Americans with Disabilities Act will change the way employers define jobs, design workplace


April 27, 1992|By Kim Clark

Last year, Deborah Sheffield figured she had recovered enough from the accident that left her a paraplegic, and wheeled herself around Baltimore looking for jobs.

But the 31-year-old former Citibank account representative found herself stymied by staircases, narrow doorways and skeptical interviewers.

Across town, Marc Rize, a human relations analyst for Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. was discovering that though BG&E prided itself on its progressive employment of workers with disabilities, people like Ms. Sheffield would still have faced plenty of barriers.

Take the door to the employment office in the headquarters building, for example.

"It had a typical round knob on it. Anyone with arthritis, or who was missing a hand, would have had difficulty" opening the door, he said.

Ms. Sheffield and Mr. Rize haven't met. But their lives are about to be changed by the same thing. Portions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that ban employers from discriminating against disabled applicants and workers are set to take effect July 26. And, both Mr. Rize and Ms. Sheffield say they are getting ready.

Maryland law has banned employment discrimination against the disabled for more than a decade. And the new federal law required that most public places be made physically accessible by Jan. 26 of this year.

But thousands of Maryland businesses are discovering that the federal anti-discrimination changes in employment provisions that go into effect this summer are going to require several modifications.

Legal experts say many Maryland companies will have to erase questions about medical conditions from their job applications, write or correct their job descriptions, teach the people who interview job applicants not to ask about disabilities and teach supervisors about the law's requirement for "reasonable accommodations" of disabilities.

Employers also are going to have to broaden their definition of a disabled person. The law, protecting anyone who has ever had or is regarded as having an impairment that substantially limits a major life function, is so broad that it will cover an estimated 43 million Americans. As many as one in six Marylanders may receive protection.

Ignoring the new provisions could be costly. Under the state law, disabled job applicants or workers who feel they are being discriminated against are allowed to file administrative charges in order to win up to 30 months of back pay. The new federal law has much tougher language and will award winners of federal discrimination suits up to $300,000 in punitive damages from large employers.

Though dire predictions of a litigation explosion are probably overblown, there is little doubt the new law will lead to more lawsuits, said Ed Guttman, a Baltimore attorney who often defends companies against discrimination lawsuits.

Many aspects of the new law are vague and will have to be defined by the courts. And the new tougher language combined with higher penalties will give attorneys an incentive to take cases they used to turn down, he said.

For Ms. Sheffield, the new law has created hope.

For the last 18 months, she's been answering the telephones at the Maryland Science Center. She says she's grateful to the Science Center for giving her an opportunity to get back into the working world. And though the job doesn't pay well, it does offer "fringe benefits" such as ramps, elevators and accessible bathrooms.

But she would love to get back into a job in the private sector with more responsibility and better pay. She said the new federal law might help. "Prior to the ADA, I wondered if I could even get into buildings" to apply for jobs."

For Mr. Rize, who is coordinating BG&E's effort to prepare for the new law, the impending deadline has meant hundreds of small, but meaningful changes to the way BG&E does business.

BG&E workers changed the doorknob on the employment office door to a latch that nearly anyone can open.

And Mr. Rize has been revising his company's job descriptions. For example, he said, he's had to eliminate passages requiring drivers' licenses in many descriptions and applications.

The jobs often don't require a person to drive, only to be at different places at different times, he said. Applicants or workers who cannot drive can find other ways (taxis, buses, friends or co-workers, for example) of getting to those places, he said.

"You've got to look at the essential function of the job, not how the job is done," he explained. "The job is to get sack '1' from point 'A' to point 'B,' not to lift the sack," he said. "You can't be narrow-minded."

Standard job applications may also need to be revised to meet the standards of the new law. Patti Bailey, a former specialist on the federal disabilities law for the Easter Seals Society of Maryland, says employers who are uncomfortable removing questions about a worker's disabilities can ask different questions to get similar information.

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