The Americans with Disabilities Act: Feel-Good Legislation?

By Jay, Leslie | Management Review, September 1990 | Go to article overview

The Americans with Disabilities Act: Feel-Good Legislation?


Jay, Leslie, Management Review


Leslie jay is a Brooklyn, N. Y-based writer.

By approving the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) last May, the House of Representatives theoretically opened doors and expanded doorways for the nation's estimated 43 million handicapped people.

Under the bill, the Civil Rights Act of 1964-which outlaws discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex and national origin-will be extended in 1992 to cover the physically and mentally disabled, including AIDS and cancer patients, as well as treated, recovering substance abusers.

Victims of emotional disorders, i.e., kleptomaniacs or compulsive gamblers, are excluded.) The lopsided House vote (403 yeas, 20 nays, 9 abstentions) attests to ADA's popularity; politicians and disabled activists alike have hailed it as a legal landmark. President Bush is expected to sign the bill, which was previously passed by the Senate, once the two halves of Congress reconcile differences in their respective versions of the measure.

In broadly affirming the rights of disabled people-and in giving them a basis for legal action should those rights be violated-the ADA is a long-overdue statement. To comply, businesses must make "reasonable accommodations" to workers and job applicants with disabilities unless the required changes present an "undue hardship." Similarly, certain private establishments that serve the public-such as restaurants, hotels, stores and theaters-must eliminate barriers to disabled patrons if this can e done without incurring "undue burden." New buses, trains and subway cars must be accessible to wheelchair users, while phone companies must establish relay services that enable hearing- and voice-impaired customers to connect their special telephones to standard service networks. But despite these requirements, the ADA leaves much unsaid. This bill is an example of politically correct, feel-good legislation that promises more than it delivers.

First, the ADA is not a prescription for universal accessibility. For the most part, only new and renovated buildings are affected. Beyond specifying lifts on buses, the ADA does not explain how to accommodate disabled people by mandating, say, Braille elevator buttons and wheelchair-accessible bathrooms. Nor does the bill define nebulous concepts such as "undue hardship" and "undue burden"-a surprising lapse in view of the fact that most ADA-inspired office alterations presumably entail tax-deductible expenses. Instead, the measure lists specific factors-site dimensions, number of employees, etc.-used in evaluating the hardship or burden of structural changes. "The details will be interpreted by various agencies next year," explains Charles Siegel, press secretary to Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, the chief ADA sponsor in the House. Don't hold your breath.

In the meantime, executives who would like to create a barrier-free plant have no structural and budgetary guidelines to consult. And less scrupulous business-people, citing "undue hardship," ultimately may do nothing at all. "Congress waffled on this," comments lawyer Lewis Maltby, coordinator of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Task Force on Civil Liberties in the Workplace. There are some general standards that could have been developed. I don't think there is any significant guidance there. They passed the buck to the courts."

VAGUE BUT PALATABLE

In fact, this lack of precision was a deliberate ploy to make the measure more politically palatable. "We thought the [bill's] vagueness would help businesspeople by not forcing them to do what they couldn't afford," Siegel says. But imprecise writing from a body of highly articulate people (attorneys constitute the majority of our representatives) arouses suspicions. When push came to shove, Congress came close to yielding. The Sensenbrenner amendment, which would have prevented disabled victims of discrimination from seeking jury trials and punitive damages, was narrowly defeated, 227 to 192. …

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