Disabilities act literally opens doors for disabled

BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS

July 26, 1992|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- In early January, a symbol of one of the most sweeping civil rights laws in American history appeared at a restaurant on the shores of Spa Creek in Annapolis: a simple wooden ramp.

The $900 ramp, which replaced a pair of low steps that divided the split-level dining room at Carrol's Creek Cafe, made its debut three weeks before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) went into effect. Hailed as a "declaration of independence" for the nation's 43 million disabled citizens -- including some 390,000 in Maryland -- the law required that all businesses be made accessible by Jan. 26.

"I knew ADA was coming. I felt strongly we should be accessible," said Richard McClure, the cafe's general manager, who heard about the law last fall at a seminar sponsored by the Maryland Restaurant Association.

But six months after this public accommodations portion of the ADA went into effect, advocates for the disabled, business groups and government officials say that while many large corporations are taking steps to abide by the law -- widening doors and installing ramps -- smaller companies are not following Mr. McClure's lead.

Despite a flurry of business-supplied brochures and government-sponsored training sessions, many small business owners are either unaware or resistant to the law. And today a new section of the ADA goes into effect, prohibiting job discrimination and requiring worker accessibility for businesses with 25 or fewer employees. Next July the employment law will cover businesses with 15 or more employees.

Some disability advocates fault business groups, saying they are still hostile to the law. Some business organizations say the law is vague and potentially costly. Others say the government isn't doing enough to publicize the act, while still others blame Congress for lack of oversight.

"Thousands and thousands of businesses don't know about ADA yet," said Pat Wright, director of government affairs for the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund in Washington, a not-for-profit agency, which together with the Council of Better Business Bureaus Foundation has offered ADA seminars in six cities, from Boston to Denver.

"There still isn't enough good information about the law," said Kent Waldrep, vice chairman of the National Council on Disability, a 15-member group appointed by the president to review federal disability policies. With small businesses, on a scale of one to 10, "their knowledge of the ADA is zero," he said.

Some small business groups, like the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB), initially opposed the disability legislation as confusing. The subsequent act that passed Congress with little opposition in 1990 and was enthusiastically signed by President Bush has done little to allay their concerns.

"The language is vague and they don't know how it affects them," said NFIB spokeswoman Angela Jones of her 560,000 members, many of whom run restaurants and retail stores.

Although the federation has produced a pamphlet for its members and offered articles about complying with the law in its magazine Independent Business, she said, there have been few moves by members to provide access to the disabled.

"I've not been able to find anybody that made any changes," she said, recalling a common member refrain: "I don't know what I'm supposed to do."

The ADA says accessibility must be "readily achievable" and the costs must not produce an "undue hardship" on businesses, but the recession has made small businesses skittish about spending money, even for such a worthy cause.

"The question is what's 'undue hardship?' " asked Stuart Gordon, director of human resource policies for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, noting that the law is replete with complex technical requirements.

But Barbara Bode, vice president of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, and other advocates say that the law is simple -- and clear. " 'Readily achievable' means cheap and easy," said Ms. Bode. "We keep telling bureaus to bring together businesses and the disability community."

Ms. Bode blamed some of the reluctance on unscrupulous consultants who prey on anti-ADA anxieties to justify their fees.

Ms. Bode noted that tax breaks and credits are available to businesses that make structural changes under the ADA, along with a potential new stream of customers.

Some changes can be made with little or no cost. Ms. Wright of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, who uses a wheelchair, said a store in her Takoma Park neighborhood didn't have enough money for a ramp. The owner put in a doorbell, which she rings when she wants service.

"The law says you don't have to do it if you can't afford it," said Marian Vessels, executive director of the Governor's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities.

"It becomes negotiable. It's flexible." Still, Ms. Vessels, who discusses the law with business groups around the state, acknowledged there is some resistance. "We've got a lot of education to do," she said.

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