While unaware of law, shops alter for disabled Small businesses accommodate people with special needs

'Doing the right things'

Some even help out their customers with reading and writing

January 29, 1996|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

A survey of small businesses by a visiting professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and her students found many to be unaware of the 1992 federal law on accommodating needs of the disabled -- but a large numtired last year as a U.S. Justice Department lawyer and began the study as a project for her class.

"Small businesses were going out of their way to accommodate those customers who had special needs."

The recently released study found that 42 percent of those surveyed said they had never heard of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which went into effect in 1992 and extended civil rights protections to all people with disabilities.

Ms. Oneglia, former chief of the Coordination and Review Section of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, conducted the study of 240 small businesses throughout the state while teaching as a visiting professor at UMBC's Department of Social Work last year.

Working as canvassers, her students interviewed owners and managers of businesses with 15 or fewer employees to determine the extent of their knowledge about the disabilities act.

In the process, they got a look at the extent of government success at disseminating ADA information to small companies, Ms. Oneglia said.

While many larger businesses received information on the law from sources such as trade associations, smaller companies often did not always receive the same help, she said.

The study recommends that small businesses be made more aware of the ADA requirements, that the federal government consider providing information directly to the businesses and that greater use be made of the media to disseminate information about the law.

Liz Savage, who is a special assistant at the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said the department will be looking at the study and its recommendations closely.

"We have always been concerned with the needs of the small businesses," Ms. Savage said.

"This study confirms how difficult it is to reach the small-business community."

Despite the relative lack of information reaching the surveyed businesses, their owners and managers were aware that disabilities went beyond just blindness and mobility, the UMBC researchers found.

Employees of the businesses did such things as retrieving items for customers and even reading and writing for them.

Art Nierenberg, founder of Breakthrough Disability Inc. and who teaches health-care workers how to deal with the disabled, said he was not surprised that many small businesses were not familiar with ADA but considers Maryland "way ahead of other states" on disability issues.

"I've traveled to many states, and on the whole Maryland is much more sensitive and accessible than some places, but that doesn't mean that it is enough," said Mr. Nierenberg, who uses a wheelchair.

"I don't think legislation has ever changed societal and cultural attitudes about the disabled," he added.

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