Civil rights act for the disabled promises big changes -- and anxiety Some firms resist new rules, others embrace them


In the early 1980s, when she applied for a nursing position at a major university in Baltimore, Maria Turley received a letter that she considered just plain unbelievable.

It said, "We can't hire you because you're in a wheelchair," she recalled. Ms. Turley, a 42-year-old Columbia resident who has multiple sclerosis, laughed.

"Not real bright," she said. "Big-time stupid!"

She informed the university's affirmative-action department that the letter violated the federal anti-discrimination law. Because she wasn't "real anxious" to get the position, she didn't pursue legal action, she said.

On July 26, the federal government made it much more difficult for large businesses to discriminate against the 43 million disabled Americans.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), businesses with 25 or more employees must make "reasonable accommodations" -- such as adding ramps and widening doors -- so the workplace is accessible to disabled workers and applicants. The employers are also prohibited from discriminating against qualified people with mental or physical disabilities.

The civil rights law will cover employers with 15 or more employees beginning July 26, 1994.

For Ms. Turley, the law gives her some hope. She works part-time as a registered nurse for the Athelas Institute in Columbia.

Finding full-time employment as a nurse has been difficult, she said. Once prospective employers see she is in a wheelchair they don't hire her, she said. It is also difficult to find handicapped parking spaces and accessible restrooms.

"I'm hopeful that it will make a difference in the lives of those of us who are disabled and yet would like to continue working as long as we're able to," said Ms. Turley.

Ms. Turley said that she is skeptical about the law's impact, however. Being in a wheelchair makes her feel like an outcast, and she always anticipates people's worst responses.

"You can pass all the legislation in the world, but you can't change people's attitudes. They are afraid," she said.

Companies fear employees "wouldn't feel comfortable" around the disabled and big expenditures for health insurance in a tight economy, Ms. Turley said.

Fortunately, she said her company is sensitive to her needs and is accessible. "That's the exception rather than the rule," she said.

Under ADA, companies must make an effort within their budgets to comply with ADA. If they don't, workers may file complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to seek back pay. Civil penalties may not exceed $50,000 for the first offense.

Critics have said that the law will be costly to companies and that it is vague in many aspects.

Among businesses making changes to comply with ADA is Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. of Maryland.

The subsidiary of Bell Atlantic Corp. has made physical modifications and has created a new position called "job accommodations specialist" to determine what "reasonable accommodations" mean for its employees, said Donora Dingman, manager of external affairs.

"We certainly believe in equal opportunity in hiring, and for that reason we have made modifications," Ms. Dingman said.

The Rouse Co. of Columbia has also made changes.

The company, which owns 194 office, retail and village centers across the nation, formed an eight-member committee in January to develop an extensive survey to learn how its properties comply with ADA.

The Mall in Columbia, for instance, has wide entrance doors and curb cuts. But its restrooms need to be modified, said Cathy Lickteig, a company spokeswoman. The overall accommodations could cost Rouse "large sums ofmoney," she said. "It's not a vacuum. You just can't pull large sums of money out of the air."

Currently, Rouse is revising its job descriptions and installing quick changes -- lowering public telephones and providing curb cuts, for example.

Additionally, Rouse held seminars to teach managers how to be sensitive to discrimination, Ms. Lickteig said.

"We are trying to meet the letter of this law and exceed the letter of this law," she said.

The Howard County Department of Disabilities Services, meanwhile, is distributing free packets to inform local companies about ADA.

"A lot of businesses are scared out of their wits," fearing litigation and big receipts, said Ann Wicke, the department's coordinator.

The average cost is $250 per change, and 50 percent of the changes cost nothing, she said. Tax credits are available for companies that make structural changes.

"Making these accommodations in business . . . is good business. It invites people with disabilities in," Ms. Wicke said. She thinks businesses in the county are willing to make the changes. Many have included handicapped parking spaces, for example.

"Businesses recognize it's good business to do this and not just to save them from litigation and complaints," Ms. Wicke said.

At Eyre Bus and Travel Limited in Glenelg, wheelchair lifts have been installed on five coaches for disabled commuters. Ramps, wider doorways and accessible restrooms were added to the facility last year in anticipation of ADA.

"We try to stay ahead of everybody," said Jocelyne Harding, Eyre's director of human resources. "That's what customer service is all about."

More than $20,000 was spent on physical modifications at Allied Signal Aerospace Technology Center in Columbia, which employs 200 workers, said Teri Harrison, director of human resources.

Allied began lowering water fountains and making other modifications last year when it learned about the coming law, Ms. Harrison said.

Employing disabled workers is a plus, Ms. Harrison believes. In fact, one of the company's talented managers uses a wheelchair.

"We hired him for his mind, not his ability to walk," she said.

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