Wednesday, July 26, 2000

Americans with Disabilities Act law 10 years old

By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        To the people it has helped, the Americans with Disabilities Act has always meant more than curb cuts, crosswalk signs that buzz and closed-captioned television.

(Michael E. Keating photo)
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        “The biggest thing the law has done is make people more aware that folks with disabilities have a lot to contribute,” said Sandy Kerlin, director of Cincinnati's Inclusion Network, which promotes hiring people with disabilities. . “This is a group of talented people that nobody can afford to overlook.”

        Today on Fountain Square, hundreds of people are expected to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a law that pushed the private sector to begin making the accommodations that government agencies had been providing for years.

        The physical results of the ADA can be seen throughout Greater Cincin nati. Automatic door openers. Talking elevators. Bathroom stalls outfitted for a wheelchair. Fire alarms with blinking lights to alert the deaf.

        Less visible, but perhaps more important, are the employers that hire people with disabilities. A grocery store employing a bagger with learning disabilities. The office with a blind telemarketer. The agency with a paraplegic designer.

        Fears of runaway costs and red tape among the many business groups that initially resisted the ADA have largely subsided.

        Many employers have learned from experience that “reasonable accommodations” required by the law haven't been so costly after all. In most cases, businesses spend less than $500 to make changes needed to put a person with a disability to work, according to Inclusion Network research.

        “It's one more requirement. It's the law. We have to comply. So businesses have simply factored it into their thinking,” said Susan Laffoon, vice president of government and community affairs for the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce.

        She agreed that the costs of complying with the ADA have not been a major burden.

        John Kraimer, 36, has been using a wheelchair for the past 10 years after a collision between a car and his bicycle ended with spinal damage. He can move his arms, but has limited use of his fingers.

        Mr. Kraimer is director of disability services at Raymond Walters College in Blue Ash, where he makes sure students with disabilities get the special services and equipment they need.

 What: Rally to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
 When: 11 a.m.-1 p.m. today.
 Where: Fountain Square.
 Speakers include Dr. Neal Mayerson of the Mayerson Foundation and the Inclusion Network, Enquirer columnist Deborah Kendrick and city councilwoman Alicia Reece.

        “(When the law was passed), everybody focused on the potential costs,” he said. “Nobody figured in the upsides, like the value of the work produced or the value of the customers they attract.”

One in five
        Millions of Americans have some type of disability. Those people represent a significant consumer group and a rich source of workers in a tight job market.

        While significant progress has been made on removing physical barriers, much work remains in employment issues. An estimated 67 percent of people with disabilities of working age are not employed, even though surveys indicate that 79 percent want to work.

        Mr. Kraimer — who has a bachelor's degree in music, an MBA and a master's degree in hospital administration — recalls several job interviews where he could tell in seconds that he wouldn't get the job.

        But the job issue isn't just about attitudes.

        Sometimes, people with disabilities avoid seeking work out of fear they will be trading comprehensive government health benefits for jobs with weaker private benefits.

        The biggest cost to business linked to the ADA has probably been litigation, not the expense of making accommodations for workers.

        After an initial flurry of cases nationwide to sort out who is a disabled person and what would be a “reasonable” accommodation, many employers continue to face a steady stream of ADA-related lawsuits, said David Peck, a labor and employment attorney with Taft Stettinius and Hollister.

        “It's one thing to make accommodations for someone who is blind or in a wheelchair. But what about carpal tunnel syndrome or a bum knee?” Mr. Peck said.

        Some employees, facing being fired for poor performance or poor attendance, are abusing the spirit of the ADA by trying to push the definition of disability to cover questionable conditions, Mr. Peck said. Employers often win such cases, but litigation always is costly.

        The Inclusion Network credits local employers willing to make a start toward hiring more people with disabilities. In recent years, the agency has honored the IRS service center in Covington, Children's Hospital Medical Center and the Kroger store in Montgomery Square for their efforts.

        Improved computer technology also has made it much easier for people with many types of disabilities to do valuable work.

        With computers, the work product is the same whether typed in by hand, by voice command, or by using a light pen strapped to a person's head.

        “I call computers the great equalizer,” Mr. Kraimer said.

Work remains
        While some see today's anniversary as a time to reflect on the significant progress of the past 10 years, others say much more work remains.

        “I don't want to give you the wrong impression and say we are there. Because we definitely are not there,” said Bob Coltrane, director of community services for the deaf at the Hearing Speech and Deaf Center of Greater Cincinnati.

        “Compared to other disabilities, deaf people are further behind than many others. You see wheelchair ramps everywhere and Braille menus at McDonald's, but deaf access is still a struggle,” Mr. Coltrane said.

        Communicating with deaf people is more complicated than talking to blind people or people in wheelchairs. With interpretation provided by Ohio's Telecommunication Relay Service, Jeff Carroll, an employee of the Hearing Speech and Deaf Center, said urban areas like the city of Cincinnati have done much better at accommodating deaf people than rural areas.

        Even so, there's plenty of room for improvement.

        For example, deaf people cannot enjoy movies nearly as easily as the general public. Local movie theaters do offer open-captioned showings, but only at limited dates and times.

        The supply of films modified to provide captions is limited, so cities have to wait in line for copies, Mr. Carroll said.

        An estimated 3,500 deaf people in Greater Cincinnati communicate by using American Sign Language. The Hearing Speech and Deaf Center is one of a few agencies that provide sign language interpreters that many businesses must hire on occasion to comply with the ADA. Seven years ago, the agency had 2.5 interpreters who billed less than 2,000 hours of service for the year. Last year, the agency's seven interpreters billed 8,500 hours, Mr. Coltrane said.

        Despite the growth, Mr. Coltrane said lawyers and doctors put up more resistance over providing interpreters for clients and patients than any other type of business or service.

        If progress on disability access could be compared to building a house, Cincinnati has gone in the past decade from having an unfinished foundation to a framed building with a roof, said Peg Gutsell, a blind woman who works as associate director of the Inclusion Network.

        Ms. Gutsell said she appreciates useful improvements like automatic doors at her office at 312 Walnut St.: “Revolving doors can be tricky with a cane.”

        But what really makes her day is encountering people with welcoming attitudes.

        “Everybody wants to live in a community that values the skills and talents of everyone,” Ms. Gutsell said. “If you think about it, accommodating people isn't so hard.”


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