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Part of Disabilities Act Kicks In as of Today

TODAY, 26.8 million hearing- and speech-impaired Americans will take a step toward being integrated into mainstream society; they will be able to use the telephone.

As part of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, Congress mandated that full access to a relay service connecting telecommunication devices for the deaf to telephones be made available nationwide by July 26, 1993.

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Forty-nine states and two territories have successfully met the deadline and are certified to operate carrier networks that are "functionally and economically equivalent to telephone services," says Linda DuBroof, a senior attorney at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

But even though a deaf man can now call a restaurant and easily make dinner reservations, the ADA may not do as much for him in applying for a job there. The ADA's employment provisions, which aim to equalize job opportunities at businesses with more than 25 employees, have generated more objections than equalizing telecommunications access. ADA being used by employees

Instead of dropping barriers preventing the handicapped from entering the work force, the new laws are becoming a tool for workers who are already employed to voice their grievances.

"The ADA isn't bringing people into the labor force," says a Senate aide who specializes in disability policy. "People are using it to stay in the labor force."

As of June 30, 11,550 complaints had been filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under the ADA's employment provisions. Only 1,481 of these claimants said they were not hired because of their disability.

The vague language of the employment laws is primarily responsible for the problems that have arisen thus far, says Tom Rafferty, a business liaison for a federal ADA resource center. According to the ADA, businesses must provide "reasonable accomodation" to disabled individuals without imposing an "undue hardship" on business operations.

Without specific instructions, Mr. Rafferty says, businesses have a hard time complying and handicapped people do not have the confidence to go out and look for jobs. Promise to disabled community

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The signing of the ADA made the disabled the seventh protected category under federal employment laws. But it failed to address the handicapped population's tendency to be more isolated and less educated, says Walter Oi, a disabled professor at the University of Rochester.

"It wasn't done quite right. There was no target about how employable the disabled are," he says. "It's a promise and something they can't carry out."

Businesses have generally claimed to support the goals of the ADA. But the costs of compliance, both financial and legal, have slowed the response. "There's always been full support of the outcomes of the ADA but members were worried about implementation," says Nancy Fulco, at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "Now, some members call and say, `I'm doing everything I can but this is unreasonable,' and `Do I have to do this too?' "

On July 26, 1994, businesses with between 15 and 24 employees must begin complying with the ADA. Though small businesses stand to be most heavily affected by the ADA, in September, 40 percent of small-business owners were unaware that the ADA even existed, according to a survey by the Kessler Exchange, in Northridge, Calif.

"One court case is all it would take to wipe out businesses this small," says Caroline Stinebower, a legislative representative for the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

The FCC's efficiency in meeting the telecommunications deadline is evidence that the "spirit of the ADA" is alive, says Don Fersh, author of "Complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act." Time, he emphasizes, is the crucial element in the ADA's impact. "People have to change their way of thinking and the reluctance has to wear off," Mr. Fersh says.

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