Making the Disabilities Act Work

November 24, 1993

The Americans with Disabilities Act took effect nearly two years ago. It required that stores, restaurants, hotels, and recreation facilities, among other businesses, make "reasonable" modifications to provide access for disabled customers.

But this is what it did not do: It didn't instantly educate the public about the barriers confronting the handicapped, nor did it wave a wand of sensitivity over America.

Thus, it is not enough for someone like Roberta Stein of Virginia, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a service dog for assistance, to hand a copy of the law to the owner of Bullock's Airport Inn restaurant in Westminster and expect that will straighten out everything.

Mrs. Stein says she has filed a complaint with the state Human Relations Commission and the Carroll County Community Relations Commission against the restaurant, claiming that she was treated rudely when she came to dine there with her husband and relatives from Westminster. The woman, who uses a wheelchair, contends the restaurant gave her a hard time about her dog, which helps her open doors or pick up dropped items. Her relatives, no doubt embarrassed about the incident in their hometown, also filed a complaint.

Restaurateur Don Bullock acknowledges some initial misunderstanding about the dog, but contends that his staff was not rude. Without having been there, it's impossible to say which version is more accurate. But it is reasonable to surmise that a handicapped person with a service dog may not receive the understanding that a blind person with a seeing-eye dog probably would.

Mrs. Stein has the right to be served in any restaurant, but making the new disabilities law work -- not just on paper but in real life -- is a two-way street. Although the law does not require it, calling an unfamiliar restaurant in advance to alert the owners of her special need might facilitate things; any parent who wanted to know if a restaurant had high chairs or a kid's menu would likely do the same.

The public isn't split into two camps -- the sensitive and the ignorant -- regarding people with handicaps. There's a great middle ground of folks who might be more receptive if they had more information or, when appropriate, forewarning. Congress passed the landmark legislation and the Justice Department must enforce it, but it's left to the handicapped community to help make the public more aware and accepting of it.

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