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House OKs Disabled Rights Bill; Senate May Act Today


WASHINGTON — Acting with rare bipartisan accord, the House gave its final approval Thursday to legislation that would guarantee an estimated 43 million disabled persons the same job rights and access to public facilities enjoyed by other Americans.

The Senate is expected to approve the bill today and send it to President Bush, who has said he will sign it.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, hailed by its advocates as the greatest advance against discrimination since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, breezed through the House by a vote of 377 to 28.

However, a handful of conservatives said that the measure is a "nightmare" and that Congress eventually will be forced to repeal or revise its far-ranging provisions.

Every community in the nation would be affected by the bill's requirements to provide access to public and private facilities and every firm with 15 or more employees would be covered by its ban on discrimination in employment. Most provisions would not take effect for two years, however.

The bill's aim is to allow the disabled to hold jobs, live independently and travel on public transportation by removing barriers to wheelchairs and providing other assistance for those with physical or mental problems.

Although some business organizations complained that the sweeping legislation would raise costs and spawn a flood of lawsuits, advocates of the measure contended that it would increase employment, reduce welfare payments and help change age-old prejudices against the disabled.

With surprisingly strong support from nearly every part of the political spectrum and with the backing of the Bush White House, the complex legislation moved slowly but inexorably to passage in a single session of Congress.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), the bill's chief advocate, called it a "declaration of independence" for the disabled. Other proponents said that it was a natural extension of earlier disability rights laws designed to improve access to housing and forbid discrimination in federally funded activities.

Controversy over a provision previously passed by the House that would have allowed the transfer to other jobs of food-handlers infected with the AIDS virus continued until the final hours of debate.

An attempt to restore the provision--dropped by a Senate-House conference committee--was rejected by a vote of 224 to 180. It had been approved earlier in the House by a 199-187 margin. The Senate, reversing itself, rejected the same provision Wednesday in a 61-39 vote.

Opponents argued that there is no medical evidence that AIDS--or the human immunodeficiency virus that causes it--can be transmitted through food.

However, advocates of the provision said that even mistaken public perceptions about risks posed by an AIDS-infected kitchen worker could be harmful to restaurant owners.

The legislation approved by the House includes a substitute provision that would require the secretary of health and human services to compile a list of contagious diseases that can be transmitted by food handlers and make it public within six months.

Another part of the bill would permit employers to discharge anyone with an infectious disease who is a "direct threat" to public health or safety.

The legislation would address several key problems faced by the disabled:

--Employment. The bill bans job discrimination because of disabilities and requires employers to make "reasonable accommodations" for those with handicaps, but it allows an exception for changes that would bring "undue hardship." Coverage would apply in two years for employers of 25 or more and in four years to employers of 15 or more. Drug users were specifically excluded from the bill's protection.

--Public accommodations. Although it is patterned on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the bill goes well beyond that landmark law because it applies not only to restaurants, lodging places, amusement parks and gasoline stations but also to museums, sports stadiums, doctors' offices, hospitals, groceries, dry cleaners and all other retail or service establishments. It requires that new and renovated retail facilities must be accessible to those with disabilities and that "readily achievable" modifications must be made in existing establishments.

--Transportation. Under the bill, all new buses and rail cars must be made accessible to the disabled. Wheelchair lifts must be put on new buses, but the bill does not require modification of existing vehicles.

--Telecommunications. A major section of the bill would require special relay systems to make the equivalent of telephone services available to those with speech and hearing impairments.

The bill, originally introduced by former Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), was put in the care of Hoyer when Coelho resigned from Congress last year rather than face an investigation of his personal finances.

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