Unrest besets Americans with Disabilities Act

Nearing 10-year mark, landmark law sparks debate over enforcement

July 16, 2000|By BOSTON GLOBE

WASHINGTON - On the eve of the 10th anniversary of a law to end discrimination against 57 million Americans with disabilities, advocates claim that progress under it has been too slow, businesses that the burdens have been too great and a federal panel that the Clinton administration's enforcement has been timid.

All agree that the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act has changed public attitudes and improved access for the disabled. Still, disability groups are becoming more vocal, impatient and litigious as they see the promise of the landmark civil rights law thwarted by court decisions limiting the definition of disability and frustrated by spotty compliance.

"When push comes to shove, we are going to shove back," said Marc Fiedler, chairman of the Disability Rights Council, an advocacy group based in Washington that is aggressive in suing alleged violators of the disabilities law. "We have tried different approaches - nice letters, angry letters - but now we say to businesses and employers, `Tell it to the judge.' A lawsuit is the atomic bomb."

Fiedler's group recently launched such a suit against Ames Department Stores, the largest discount retailer in the Northeast. The class-action lawsuit, which is about to be amended to include plaintiffs from Massachusetts, alleges that the Connecticut-based company ignored customer complaints for more than a year and has failed to remove structural barriers to people in wheelchairs.

In court papers, Ames denies the charges. The company is "committed to making its stores accessible, and since the company emerged from bankruptcy (in 1992) has spent $8 million or more in that regard," Ames said in a statement. The retailer, which has 35 stores in Massachusetts, also said it had informed the Disability Rights Council of remedial steps before the lawsuit was filed.

There is no argument from Fiedler and other people with disabilities that their world has changed dramatically in the decade since Congress passed the Disabilities Act with bipartisan enthusiasm, and President George Bush, a strong backer, signed the measure into law on July 26, 1990.

Hundreds of technical guidelines devised to implement the law have brought wider aisles, lower counters and drinking fountains, automatic doors, and more accessible restrooms and fitting rooms in retail stores. Many restaurants and hotels have installed ramps and more elevators. Supermarkets have more handicapped parking spaces and fewer "cart corrals" that block wheelchair access to entrances. Movie theaters have listening devices for deaf people, and 80 percent of public buses now are equipped with wheelchair lifts.

This trend has been marked by some high-profile cases: Golfer Casey Martin, whose disability prevents him from walking long distances, successfully sued the PGA tour to allow him to ride in a golf cart. The U.S. attorney's office in Massachusetts took Friendly Ice Cream Corp. to court and got the company to agree to remove access barriers in 704 restaurants in 15 states. The court also ordered Friendly's to pay a $50,000 penalty.

"There is a consciousness and awareness of people with disabilities that is new and absolutely the result of the law that is out there and that businesses have to deal with," said Chai Feldblum, a Georgetown University Law Center professor who helped draft the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Moving the disabled from public assistance to jobs, one of the big political selling points of the legislation, has been slow, officials agree, and claims of employment discrimination have been harder than expected to prove since the Supreme Court ruled last year that anyone with a correctable condition, such as poor eyesight or high-blood pressure, cannot sue an employer under the Disabilities Act.

In a scathing report issued last month to mark the law's anniversary, the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency, said the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's "muddled positions" and lack of leadership in pursuing employment-discrimination cases under the ADA may have contributed to the "adverse climate ... which eventually culminated in Supreme Court decisions restrictively construing the definition" of disability.

Some say the legislation is ignored because it is so broad and technical that it is impossible for businesses to interpret and follow it to the letter. Others believe the law was too vague in the requirements and timetable for making structures built before 1990 accessible to people with disabilities. A third explanation is that there are no teeth in the law's enforcement.

Some states do provide damages, and that is why the Ames case is important. If the case goes forward and Ames loses, the company might have to pay damages to all the plaintiffs from states where penalties are allowed.

The fear expressed by corporate lobbyists, that the law's costs would drive businesses to ruin, has not occurred, according to Randy Johnson, a vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But he contends that "frivolous" lawsuits are getting out of hand.

Said Steven Grover, a vice president of the National Restaurant Association who oversees the industry's compliance with the ADA: "The ADA was designed for access, not to put money in the pockets of lawyers."

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