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Only 10 Lawyers Assigned To Probe 900 Disability Bias Complaints

March 10, 1993

WASHINGTON (AP) _ There are only 10 Justice Department attorneys making sure that disabled Americans can eat out, spend the night in a hotel, shop for groceries or rent a movie at businesses across the country.

In the year since some 5 million public places have been required by the Americans with Disabilities Act to provide access to disabled customers, the department has received 900 complaints of discrimination and filed exactly one lawsuit.

The law protects the rights of the estimated 43 million disabled Americans.

John Wodatch, chief of the public access section in Justice’s civil rights division, said all 10 lawyers are based in Washington, although cases under the act involve businesses nationwide and may require on-site inspections. The attorneys have three paralegal assistants, he said.

″They have a pretty heavy caseload - 80 to 90 cases per person,″ Wodatch said in an interview this week. ″With a new law, it always takes some time to staff up. I’m hopeful, as time goes by, to get more resources. ... It’s tough right now.″

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a sponsor of the law, said he is ″concerned about the lack of resources″ at Justice to enforce the law’s public accommodations sections and promised to look into it.

″It raises some serious questions in my mind,″ he said Tuesday.

Disability rights advocates say 10 investigators are clearly not enough and that people with disabilities, including those with AIDS or the HIV virus, could suffer as the backlogs grow.

″The Congress spoke loud and clear when it passed this law, but the law isn’t worth the paper it’s written on if there isn’t a commitment to enforce it,″ said Robert Bray, spokesman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

″If we’re serious about implementing this law, we have to enforce it,″ added Paul Marchand, director of government affairs for The Arc, a national organization on mental retardation.

Wodatch and advocates for the disabled expect the number of complaints to continue to rise.

John D. Kemp, executive director of United Cerebral Palsy Associations, said his organization continues to inform Americans with disabilities about their rights under the law, ″and this can only lead to a greater number of complaints being filed in the future.

But Eric Jowers, spokesman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said most business owners believe it makes sense to make their establishments accessible to disabled customers.

Under the law’s public accommodations provisions, businesses were required as of Jan. 26, 1992, to make ″reasonable″ modifications to provide access for disabled customers at stores, restaurants, hotels, funeral homes, doctors’ offices or recreation facilities.

Such actions could include widening the aisles of a grocery store, offering curbside service or home delivery to all customers, providing reserved parking places, building ramps or training waiters and waitresses to help those who cannot read a menu.

The law also bars discrimination on the basis of disability by such establishments.

Other sections of disability rights law are enforced by other federal agencies with their own attorneys, including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development departments. Those sections bar discrimination or guarantee physical access in the workplace, public transportation, or housing.

Wodatch of the Justice Department said 70 percent of the complaints with public accommodations involve barriers to physical access, such as lack of parking spaces for the disabled or an inaccessible hotel.

Other cases involve discriminatory policies or lack of such assistance as interpreters for people who are hard of hearing.

The only lawsuit to date was filed Dec. 28 against a California-based company charging that it discriminated against students with hearing impairments enrolled in Certified Public Accountant review courses.

Wodatch said most cases are being resolved by businesses agreeing to the needed changes, such as building a ramp or adding parking places.

Because it is a new law, he said, people tend to want to comply. But that may change over time, a trend he has seen with other civil rights legislation.

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