Disabled and the law

June 27, 1994|By Marianne Means

WASHINGTON -- NEXT MONTH, the federal law prohibiting discrimination against people with physical, mental and medical disabilities will be 4 years old and will automatically be extended to a half million more businesses than are now affected.

And if you think ending sexual and racial discrimination is difficult, wait until you consider the complications of bringing disabled individuals who need special technical and personal assistance into the busy mainstream of economic and social life.

It is a noble goal, and worth trying for all its intimidating complexities.

But so far, nobody really knows how well the 1991 Americans with Disabilities Act -- the most sweeping civil rights bill in more than two decades -- is working.

There are no reliable statistics to show the extent of compliance, financial drain or confusion encountered as public facilities and commercial enterprises strive to become more disabled-friendly. Original cost estimates were astronomical, but no national survey has been made to certify actual outlay or possible counter-balancing benefits from expanded access, usage and productivity.

Nearly 10,000 law suits have been filed by companies seeking exemptions or clarifications of the law and by disabled individuals complaining about inadequate response and alleged violations.

But no court has yet ruled in any case to help define just what Congress meant by mandating that "reasonable accommodation" be made to give disabled workers and customers barrier-free access to jobs, housing, public services and stores.

At the moment, the law applies only to businesses that employ 25 workers or more. On July 26, its fourth anniversary, the law reaches companies that are much smaller, employing as few as 15 workers. And smaller companies find it more difficult to make the modifications in technology and personnel practices necessary to accommodate disabled workers than do large companies with large budgets.

There are an estimated 49 million people with disabilities that limit one or more bodily function, from chemical imbalances that create extreme allergies to missing limbs and mental retardation.

Not all of them are capable of holding jobs or moving about relatively normally. But it is now official federal policy to extend affirmative action principles to those who can.

The law is not intended to force business to hire someone who is totally unqualified for the job available. A blind person cannot be a pilot. A deaf person cannot become a piano tuner.

But there is a vast untested murky area here that remains to be explored as society tries to integrate its last marginalized constituency.

Marianne Means is a syndicated columnist.

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