Now, Dirty Harry Is Gunning for the ADA

Published: February 10, 2005  |  Source: businessweek.com
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I’ll apologize to no one for the Americans with Disabilities Act. It’s one of the greatest laws ever passed. The ADA covers all races, both genders — all working-age people with disabilities. Its purpose is to extend the prosperity and freedom of America to millions who historically have been denied jobs, access to public transportation, access to public places, and access to telecommunications products and services. The ADA is a civil-rights law that translates into economic rights. It guarantees that every American can work, pursue happiness, and purchase what they can afford.

That said, I cringe every time I see a story about lawyers’ abuses of the ADA. The latest: A May 9 article in the Wall Street Journal about actor Clint Eastwood’s campaign to get Congress to amend the law to give businesses more leeway to comply with it. Eastwood is livid that, as the owner of an historic, 32-room hotel and restaurant in Carmel, Calif., he along with hundreds of other small-business owners have been sued for failing to conform quickly enough with the accessibility requirements of the ADA. Repeated attempts to reach Eastwood at his hotel were unsuccessful.

It’s bad enough to have the guy who portrayed Dirty Harry in the movies gunning for the 10-year-old landmark act. But what’s most distressing to me is the amount of misinformation that is always thrown about whenever lawyers team up with disabled clients and start waving the ADA at business. This great law becomes a red flag, and it shouldn’t be.

SCARE TACTICS. From the onset, the ADA has been abused by the legal profession. Early on, lawyers developed training programs for companies on ways to get around the law. On the other side, grossly overweight people and some people with slight physical disabilities filed absurd claims that obesity and limited motions made them severely disabled. And a few judges made ludicrous rulings granting frivolous protections, in my view.

On the other hand, I know of more instances than I care to remember of businesses tearing into the ADA because of wrong information. Often, they have responded to their financial detriment. For example, the Wall Street Journal asserts that “under current law, lawyers can charge Mr. Eastwood or any noncompliant business owner $275 per hour of work from the day they file the suit…”

That’s just not true. The ADA makes no such provision that you’d have to pay a lawyer who sues you. That’s absurd. But lots of people just don’t know any better. The result: All too often, they find themselves in the middle of such legal shenanigans and become enemies of the law and of the people who support it. Lawyers count on scaring business owners when it comes to the ADA. They figure the small-business employer hasn’t got a clue about the law.

JUSTICE ON THE LINE. Let me pose this question for Clint Eastwood or any other small-business person who may have come to detest the ADA: Do you really know what your rights are? Have you checked? Do you know, for example, that small businesses with 15 or fewer employees are exempt from Title I of the ADA? Do you know that scores of expert information sources are available to you if you have a phone or a computer?

The federal government, in its efforts to assist employers in complying with the law, has established hot lines for businesses. Try 800 514-0301. That’s the U.S. Justice Dept., which will answer your questions from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., Eastern Time, Monday through Wednesday and on Friday. On Thursdays, you can call from 1:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Callers can also request publications on the ADA through this number. ADA fact sheets will be faxed or mailed directly to you.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which has enforcement authority for parts of the ADA, will respond to any questions at 800 669-4000. I called both agencies for this column and found the advice to be accurate and plentiful. The attitude certainly wasn’t antibusiness: Callers will find the people at the government agencies are willing to spend a lot of time with them to answer their questions. You can also find an ADA explanation section on the EEOC Web site (www.eeoc.gov).

MANY FORMATS. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is responsible for enforcing ADA Regulations for Title IV of the Act. You can call the office of public affairs at 202 632-7000 or the telecommunications device for the deaf number at 202 632-6999. Other major resources are the 10 Disability Business Technical Assistance Centers scattered throughout the U.S. The number to reach any of them is 800 949-4232. They’ll advise businesses on how to comply with the ADA. The DBTACs can also provide information on assistive-technology products and where to find them.

All information on the ADA is available in alternative communications formats, such as Braille, large print, and audio tape. The same printed information is available in Spanish.

Additional resources are the President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities (www.pcepd.gov), which contains scores of educational documents on the ADA. The National Organization on Disabilities (www.nod.org), which specializes in employer training for the ADA. And the American Bar Assn. in Washington, D.C., which can provide a list of ADA lawyers who could assist employers with questions and legal advice.

If Eastwood prevails in persuading lawmakers to open up the ADA again, the law should be strengthened, not weakened. Let’s clarify the gray areas and make it bolder. The ADA is a great law. Too bad many lawyers don’t understand that.

What do you think about this issue?
Visit BW Online’s Assistive Tech Forum and join in a discussion. Or drop John a line at JMMAW@aol.com
Edited by DOUGLAS HARBRECHT