Disability Rights Laws Take Effect This Week Many Firms Are Unsure about How to Respond

Article excerpt

PATRISHA WRIGHT calls the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) the "end to second-class citizenship" for people who, like herself, are disabled but capable of working.

Yesterday the second and most significant phase of the ADA took effect for 2 million companies in the United States. It bars businesses that employ 25 or more employees from discriminating against the disabled in hiring or access as customers.

Until yesterday, "we were the only class of people in this country who did not have protection," says Ms. Wright, director of government affairs for the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund in Berkeley, Calif. Historically, civil-rights laws have not been broadly applied to those who are disabled.

The ADA is intended to integrate as many disabled people as possible into the economic mainstream, making it easier for them to earn and spend.

The rules that took effect yesterday prohibit discrimination in hiring against disabled applicants who can perform the "essential functions" of a task given "reasonable accommodation" by the employer. If reasonable accommodation of disabled workers causes "undue hardship" for businesses, they are exempt.

It will be up to the courts to decide what "reasonable accommodation" and "undue hardship" are. "A lot of this is going to get hammered out in the courts in the next few years," says Wendy Webster, spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association. "It's really a brave new world."

As time goes by, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will use the courts' definitions to determine whether discrimination has taken place on a case-by-case basis. In appropriations hearings for the ADA, EEOC chairman Evan Kemp said that his organization expects to receive between 12,000 and 15,000 discrimination complaints in the first year of the new rules.

Increased liability has businesses concerned about how this phase of the ADA applies to them. Fines of up to $300,000 can accompany an ADA violation. The potential for substantial judgements against companies is sending many running into the arms of corporate law firms.

"I've seen a serious effort on the part of businesses both to understand and comply with the regulations," says Morrison Cain of the International Mass Retail Association (IMRA). …