, Fries said. People with a history of an impairment, ranging from drug use to back trouble to cancer, are also covered. Active users of illegal drugs are not protected.
"The definition of a disabled person is extremely broad," he said, adding that under the expansive definition almost everybody in the room could argue that they are disabled. "Even if you don't have an impairment, but people think you have an impairment, you are protected under this act."
The statute requires employers to make "reasonable accommodations" so a disabled person can do the job, as long as the changes don't create substantial difficulties or expenses to the employers. Businesses with fewer than 15 employees are exempt. Typical changes would include widening doorways, adding ramps and modifying equipment for people with special needs, hesaid.
But whether changes cause "undue hardship" to employers is to be decided on a case-by-case basis, Fries said. "It's going to be a very difficult process. There's not going to be any specific guidances that say, 'No this is not reasonable, yes this is reasonable.' "
The law also provides for equal opportunity in hiring and stipulates that potential employees must take medical exams only after receiving a conditional job offer. If they are up to date and accurate, written job descriptions of the essential functions can provide some flexibility for employers, Fries said.
Other suggestions Fries made to the business people at the Quality Inn Conference Center luncheon were to train interviewers to be careful not to ask questions about physical or mental capabilities, to consult with potential employees todetermine reasonable accommodations, and to develop internal procedures for disabled applicants.
Another major provision is that barriers to the disabled be removed in public accommodations, ranging fromrestaurants to retail stores to museums, Fries said. Some exceptionswill be allowed if the changes would result in a loss of profit or efficiency.
But those businesses may have to make other adjustmentsto accommodate the disabled, including hiring someone to help with their specific needs.
"Everything's become so complicated, you haveto be a technician in everything in order to comply with all the rules and regulations we have," said R. Wayne Barnes, vice president of the chamber, after the luncheon. But many of the businesses in Carroll have fewer than 15 employees so the law won't have as big an effecthere, he said.
"I'm here to make sure that the designs we put forth will comply," said Melvin A. Arbaugh, a Westminster architect."