Bridging the Disability Gap

By Smith, S. L. | Occupational Hazards, December 1991 | Go to article overview

Bridging the Disability Gap

Smith, S. L., Occupational Hazards

"It has been called everything from "one of the greatest pieces of civil rights legislation ever enacted" to "a big can of worms." Like other major laws that change the rules of the workplace, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has angered some employers, frightened others, and, because of its complexity, confused nearly everyone.

Signed into law in July 1990 by President George Bush, ADA prohibits various forms of handicapped discrimination, including employment discrimination. ADA defines a person who is disabled as having: a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; a record of such an impairment; or who is regarded as having such an impairment by others.

Safety and health professionals will play a key role in helping companies prepare for ADA. Employers with 25 or more employees must comply with ADA by July 26, 1992. Employers with 15 or more employees have a compliance date of July 26, 1994. Sweeping reforms affecting public accommodations, transportation, telecommunications, and state and local government operations go into effect next month. Detailed job descriptions, facility alterations, and safety and health exemptions to ADA will all require input from safety and health professionals.

"From an employer's point of view, this will be one of the most significant pieces of legislation they've ever seen," said Roger Jacobs, a Trenton, N.J., attorney specializing in labor-management relations. While he expects that large corporations will deal with the changes required by ADA on a regular basis, he said the act is flexible enough that it should not present the "serious problems" that many small businesses are dreading.

"What will be required of a company with 26 employees on July 26, 1992, is far different than a company with 26,000 employees," Rogers observed. He said both employers and the disabled community must approach the new law rationally and reasonably.

Defining the Rules

ADA prohibits discrimination in hiring against a "qualified" individual based on a disability. The determination of whether or not an individual is qualified requires two steps. First, the employer must determine if the individual satisfies the prerequisites for the job, such as possessing the appropriate educational background, experience, and skills. Then, the employer must determine if the individual can perform the primary job tasks of the position, with or without reasonable accommodation.

ADA calls for employers to make -reasonable accommodationsfor employees with disabilities. These accommodations include changes to the physical layout of the plant, restructuring jobs, modifying work schedules, or assigning a reader to the blind.

The cost of those accommodations is determined by four variables: the expected proportion of employment opportunities to be gained by disabled workers; the number of employees covered; the average cost of the accommodation; and turnover rates.

"Compliance with ADA is going to take some modifications at most companies," whether in the physical plant itself or in company policies, predicts Thomas Schneid, an attorney and associate professor in the Department of Loss Prevention and Safety at Eastern Kentucky University. "The way we've done things in the past is not the way we can do things after ADA comes into effect."

Schneid recommended that employers begin planning for accommodations now. "This is one area which really involves safety personnel," he said. "They have to make sure that if a door cannot be made accessible, that it is not blocked, creating another safety hazard. Accommodations must not jeopardize safety and health."

What might be surprising to many employers is that a survey cited by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found that 51 percent of accommodations could be made at no cost whatsoever to the employer. More than 60 percent of all accommodations could be made at a cost of $500 or less. …

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