U.S. proposes detailed new rules to open offices, businesses to disabled


WASHINGTON -- The federal government proposed sweeping rules yesterday under which stores, restaurants, banks, theaters, hotels and offices must take specific new steps to accommodate people who are disabled in any way.

The stated purpose of the rules is to make sure that any new or redesigned "places of public accommodation and commercial facilities," including everything from baseball bleachers to automated teller machines, will be "readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities."

The standards would carry out the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which established comprehensive civil rights protections for people who are blind or deaf, use a wheelchair or are otherwise disabled. In passing the law, Congress estimated that 43 million Americans had one or more physical or mental disabilities.

The law prohibits discrimination in general terms. The rules, scheduled to take effect next January, specify how thousands of businesses must consider the needs of the disabled in new construction.

The rules would not require immediate changes in existing buildings. But if any portion of a building is remodeled or renovated, that portion would have to be made accessible to disabled people.

The rules, to be published today in the Federal Register, are full of detail. Here are some examples:

* Disabled people, including those in wheelchairs, must have full

access to all checkout aisles in grocery and other retail stores.

* At least 5 percent of the tables in a restaurant or a library must be accessible to people with disabilities, and two-thirds of the eating area should be accessible.

* A new mathematical formula must be used to calculate how long elevator doors must stay open to accommodate people who use wheelchairs, walkers or crutches.

* Concert halls, theaters and conference rooms must offer special earphones or other listening devices to assist people with hearing impairments. Likewise, hotels and office buildings must have "visual alarm signals," like flashing lights, to indicate a fire or other emergency to people who cannot hear the ring of a bell or a siren.

Businesses say they fear the costs of compliance could be high. But Lawrence W. Roffee, executive director of the U.S. States Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, the agency that drafted the rules, said, "We don't think accessibility is expensive."

The features needed to make a building accessible to disabled people increase total construction costs by less than 1 percent, he said, and that increase is more than offset by the new business made possible when disabled people have full access to the building.

Susan A. Castle of Phoenix, one of 23 members of the compliance board appointed by the president, said, "These guidelines mean that 43 million Americans with disabilities will be able to participate in nearly everything the country has to offer."

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