In 1990 the United States Congress passed the Americans With Disabilities Act. This act, frequently referred to as the ADA, was intended to protect disabled Americans from discrimination and to remove the social and architectural barriers that prevent the disabled from participating in mainstream society (Hoover 137). In the past eight years, the ADA has faced criticism based on complaints that the accommodations it requires businesses and local governments to make are too expensive and difficult (Doherty 49). The accommodations required by the ADA do not unfairly burden businesses or local governments and they are an important part of creating equal opportunities for the disabled. Even though the ADA does require businesses to make accommodations using their own financial resources, most of these accommodations are easy and inexpensive (Baldwin 50). The ADA requires reasonable accommodations that do not cause undue hardship on the part of businesses (Baldwin 48). The ADA is essential in enabling the disabled community to have equal access to employment opportunities and to public facilities. The ADA gives the disabled protection against discrimination and creates opportunities for them to lead productive lives in the workplace and in the general public. The accommodations required by the ADA are not unreasonable, nor are they a form of charity. They are an effective way to protect and ensure the rights of this nation s largest minority, the disabled population (Hoover 137).
Some of the accommodations that the ADA requires are structural. For example, new public buildings are required to have bathrooms with handicapped access. Ramps must be provided that can accommodate wheelchairs, and doorways must be wide enough for wheelchairs to pass through. Also, all new buses and trains must be equipped to accommodate the handicapped (Hoover 340). The ADA also requires accommodations in the workplace. Though some of these are structural, many of them deal with changing work tasks and providing special equipment. The ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against disabled job applicants who are otherwise qualified (Baldwin 48). In April of 1997, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued guidelines to aid employers in making the appropriate accommodations for mentally and emotionally disabled employees. These accommodations include adjustments in work schedules, changing the duties of a worker, and providing special training (Pope 340).
Complaints about the ADA include expense to public organizations. They claim that local governments spend a large amount of money without any real benefit (Hudgins 40). The ADA provides the disabled with the right to full access to all public programs (Reno and Thornburgh 24). Challengers of the act express concern that organizations such as public libraries will have to install expensive elevators so that the disabled have full access to the books on the second floor. However, Reno and Thornburgh contend that these complaints are invalid since that ADA does not require access to the full building, just the services it provides. Therefore, the library need not install elevators as long as the librarians are there to retrieve books for the disabled who can not reach them. She states that many of the complaints over the ADA come from a misunderstanding of the law and that the Department of Justice is focusing on providing assistance and information to help organizations to comply with the ADA (Reno 23).
Private industries also are concerned about the cost of complying with the ADA. In one instance a restaurant owner complained that he was forced to build a wheelchair accessible ramp to a platform in the dining room. Besides the cost of the actual ramp construction, he claimed that the ramp occupied enough space for three more tables in his usually full restaurant (Doherty 48). Other expensive accommodations include flashing fire alarms for the deaf and Braille signs to accommodate the blind (Doherty 48). However, what many critics ignore is that the ADA requires businesses to remove architectural barriers only when it can be done with out too much expense or difficulty. The determination of the extent of accommodations that can be made within reasonable limits comes from the Department of Justice. The Department of Justice does not expect these changes to be made overnight. Reno and Thornburgh claim that the DOJ is willing to work with organizations to encourage voluntary compliance (Reno and Thornburgh 24).
The cost of accommodating a disabled employee is also expensive according to the ADA s critics. Some businesses complain that they can not effectively hire reliable workers if they are forced not to discriminate against disabilities such as mental illness. They complain that they should not have to accommodate an employee who misses workdays due to depression or stress, nor should they have to deal with an employee who is drowsy and unproductive in the morning due to antidepressant medication (Pope 341). Yet many of these complaints are based on ignorance regarding mental illness. Many people who suffer from mental illnesses can lead very productive lives, especially with the help of proper medication. Discrimination based on such disabilities should not deny a person with a mental illness equal opportunities at success. A study by the job accommodation Network showed that thirty-one percent of accommodations for employees cost nothing and that two thirds of accommodations are under five hundred dollars (Lord 27). This is not a high price to pay since employers are generally pleased with disabled workers. A 1987 Harris poll had shown that ninety-five percent of employers found that the disabled did not have a higher turn-over rate than other workers. Ninety-five percent of those polled thought that the needed accommodations were not too costly (Baldwin 50).
Finally, critics of the act claim that all of their expenses and difficulties have had little to no impact on the problems facing the disabled. They point to the statistic that employment among the disabled is down. Twenty-nine percent of disabled people are currently employed in contrast to thirty-three percent in 1986 before the ADA was passed (Pope 343). However, employment trends vary based on the national economy, so this statistic does not necessarily prove anything about the effectiveness of the ADA. A survey of the disabled population conducted by the National Organization on Disability showed that sixty-six percent of the disabled noted a general improvement since the act was passed. Seventy-five percent felt that access to public transportation had improved, and sixty-three percent felt that the ADA had helped to improve general attitudes about the disabled (Pope 343). A 1996 survey of the general population, released by the United Cerebral Palsy Association, established that ninety-six percent of Americans believed that the ADA impacted the lives of people with disabilities and eighty-two percent believed that public attitudes have improved (Hoover 139).
The Americans With Disabilities Act provides protection for the disabled in a manner consistent with the civil rights legislation of the 1960s (Wasserman 83). Forty-nine million Americans suffer from some form of a disability (Hoover 137). Before the ADA many Americans had no protection from discrimination and many of them lived in isolation and dependence (Reno and Thornburgh 23). The disadvantages faced by the disabled are caused by a combination of biology and social prejudice (Wasserman 85). The ADA provides the same protection for the disabled that the rights movement of the 1960s did for other minorities. The requirement of accommodations is intended to fight conscious and unconscious discrimination and to provide equal opportunities, not special privileges (Wasserman 84). Americans can afford the cost of accommodations. They cannot afford to ignore a population of people who have a great deal to offer this country. The ADA forces society to interact with the disabled, and in time Americans will realize that the gains they discover far outweigh the price of compliance with the ADA.