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Is the disabilities act working?
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice are the principal enforcement authorities for the ADA.
The EEOC reported on its Web site that it has collected more than $300 million on behalf of 20,000 people through lawsuits, settlements, mediation and other enforcement action since 1992 when the anti-job discrimination provisions took effect.
Some of the private-sectors companies the EEOC has sued over the years alleging discrimination due to disability include Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Chuck E. Cheese and Southwestern Bell.
The Justice Department's Web site cites numerous examples of ADA issues it has resolved:
- The Dickinson, North Dakota, City Hall is now accessible to disabled people after the agency intervened.
- The Oregon State Lottery agreed to make ticket-selling outlets accessible to those with mobility problems.
- The Oakland, California, Police Department agreed to take steps to make sure suspects who are deaf or hard of hearing can communicate effectively with police officers.
- American University law student Jackie Okin, who has cerebral palsy, sued the Educational Testing Service under the ADA to make more SAT exam dates available for disabled applicants. The case was settled out of court. The ETS has three testing dates now, open to everyone including the disabled.
"If you don't take the SAT, you can't go to college," Okin said.
- The Justice Department got the National Collegiate Athletic Association to agree to revise eligibility requirements for athletes with learning disabilities after suing the sporting body.
The Supreme Court and the ADA
The nation's highest court has ruled on a handful of ADA cases over the years, deciding four noteworthy cases last year alone.
The court has accepted for the next term, which begins in October, a case involving disabled golfer Casey Martin, who sued the PGA Tour.
- In Sutton v. United Airlines, the court ruled 7-2 that the airline did not discriminate against two nearsighted twin sisters who applied to be pilots. The court said the ADA did not cover the plaintiffs because glasses corrected their vision problems.
- In Murphy v. United Parcel Service, the justices ruled 7-2 that UPS did not discriminate against a mechanic it let go because he had excessively high blood pressure. The court found the mechanic was not disabled because his condition was correctable.
- In Albertsons, Inc. v. Kirkingburg, the justices ruled unanimously that the supermarket chain did not run afoul of the ADA when it fired a truck driver who was nearly blind in one eye.
- In Olmstead v. L.C., the court handed a victory for ADA supporters, saying the ADA does require states to move people with certain mental disabilities from hospitals to community homes.
At issue in the Martin case is how the golfer, who has a rare circulatory disease that keeps him from walking, goes from hole to hole. He uses a golf cart; the PGA said golfers must walk.
Martin sued the tour in 1997 and won at the lower court level. The PGA Tour appealed to the Supreme Court. One of the main issues is whether walking is an essential part of the game.
Critics: ADA hurts businesses
Hudgins, of the Cato Institute, said the ADA has spawned a "lawsuit festival" against businesses. He also said the ADA has prompted people to classify temporary conditions as lasting illnesses and spuriously demand ADA protection.
Actor Clint Eastwood was the target of an ADA lawsuit filed three years ago by a California woman who sued over Eastwood's Mission Ranch Hotel in Carmel, California.
Diane Zum Brunnen alleged that at least one bathroom and the hotel parking lot did not comply with the ADA and there were not enough rooms accessible to the disabled.
Eastwood, angered by a request for more than $500,000 in legal fees, went to Congress earlier this year to seek changes to the ADA to give businesses more time to comply.
Seeking to end such "rogue lawsuits," Florida Congressmen E. Clay Shaw and Mark Foley introduced legislation this year to give businesses 90 days to come into ADA compliance before they are sued.
Small businesses are hit hard because ADA compliance costs big bucks -- on average anywhere from $500 to $3,000 per change, said Mary Leon, spokeswoman for the National Federation of Independent Businesses.
The ADA says the remedies such as adding wheelchair ramps and making bathrooms accessible should be "readily achievable" and without "undue hardship."
"But the courts across the country have defined those terms in many dramatically different ways," she said. "So a small business owner comes to us and says, 'How much should I spend?' There is no guidance we can give them."
ADA and employment
Some advocates acknowledge that disabled people have not been as successful as anticipated in getting jobs and moving toward financial independence.
Robert Dinerstein, an American University law professor who specializes in disability issues, said that the law does not specify quotas spelling out how many disabled workers they must hire.
Critics and advocates say some employers might reject disabled applicants under some pretext other than the disability in order to avoid the potential for ADA lawsuits.
Dinerstein said the ADA forbids employers from asking applicants about their disabilities, but interviewers can spell out the essential job functions and ask whether the disabled applicant can fulfill them.
If the disabled candidate is hired, the employer must make "reasonable accommodation," if needed, to help the worker perform the job, Dinerstein said.
Workplace problems have led to ADA lawsuits, but disabled workers have only experienced slender success in courts, according to the American Bar Association's Commission on Mental & Physical Disability Law.
Of the 434 ADA cases that reached U.S. federal courts in 1999, employees prevailed in only 4.3 percent of the cases, or 13 cases, in which there were verdicts, according to an annual ABA survey. Employers won 291 cases; 130 cases did not reach the jury at all, the survey showed.
The results "raise questions whether judicial interpretations have been faithful to the spirit" in which Congress passed the ADA, Dinerstein said.
Part of the problem is the ADA definition of a disabled person, someone with a problem that prevents him or her from doing a major life activity, Dinerstein said.
The courts seem to say that those with minor disabilities -- problems that can be corrected with crutches, say, or glasses -- are not covered by the law. But if a person has a substantial disability, he or she may not be qualified to do any sort of work and employers are not required to hire them, leading to a Catch-22 situation, he noted.
"The role of a law like this is to provide a guidepost for people," Dinerstein said. "But in the end, it is going to take a lot of education and action to make the law a reality."
Other disability rights laws
Though there are several laws at the federal and state level that protect the disabled, ADA supporters say the ADA was the first to codify a sweeping range of protections under one legal umbrella.
The law also, for the first time, covered all state and local governments and the private sector.
Some other laws:
- The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 bars disability discrimination by the federal government and state and local governments that receive federal funds.
- The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires school systems to ensure that disabled students have education opportunities on par with non-disabled students.
- The Fair Housing Act prohibits public and private housing agencies from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status, and national origin.
- States have their own versions of the ADA or some other form of disability protection. Congress has said state laws with stronger protections than the ADA take precedent
Advocates say the ADA closely resembles the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which sought to end racial discrimination in all of society.
Society is "definitely becoming more attuned to people with disabilities," said Paul Hagle, executive director of the National Association of ADA Coordinators, a private group. "Some of their old attitudes, their old prejudices are breaking down ... but there is still a lot of it out there."
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National Council on Disability
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