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Americans With Disabilities Act: A Vital Help, Or Needless Hassle?

August 22, 1995

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Philip Rich, who is blind, says the Americans with Disabilities Act has improved his life. Blair Taylor, who owns a restaurant, thinks the ADA is a nightmare.

Because of the law, which took effect five years ago this summer, Rich, a social worker in Albany, N.Y., was able to take his licensing exam in Braille, and Taylor wound up spending $104,000 to put in wheelchair ramps at his Barolo Grill in Denver.

Rich said New York state wanted someone to read him the exam questions. He insisted it would be easier if he could read the exam himself. Citing the law’s call to make ``reasonable accommodation″ for the disabled, Rich prevailed.

``At the beginning of the process, I found it to be like a taffy pull, because there are all kinds of defenses that people put up,″ he said.

Taylor says he didn’t mind installing the ramp to the front door, although it took 10 months to get variances from the city. But he ended up sacrificing four tables to build a ramp inside to make a raised portion of the dining room accessible to wheelchairs.

Before Blair modified the dining room, 16 out of 28 tables could be used by diners in wheelchairs. Now, all 24 tables are accessible _ but the ramp has never been used.

``It never will be used,″ he said. ``There will never be a time when 17 wheelchairs are ever going to be in the Barolo Grill at the same time.″

The two vignettes illustrate what’s good and what’s bad about the Americans with Disabilities Act. On the one hand, it has enabled people with even the most severe disabilities to become full members of society, holding down jobs, traveling to the store, taking their kids to the movies, going on a cruise. The law has given legal recourse to people who once had none. Some say it is also changing negative attitudes about the disabled.

On the other hand, the law has had some unintended consequences by imposing a national building code, inspiring frivolous lawsuits and touching off a flood of complaints, many of which have been found to have no merit.

``It’s bad law,″ said Edward Hudgins, director of regulatory studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington.

``There was very little consideration of the costs and whether there’s even much of any benefit to the group that’s supposed to be helped by it,″ he said. ``When you have to spend tens of thousands of dollars on accommodations that aren’t even used, there’s something wrong.″

But Peter David Blanck, who has written extensively on the law as a fellow at the Annenberg Washington Program, another think tank, calls it ``a successful piece of legislation.″

``I’m not naive and Pollyanna-ish; I have mixed feelings about the law,″ he said. ``You have to take a long view of this law. The Civil Rights Act of ’64 is still being hashed out. I see the ADA as more evolutionary than revolutionary.″

He pointed to benefits reaped by businesses that hire the disabled and court them as a market, and to the development of technology intended to help the disabled but which is found to be useful for all _ such as speech recognition programs for computers.

The ADA was passed by a Democratic Congress by huge margins and was signed by a Republican president, George Bush. Now, there is talk in the new anti-regulation, GOP-controlled Congress about curtailing the ADA’s reach. President Clinton has voiced solid support for the law as it stands.

House Republican Leader Dick Armey of Texas _ one of only 28 House members who voted against the ADA in 1990 _ has called for rewriting the law to more narrowly define who is disabled. Currently, it defines a disability as ``a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities″ of an individual. It also extends its coverage to anyone who is ``regarded as having an impairment.″

By the Census Bureau’s count, this means there were about 49 million disabled Americans in 1991-92, the last year for which there are data. This translates to one in five Americans, a number even some in the disability community question.

Since it began enforcing the employment provisions of the law in 1992, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has logged almost 50,000 ADA-related complaints. This amounts to about a 25 percent annual increase in the EEOC’s workload, according to David Grinberg, an agency spokesman.

About 20 percent of the ADA-related complaints filed between July 1992 and this past June 30 have been found to be without merit. But the EEOC also has a backlog of about 24,800 ADA complaints, said Reginald Welch, another agency spokesman.

The law’s broad definition of mental disability has opened the door to some imaginative lawsuits, like one filed by a Boston University professor who was fired for allegedly sexually assaulting a colleague and harassing three students. He sued under the ADA, claiming he has a mental disability that requires him to take medication that loosens his inhibitions.

Hudgins complained that such cases tie up the legal system; Blanck says they are anomalies.

A survey conducted by Louis Harris & Associates and released in July by the National Organization on Disability found that 70 percent of the senior corporate executives polled thought the ADA should not be changed. More than 80 percent said the law is worth the costs of its implementation.

However, the ADA has not improved the employment rate for the disabled. According to the NOD, a private group, 31 percent of working-age disabled people were employed as of December 1993, compared to 33 percent in 1986, before the law was passed.

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