Legal assault Featured

9:36am EDT July 22, 2002

The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed 10 years ago, and has been under constant attack, mainly from business groups, ever since.

Even now, a bill known as the ADA Notification Act sits in committee. The bill would require people to give 90 days notice before they could sue for noncompliance. They would have to write a letter to the company explaining that it is in noncompliance and telling it what measures need to be taken to rectify the situation.

"The interesting thing to me is that no other civil rights action requires such a notice," says Linda Mastandrea, a legal expert who has litigated several precedent-setting disability discrimination cases.

There are several factors contributing to the challenges against the ADA.

"There is a strong antifederal move in general happening," says Mastandrea. "The Supreme Court turned age discrimination on its head, and the ADA may follow suit."

The Supreme Court has yet to hear a challenge to the constitutionality of the ADA, but one is pending. Several other cases settled before reaching that level. In the current case, six state governments have filed briefs supporting the anti-ADA side, illustrating the amount of resistance the ADA is facing.

"There was such a great deal of positive energy with the passage of the ADA back in 1990," says Mastandrea. "The disability community didn't think it was the end-all, be-all, but saw it as a really forward step and a good move. But you look at what's happened -- 85 to 90 percent of employment-related cases tried under the ADA are found in favor of the employer. It's not doing what was intended, and it's not having the results we thought it would.

"It may end up getting torn down all together. It's not necessarily an attack on people with disabilities, but a part of a larger antifederal movement."

Mastandrea says she worries that if the ADA is eliminated, people with disabilities will be at the mercy of a multitude of city and state regulations that have no consistency.

While businesses have been very vocal against the ADA, Mastandrea says they may be missing opportunities.

"Businesses do not see people with disabilities as consumers with money to spend," says Mastandrea. "It doesn't make business sense. Employers are not seeing them as a viable consumer niche. They are afraid to spend money on a ramp or widening their aisles or installing an elevator. They don't see the potential for return."

Unemployment is also higher among the disabled than it is among other groups, but many disabled people are qualified to do various jobs.

"Everyone talks about this great labor shortage, about the lack of skilled workers, but many qualified candidates are sitting at home," Mastandrea says. "Employers are really missing the boat here." Todd Shryock (tshryock@sbnnet.com) is SBN's special reports editor.