Magazine article Personnel Journal

The ADA: Tough Subject, Straight Answers

Magazine article Personnel Journal

The ADA: Tough Subject, Straight Answers

Article excerpt

Although the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) will celebrate its second anniversary of passage into law this coming July, it still baffles many employers.

Here, ADA expert Christopher G. Bell provides insight into the complex issues surrounding hiring and accommodating disabled individuals in the workplace. Currently an attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based law firm of Jackson, Lewis, Schnitzler & Krupman, Bell formerly served as a top legal official at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) from 1984 to 1985 and from 1987 to 1992. During his seven-year tenure there, Bell helped spearhead development and implementation of the ADA. The conceptual foundation for the ADA came, in large part, from Accommodating the Spectrum of Individual Abilities, a book that Bell co-authored with colleague Robert Burgdorf in 1983.

Bell's work on the ADA reflected his belief that job environments could and should be cleared of workplace stumbling blocks, including those with which he has wrestled since he became blind 22 years ago.

Recently, Bell authored The Workers' Compensation/ADA Connection: Supervisory Tools For Workers' Compensation Cost Containment That Reduce ADA Liability to detail how employers can recognize the relationship between workers' compensation issues and ADA issues.

What kind of action did you spur with your first book. Accommodating the Spectrum of Individual Abilities, in the early '80s?

That book was basically a report to try to understand and explain disability civil rights in a way that made sense. There were, at the time, two schools of thought about the problems that people with disabilities face. One was that the reason why somebody who uses a wheelchair can't get into a bank or into a department store is because he or she can't walk. The contrasting school of thought was that the reason somebody using a wheelchair can't get into a bank or a department store is because society has discriminated [against them] by choosing to put in steps and narrow doorways, rather than building the buildings with wider doorways and ramps. It's partly true that people have impairments that create functional limitations. On the other hand, society does make choices in how it structures its institutions and builds buildings in ways that can either make it difficult or easy for people with disabilities. What we ended up recommending in [our book] was a legal approach to disability. [It] basically said that you could have a law that reflects this reality and makes certain changes in the workplace and the way we build buildings and the way we [construct] buses and so forth to provide [better] access.

Was this the first time that these ideas about disabilities had been combined into one book?

Basically, yes. There was an article done years earlier on civil rights and disability. What we did was articulate a way of looking at it that hadn't been done before. [After the book was published], Bob and I wrote a shorter article [for the Civil Rights Commission] setting out a blueprint for a new law to protect people with disabilities.

Were you directly involved with the passage of the ADA?

Bob drafted [a version of the ADA] in 1986 and 1987. I had left the government and worked as a stockbroker. Then I came back and worked for a new commissioner at the EEOC, Evan J. Kemp, Jr., in 1987. That's when the National Council on Disability got going on their law. So Evan, myself, Bob Burgdorf and others kicked around Bob's draft. We introduced it in 1988. In 1989, working at the EEOC, the version that Senator Harken and his staff wrote was introduced. That ultimately became the ADA. So I was involved in that on behalf of Commissioner Kemp and provided technical assistance to special committees.

What do you think about the removal of stumbling blocks in the workplace for disabled individuals and about drafting a law around those issues?

I think these are compromises that the Congress has called for between the needs of employers and the needs of people with disabilities. …

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