Many barriers to disabled called easily remedied

October 09, 1991|By Michael K. Burns

Marian Vessels had a problem when she went to work yesterday: From her wheelchair, she couldn't reach high enough to grab the microphone on the podium at Martin's West where she was to speak to a conference on employing disabled workers.

It was a vivid demonstration by Ms. Vessels, executive director of the Governor's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, of the unintentional, often easily remedied barriers that need to be removed when the Americans with Disabilities Act goes into effect next July.

The new federal law prohibits discrimination in employment of disabled people and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for those employees to perform essential functions of their jobs.

That means no questions about medical history or handicaps on employment applications, no pre-employment physical exams, no excessive qualification demands that are not central to the job being filled.

The new law may also mean that employers must shift some job functions and time schedules to accommodate their disabled employees, lawyers told the conference held by the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.

"The ADA is a civil rights law, but it is not an affirmative-action law," Ms. Vessels said. It only affords the estimated 43 million disabled Americans an equal opportunity to compete for jobs and does not mandate that they be hired, she added.

For some employers, the law may require some physical changes, such as wheelchair ramps, disabled-accessible doors and restrooms equipped for handicapped use, Ms. Vessels said. In many cases, she said, the adaptations may be modest.

Kenneth Everett, of International Business Machines Corp., said his firm has a catalog of 900 products designed for use with computers to help the disabled, including voice-synthesizers that read computer screens for the blind and devices that allow the speech-impaired to talk on the phone.

But he pointed to two office problems for disabled people that he solved without using any of the computer giant's products.

When an employee in a wheelchair couldn't get his knees under his desk at work, it was raised by placing wooden blocks under the desk legs, Mr. Everett noted. A typist whose hands were palsied was aided by a $60 keyguard, a plastic board with holes that goes over a keyboard and helps prevent misstrokes.

"Most of the time, it can cost you little or virtually nothing," Mr. Everett observed. A Labor Department survey of employers in 1986 found that 70 percent of them had installed solutions that cost less than $100, he noted.

In fact, the Sears Tower in Chicago, the world's tallest building, was modified to accommodate disabled employees for only $7,000, noted attorney Stanley J. Brown.

The federal law's employment requirements are much the same as Maryland's 15-year-old law, but provides for stiffer penalties and more specific bans on job bias.

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