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Enabling the disabled.

Enabling The Disabled

The New Disabilities Act's Scope Rivals 1964 Civil Rights Legislation In Affecting Businesses, Big And Small

One of an estimated 300,000 disabled Arkansans, Veronica Haverluk hasn't let her diminutive size stop her from getting a job.

A 4-foot, 2-inch dwarf, Haverluk works as a grocery checker for Harvest Foods in North Little Rock with the aid of a special foot-high elevated box that allows her to reach the cash register.

"I'm just trying to hold down a job, -- I do my best," Haverluk says with spunk of the challenge of working with customers who tower over her.

Soon Haverluk's success story may be repeated across Arkansas because of the passage this month of what many are saying is the most far-reaching piece of legislation since the Civil Rights Act of 1964: The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

The ADA's goal is to rapidly bring disabled workers into the work force, and the onus is on businesses to pave the way. Nobody knows for sure how much it will cost, nor how extensive it will be. But some Arkansas businessmen already know they don't like it.

Willing, But Not Able

"These requirements are a major mistake," says the manager of a distribution center with 50 employees. "This is the wrong way to get the employer's cooperation. Then they're going to require health insurance and disability insurance. I can't afford all that."

The employer, who asked not to be identified because of his mixed feelings on the issue, says, "We have made a sincere effort to involve ourselves in that level of the community. We have tried harder than the disabled worker has."

On two earlier occasions, the distribution manager has tried and failed to incorporate several disabled employees into his workforce. "We have not had anyone make it yet," he notes. Undaunted, he's trying again. With two disabled persons on his staff now, maybe the third time will be the charm.

ADA essentially prohibits discrimination against job applicants on the basis of a mental or physical disability. For Arkansas' 2,000 or more small businesses with 25 or more employees, the act will have an immediate impact as they are forced to upgrade their workplace to accommodate disabled workers.

Because of the ADA's vague wording, it will take years of compromise and probable litigation before the full impact of the legislation is determined. What is certain is that every businessman in the state will have contact with the law and its advocates in the coming months.

Proponents repeatedly say the law will do for the disabled what the Civil Rights Act did for minorities. In fact, the ADA goes one step further than the Civil Rights Act: not only does it require that businesses and public places not discriminate based on disability, but they must also take "reasonable" measures to "accommodate" the disabled. At this point however, the bill does stop short of affirmative action, and employers will not have to actively recruit the disabled or meet quotas.

Companies with 25 or more employees are accountable immediately, a departure from the standard grace period which follows such legislation. Companies with 15 or more employees have two years to decipher the act. Meanwhile the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will begin work on the fine tuning.

Businesses Frightened

Rehabilitation worker Jess Wilson says that "businesses will be cautious, and perhaps a little bit frightened" by the new law. "The first thing we'd like to do is dispel that," he says.

Wilson, director of the Association of Rehabilitation Industry and Business, which works closely with the state rehabilitation department, contacted over 5,000 businesses last year and placed 55 percent of 1,403 referrals. The workers had a variety of disabilities and went to work in positions, such as food service, park rangers, and teachers, at salaries as high as $17,000.

Several Arkansas businesses, among them Southwestern Bell, Tyson Foods, Wendy's, Days Inn and Maybelline, have already been recognized for their willingness to hire and work with the disabled. For the most part, the employers have been pleased with the workers.

Mike Marcussen, human relations manager for Harvest Foods, explains, "We really don't look at these folks as having particular problems." In fact, because they don't think of these workers differently, the company doesn't keep figures on how many disabled workers are employed.

After a few quick phone calls to local store managers, Marcussen had counted 15 employees. "Our management is very complimentary of these employees. They are genuinely hard workers, very dependable, and express a very friendly tone in serving the public."

So what exactly will Arkansas businesses have to do to comply with the ADA? Unfortunately, the ADA does not define "reasonable accommodation." It does say that employers will not be required to bear "undue hardship," but that's as opaque as gauze.

Frank Swift, an attorney with Advocacy Services Inc., says one standard yardstick will probably be the expense involved and the amount of disruption to normal operations. The size and nature of the individual business will also be considered.

The act does include some examples of what might be expected: part-time or modified work schedules, acquisition or modification of equipment, and improvement of facility accessibility. An employer could even be required to provide a worker's helper, such as an interpreter or a reader.

A Success Story

The ADA legislation hopes to make success stories like George Hart's commonplace.

Hart had been an engineer at Garver and Garver before a hunting accident left him completely blind. After 11 months of training at the Lions World Services for the Blind in Little Rock, Hart is working today with the aid of personalized speech software in the computer division of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department.

The LWSB hopes to consult with businesses as they try to understand the ADA and find qualified workers. They have created a Technology Access Center, a resource center for information and hands-on experience with adaptive aids. This is in addition to their numerous training classes, such as a program operated with the Internal Revenue Service, where nearly 100 percent of the graduates are placed in agency jobs.

To help defray the cost of hiring the disabled there are still some tax credits available for employers. "The Targeted Jobs Tax Credit Acts is one of the last direct tax credits left," says Wilson. Forty percent of wages paid, up to $6,000 in wages per employee, or $2,400, can be returned directly to the employer's pocket. The tax credit is good through Sept. 30, and is expected to be renewed again.

Another spin-off of the ADA, Wilson believes, could be more customers for businesses, so it may not be all bad news. While all Arkansas businessmen may not agree with it, the quagmire called ADA is now out there.

Wilson concludes: "It's not going to be a fast process, no doubt about that. Over the long run, though, it will mean more and better things for businesses and more and better things for the disabled."

PHOTO : OVERCOMING DISABILITY: Ramona Sangalli, director of vocational services at Lions World Services For The Blind, demonstrates an adaptive aid for voice input to Barbara Jones, a blind student from North Carolina.
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Title Annotation:The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 brings the disabled into the work force and small businesses must make way for them
Author:Ford, Kelly
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Jul 30, 1990
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