WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court today set the stage for an important ruling on handicapped rights by agreeing to decide whether airlines may discriminate against the disabled.
The justices said they will review a ruling, challenged by the Reagan Administration, that the government must guarantee the rights of handicapped air travelers.
A decision by the high court is expected by July.
On Jan. 18, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals here ruled that commercial airlines are covered by a 1973 law that bans discrimination against the handicapped by anyone receiving federal aid.
The three-judge panel ordered the Department of Transportation to draw up rules to assure that the rights of the handicapped aboard planes will be protected.
Organizations representing the disabled said the appeals court ruling would not require major spending by the airlines but would have a big impact on helping the handicapped.
Lawyers for the handicapped rights groups said the proposed rules would be aimed at eliminating, for example, "arbitrary and humiliating practices" of some airlines that require blind travelers to sit on blankets for fear they will be incontinent because they cannot get to a toilet.
Waivers Against Damage
The groups also said that airlines have barred some handicapped people from traveling at all or require them to travel with an attendant. They said some airlines require the disabled to sign waivers excusing the airline from liability for damage to wheelchairs.
In its ruling, the appeals court said the law applies to the airlines because they benefit from the government's air traffic control system, which costs taxpayers more than $2 billion a year.
The lower court said the government also helps make air travel possible by providing aid to airport operators.
The government appealed the ruling to the full appeals court, and by a 7-3 vote it refused to review the three-member panel's decision.
In another case today, the court set the stage for a potentially sweeping ruling over whether property owners are entitled to be compensated when local governments prevent land development. The justices said they will review an appeal by a group of stymied developers of residential housing in Yolo County, Calif.
A land development group--MacDonald, Sommer & Frates--purchased 40 acres of land near the city of Davis in 1971. City and county officials have prevented the group from developing the property by denying the developers access to existing streets and by refusing to provide sewage disposal and police and fire protection services.