Federal proposal would expand accommodations for disabled

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration is about to propose far-reaching new rules that would give people with disabilities greater access to tens of thousands of courtrooms, swimming pools, golf courses, stadiums, theaters, hotels and retail stores.

The proposal would substantially update and rewrite federal standards for enforcement of the Americans With Disabilities Act, a landmark civil rights law passed with bipartisan support in 1990.

The new rules would set more stringent requirements in many areas and address some issues for the first time, in an effort to meet the needs of an aging population and growing numbers of disabled war veterans.

More than 7 million businesses and all state and local government agencies would be affected. The proposal includes some exemptions for parts of existing buildings, but any new construction or renovations would have to comply.

The new standards would affect everything from the location of light switches, to the height of retail service counters, to the use of monkeys as "service animals" for people with disabilities.

The White House approved the proposal in May after a five-month review. It will be published in the Federal Register tomorrow, with 60 days for public comment.

It is already stirring concern. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says it would be onerous and costly; advocates for the disabled say it does not go far enough.

The Census Bureau says more than 51 million Americans have some kind of disability, with nearly two-thirds of them reporting severe impairments.

The 215,000-word proposal includes these new requirements:

* Courts would have to provide a lift or a ramp to ensure that people in wheelchairs could get into the witness stand.

* Auditoriums would have to provide a lift or a ramp so wheelchair users could "participate fully and equally in graduation exercises and other events" at which members of the audience have direct access to the stage.

* Any sports stadium that seats 25,000 or more would have to provide safety and emergency information by posting written messages on scoreboards and video monitors. This would alert people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

* Theaters must provide specified numbers of seats for wheelchair users (at least five in a 300-seat facility). Viewing angles to the screen or stage must be "equivalent to or better than the average viewing angles provided to all other spectators."

* Light switches in a hotel room could not be more than 48 inches high. The current maximum is 54 inches.

* A new swimming pool with a perimeter of more than 300 feet would have to provide "at least two accessible means of entry," like a gentle sloping ramp or a chair lift.

* New playgrounds would have to provide access to slides, swings and other play equipment for children who use wheelchairs.

The Justice Department acknowledged that some of the changes would have significant costs. But overall, it said, the value of the public benefits, estimated at $54 billion, exceeds the expected costs of $23 billion.

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