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What a small business needs to know about the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Everything you ever wanted to know about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)--here it is:

* ADA was created to eliminate attitudinal barriers (prejudice, myth, stereotype) toward people with disabilities in employment and to include them in "Main Street" USA.

* ADA was created to eliminate architectural, transportation, and communications barriers. ADA is designed to be "reasonable" to business; no modification is necessary that is not "readily achievable" or would cause "undue hardship."

That's all you need to know. That's it. Over. Done.

"Wait a minute," you say. "That can't be all there is to ADA. After all, my business is scared to death by this law. Aren't we facing costs in removing barriers that will put us out of business? And what about law suits if we make a mistake in hiring? This law can't be good for American business, particularly a small business like mine. Why on earth did it get passed?"

Would you believe that all these fears are groundless? If you put ADA to work in your business using common sense and a "treat others as you would wish to be treated" attitude, you might not only meet all the requirements of ADA but also create a more diverse and competent work force for your company. What's more, you may also find a new and growing target audience of customers who can enrich your bottom line.

If this all sounds too good to be true, you should be aware that many small businesses already know that recruiting and hiring people with disabilities makes sense. That's because the work force is changing and the traditional pool of applicants is simply not available. Smart companies are looking at the non-traditional work force, and that includes, besides women and minorities, people with disabilities.

Some Demographics

There are an estimated 43 million Americans with disabilities. About onethird work, but many millions more are capable and willing. The cost to the nation of neglecting people with disabilities as a viable work force has been enormous--an estimated $200 billion annually in public and private payments, according to White House statistics. What's more, another $100 billion is lost each year in unrealized wages and taxes. A very unfortunate bottom line, most business people would agree. Not to mention the waste of human potential.

These economic factors along with the civil rights issues of discrimination toward people with disabilities were the driving factors in the passage of ADA. Most people with disabilities who don't work, when asked why, say that employers perceive their disability as too significant to allow them to work effectively in a job. They say that this prejudice makes job seeking and acquiring employment impossible. Once again, negative attitudes on the part of potential employers gets in the way.

As a small business person, what else do I need to know to implement ADA? First, it is important to make your premises accessible to people with physical disabilities, and most--but not all--businesses are required to. However, removing physical barriers should be "readily achievable and easily accomplished without much difficulty or expense." Local independent living centers, rehabilitation agencies, and governor's and mayor's committees are excellent places to go for technical assistance. Many will not only assess and help you plan to make your premises accessible but will also conduct employee seminars and training.

Progressive companies see accessible buildings and public accommodations attracting potential new customers. Researchers who study the size of the market of people with disabilities claim that one out of eight Americans (12 percent of the population) currently has a physical or mental disability. Because of improvements in trauma care, medical interventions and rehabilitation, prenatal and neonatal care, and geriatric medicine for our growing population of elderly people, it is estimated that by the year 2000 one out of five Americans (20 percent of our population) will have a disability. This is a huge market to consider. Travel and retail organizations are already marketing to this new customer base and other industries are studying this market very carefully. The question many small business owners and managers are asking is, "How do we find out more about this market and attract these customers?" Many of the organizations mentioned earlier can help, along with business associations who are following this new consumer trend. Companies who have made modifications to attract customers with disabilities need to get the word out through signs and leaflets, and many are advertising. Some businesses train their staff in how best to serve a disabled customer and are seeing new business and repeat customers as a result.

"When it comes to hiring an employee with a disability, what else must I know?" First, the Americans with Disabilities Act is a civil rights anti-discrimination law, comparable to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which upholds the rights of women and minorities. There are very similar ground rules in ADA for recruiting, interviewing, job descriptions, hiring practices, promotion, and retention. Of course, there are differences, but after the golden rule, previous experience with anti-discrimination practice provides a solid base of understanding.

You need to know the definition of disability under ADA.

Disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, such as walking, talking, seeing, hearing, learning, breathing, or working; having a record of such an impairment; or being regarded as having one. Most people say they can much more easily understand this definition, which focuses on the functional limitation rather than the disability label, which can be vague or confusing.

Next, remember that a person with a disability must be able to perform the essential functions of the job. Essential functions must be tasks that are fundamental and intrinsic to the job rather than vague or general. Many companies are looking at job descriptions to be sure they describe what is done and how it is done.

It will help you to know about "reasonable accommodation." Reasonable accommodation on the job often makes it possible for people with disabilities to do the job. For a wheelchair user, reasonable accommodation first means being able to access the building, and then may mean assuring that a desk is the right height. Raising a desk to accommodate a wheelchair may mean using wooden blocks to prop it up and moving furniture to allow easy passage. You are required to provide reasonable accommodation only for an employee's or a potential employee's disabilities of which you are aware. Generally, it is the responsibility of the employee to tell you what accommodations are needed. This may mean restructuring the job, modifying work schedules, and/or providing aids or services. Employers who have experience with reasonable accommodation have found that, on the average, the cost of job accommodation is not high--around $500 being typical. Close to 90 percent of accommodation costs are less than $1,000 (This information comes from the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities' Job Accommodation Network).

What About the Hiring Process?

A few "do's" and "don'ts" in interviewing and hiring might be helpful after you have come to grips with the basics of ADA, essential requirements, and reasonable accommodation:

Do focus on the job requirements and the person's abilities.

Don't focus on the disability.

Do ask candidates if they can perform the essential job functions.

Don't ask whether the candidate has a disability or what the severity of it is.

Do allow potential workers to describe how they can perform a job.

Don't assume that doing the job is impossible.

Do allow the candidate to bring up reasonable accommodation. Generally, it's the responsibility of the job candidate to inform the employer.

Do expect the same job performance of an employee with a disability as anyone else.

Simply put, ADA is really about just two things. It's about "opening your minds" and "opening your premises." In sum, ADA is about attitude. An employer who understands this will look for the ability and not the disability. That is really what ADA is about and all you need to know.

The President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities serves as a national clearinghouse for technical assistance, resources, and information for employers and people with disabilities on ADA and accommodations in the home and workplace. For this information, listings of other resources, and much more, call the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) at 1-800-ADA-WORK (Voice/TDD). FAX:(304)-293-5407.

Mr. Douglas is Executive Director, President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, Washington, DC.
COPYRIGHT 1992 U.S. Rehabilitation Services Administration
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Douglas, Rick
Publication:American Rehabilitation
Date:Dec 22, 1992
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