Businesses Face Push to Expand Disabled Access

  • July 5, 2008
  • Bruce Bromley

Advocates Worry
Bid to Clarify Rules
May Spur Backlash
June 17, 2008; Page A6

The U.S. is moving on two fronts this week to expand businesses’ obligations to accommodate disabled people, in a legislative and regulatory push that risks a backlash from millions of businesses worried about costs.

On Wednesday, two House committees will finish crafting a bill that broadens the population entitled to employment rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act, reversing Supreme Court decisions narrowing it. The bill could come to a vote before the July 4 recess, if lawmakers reach agreement. Also this week, the Bush administration will begin seeking public comment on 1,000 pages of proposed rules — covering issues from hotel-room doors to theater seating — clarifying existing regulations on physical access for disabled people.

The proposed regulations are expected to cost private and public establishments $22.8 billion, according to a Justice Department analysis. The department has calculated benefits of the regulation at $54 billion, by placing a dollar value on improved access. The benefits are largely intangible to business owners, a perception that has fueled dozens of lawsuits over the years challenging the underlying legislation.

The developments are the latest in an 18-year battle between businesses and disabled people over the rights guaranteed by the 1990 law, signed by President Bush’s father. Backers say the new legislation would expand the group entitled to employment rights under the disability act, and the proposed new rules would clarify questions on access requirements.

Congress and advocacy groups hadn’t foreseen that work on the final version of the House bill would coincide with the release of hundreds of pages of new regulations governing such things as the height of light switches. Erik Ablin, a Justice Department spokesman, said the new regulations were the result of a multiyear effort and that their introduction was “totally unrelated” to the House legislation. But some advocates for disability rights are worried that the businesses affected will interpret the two-front push as the government piling on during economic hard times.

“It’s not unrealistic to think that businesses concerned about economic conditions in the country would see what they consider more burdens on them as not welcome,” said Curtis Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network, a federally funded legal-advocacy group for people with disabilities, which has worked with businesses on the House bill. “We hope we have a bill they can live with and support.”

Lobbyists for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest business group, were more blunt. “We couldn’t beat this bill so there was a need for a compromise and there was some sense that the court had interpreted the [law] too restrictively,” said Randel Johnson, a vice president at the chamber.

The Chamber and big employers have been working with advocates for disabled people on the legislation, even as they differ on regulatory issues.

In February, the two sides began crafting compromise language that would overturn what they agreed were restrictive Supreme Court rulings but not expand too broadly the definition of who is disabled, said Andrew Imparato, president and chief executive of the American Association of People with Disabilities, an advocacy group with more than 100,000 members.

Court rulings had “whittled away” at who could be covered by the ADA, in some cases excluding people affected by epilepsy or diabetes because they were functioning well with medication, Mr. Imparato said.

Mr. Decker, whose organization assists people with lawsuits forcing compliance with the ADA, said that the Supreme Court interpretations were shutting off legal options for disabled people who felt they had been victims of discrimination. Even though the Chamber of Commerce represented businesses in lawsuits that resulted in some of those decisions, Mr. Johnson said the group agreed that court decisions severely limiting redress for disabled people went too far.

In the House bill, the Chamber advocated for compromise language making people whose disability “materially restricts” life activities eligible for protection — language weaker than Democrats had originally envisioned.

Neither business groups nor advocates for disabled people would delve too deeply into the specifics of the regulations, which are to be released Tuesday. More than 1,000 pages long, the rules are highly detailed, with drawings and figures specifying requirements for facilities from amusement parks to nursing homes.

One goal of the regulatory changes is to make accessibility standards more consistent with state and local building codes, a Justice Department official said. The department plans to hold a public hearing on the proposed rule changes in mid-July.

Although groups on both sides of the debate were involved in the rules’ development, they say it will take weeks to read through the proposals and respond to them in detail.

Mr. Imparato said the rules were meant to provide practical guidance for specific businesses on how to provide the access required by the 1990 law.

Advocates for the disabled foresaw differences with the business community, but said there would be areas of consensus as well. “The business community is always asking for more clarity,” said Mr. Decker. “While they might not like the interpretation, they are at least going to have more clarity. Hopefully that will decrease the adversarial nature of the enforcement.”

–Jane Zhang contributed to this article.