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Disabilities Act: An ‘Unfunded Mandate’ Too Potent To Oppose

February 27, 1995

WASHINGTON (AP) _ It’s an ``unfunded mandate″ _ an order from the federal government to do something without providing money to pay for it. Yet governments at every level say they have no wish to see the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act rolled back.

``It is an unfunded mandate but it’s an example of a good one,″ said Lisa Lackovic, a spokeswoman for the National Governors Association. ``That’s sort of the only standing one that no one will disagree with.″

About 49 million Americans have disabilities. The ADA gave local governments until Jan. 26 to make structural changes ensuring that disabled people have access to their services. Governments that missed the deadline can be fined up to $50,000 for the first violation and $100,000 for subsequent violations.

Advocates for the disabled say governments and businesses aren’t complying quickly enough. Governments and private employers say they are doing the best they can, considering that the ADA imposed expensive new requirements but provided no federal money to pay for them.

Legislation awaiting final approval in Congress to restrict unfunded mandates exempts all federal civil rights laws and regulations, including the ADA. President Clinton is expected to sign the bill when it reaches his desk.

Attorney General Janet Reno has repeatedly stressed that the Justice Department is serious about enforcing the ADA.

``We have received a lot of complaints _ almost 6,000 in the past three years. But we are not filing lawsuits unless it’s absolutely necessary,″ said Liz Savage, a Justice Department spokeswoman.

On Monday, the Federal Transit Administration threatened legal action under the ADA to require the Washington subway system to install bumpy rubber strips on platforms. The 24-inch-wide strips are meant to warn blind riders they are near the platform edge.

FTA Administrator Gordon Linton said he would ask the Justice Department to seek a court order forcing the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority to install the strips.

The transit authority has resisted for five years, arguing that the subway system is already safer than those that use the strips.

Yet even those who complain about the problems and expense of complying with the ADA are loath to attack it.

``We feel that it is perfectly reasonable and right for local governments to make their facilities and services accessible for all citizens,″ said Hamilton Brown of the National Association of Towns and Townships, which represents some 13,000 small governments.

At the same time, Brown estimated that only about 50 percent of his group’s members have done anything to come into compliance with the law _ including conducting an initial self-evaluation.

Mike Brown, a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said his group hired an accounting firm to study unfunded mandates and found that the ADA would cost cities $2.2 billion over four years. That was significantly less than complying with the Clean Water or Clean Air acts but more than the cost of removing asbestos or lead-based paint.

So do the mayors oppose the ADA as an unfunded mandate?

Hardly, Brown said. ``In working to get the unfunded mandates legislation that has now passed the House and the Senate, we made it very clear that we were not opposed to the ADA.″

Chip Bishop, a spokesman for the American Public Transit Association, said his group has estimated the law will cost the nation’s public transit systems an extra $1 billion a year once all are in compliance. But his association’s members are not seeking relief from it either.

When the Americans with Disabilities Act became law five years ago, it was hailed as the most significant civil rights legislation since the 1964 law prohibiting racial discrimination. As President Bush signed it, he compared the law to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall.

But some advocates for the disabled say the law has had mixed results.

``The ADA opened the doors and the minds, but the disabled are running into walls on the other side,″ said Nancy Flinn, spokeswoman for United Cerebral Palsy Associations Inc.

Public accommodations are becoming more accessible, but the employment picture isn’t improving, she said. The reason for that is that many disabled people have pre-existing medical conditions that render them ineligible for health insurance.

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