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Disabilities Act - Why Business Still Carps

SMALL businesses are going to be caught off guard by the Americans with Disabilities Act. At least that's the assessment of Wendy Lechner, manager for research and policy at the National Association of Independent Business. Ms. Lechner was quoted in the current (Spring, 1991) issue of "Your Company," an American Express publication for small businesses. "Many small-business owners we've talked to have never heard of the law," she told the publication.

Is this really true? Maybe - but the business lobby in this country has sure heard of it. Their stamp is all over the law. So why are they still complaining?

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The business community started fretting about this law when it was only a gleam in Congress's eye. Advocates for the disabled had for a long time sought a way to extend to people with disabilities the same kinds of protections the Civil Rights Act gave women and minorities, but the business community got significant concessions from disability-rights forces from the start. How far the resulting Americans with Disabilities Act goes toward ensuring routine access and accommodation for disabled persons sti ll remains to be seen.

The new law is a wonder of reasonableness - or compromise, depending on your perspective.

While the law says no business operating a "public accommodation" can refuse to serve people with disabilities, the business actually has to do things like installing ramps or widening toilet stalls only when it's "readily achievable" - which the law defines as meaning "without much difficulty or expense."

While businesses cannot refuse to hire a disabled person who is qualified for a job, and must make "accommodations" for the person's disability (like buying a deaf accountant a TDD machine so he or she can make phone calls), the law says that the company does not have to do anything that causes it "undue hardship."

That's a reasonable assumption. Business in this country has a history of excluding disabled people from jobs and services. For decades, disability-rights activists have been saying that's discrimination; last year Congress agreed. Some in the disability-rights community say business's continuing complaints, coming on the heels of concessions won in Congress, show that tendency is as prevalent as ever.

The complaints always center around cost. Nobody comes right out and says they don't want to serve disabled people. That would look bad. Instead, they say precisely what the Americans with Disabilities Act allows them to say to avoid disabled people: "We really want to serve (hire, rent our hotel rooms to) disabled people. But we just can't afford to put in that ramp, widen those doors, make our restrooms accessible."

That seems reasonable, too - until you start to examine it.

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Certain costs are an accepted part of doing business. A phone line's a must - maybe several. Office furniture - desks, chairs, a file cabinet or two, a computer - have to be bought. Companies provide restrooms for employees and don't think twice about it. Restaurants and movie theaters do, too. So do shopping malls. (At one time, though, indoor plumbing - and restrooms - were the exception, not the rule.)

But you don't hear business complain about the extra cost of installing restrooms - or buying desks and phones. They're simply considered a routine part of doing business. And, believe me, installing an entire restroom from the ground up certainly costs more than making one accessible!

But from the noise they're making, it's beginning to sound as though business is still not willing to accept the cost of access as a routine part of doing business.

And that sounds a great deal like discrimination to me.

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