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A Job Still to Be Done : For Many, Disabilities Act Hasn't Lived Up to Promise

July 26, 1994|STUART SILVERSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Many foresaw a social revolution two years ago when the sweeping civil rights law called the Americans With Disabilities Act took effect in the nation's larger workplaces. But for people such as Linda Sturgeon, 41, who suffers from disabling muscular dystrophy, freedom from job discrimination remains elusive.

Sturgeon says she could not get her old job back last year when--after having worked for her local telephone company in Rochester, N.Y., for 21 years--she took a five-month leave to recover from injuries suffered in an auto accident.

Her attorney, Lonny H. Dolin, contends that the company, which calls the situation "complicated," rebuffed Sturgeon because it wanted to eliminate the supposed extra costs of employing a disabled worker. Dolin said the pending legal dispute exemplifies the "truest reason" why the ADA, as the anti-discrimination statute is known, has been needed.

Yet the law, which expands today to cover workplaces with as few as 15 employees, is far from fulfilling one of its central promises: to bring disabled adults into the mainstream of American life by removing barriers to getting jobs. In California--where state law has long protected people with disabilities at firms with as few as five employees--the ADA has mainly heightened awareness of workers' rights.

Nationwide, the ADA has so far benefited only "a small group of people," said Guy Wallace, an employment discrimination specialist with Disability Rights Advocates, a nonprofit group in Oakland. With discrimination so deep-seated, he said, "it's going to take a while to make any headway."

Figures are scarce on how extensive joblessness is among the disabled, a group the federal government broadly defines to include nearly 49 million people. But according to a poll released last week by Louis Harris & Associates and the National Organization on Disability, two-thirds of working-age Americans with disabilities are jobless--roughly the same level a similar survey found eight years ago.

Disability rights activists hope the pace of change will soon pick up. With the ADA's expansion today, 86% of the work force will be covered. Under the previous cutoff level--firms with at least 25 employees--the law covered 77% of U.S. workers.

Among major employers, including many that two years ago feared lawsuits and high expenses from making required "reasonable accommodations" for disabled workers, the reviews on the ADA are mixed.

"Have there been screams of pain? No," said Susan Meisinger, a lawyer with the Society for Human Resource Management, a national association of personnel specialists. She quickly added, however, that there have been "pockets of abuse."

And although some employers complain about the sheer number of ADA cases, disability-related claims filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are still far less frequent than those alleging race and sex discrimination.

Over the long run, advocates for the disabled say, the ADA's benefits to society will far outweigh any burden on employers. "What's burdensome is paying $100 billion a year in welfare to people who should be working," Wallace said.

Yet ADA critics contend that the law has both failed to help the disabled and led to unjustified lawsuits against employers.

"It's just another law that people use when they are unhappy about being terminated," Los Angeles management lawyer Frank Cronin said, citing government figures showing that the largest number of ADA suits are filed by people who claim they were fired illegally.

Some experts contend that the broadening of the ADA's reach will open up nasty new legal battlefields. Big companies, the argument goes, typically have human-resources specialists and lawyers to coach them on how to adapt to the ADA. But small firms, they say, often lack the sophistication to stay on top of changes in employment law, making them potential targets for lawsuits.

Advocates for the disabled counter that, in most cases, wrongful-termination cases and other employment claims stem from genuine abuses by employers unwilling to accommodate disabled workers.

Dolin said her client, Sturgeon, found herself in just such circumstances when she tried to return to work as a repair service clerk at Rochester Telephone in April, 1993.

Sturgeon, as someone who occasionally needs help entering the office and getting in and out of her wheelchair, "is seen as a problem" by the company, Dolin said.

"My life has been taken away from me," Sturgeon said.

A Rochester Telephone spokeswoman declined to comment in detail. She said Sturgeon technically remains an employee and that, as a matter of policy, the company does not discuss legal claims by employees.

Dolin, a prominent disability plaintiffs lawyer, contends that enlightened employers can avoid such disputes. She cited another Rochester-based employer, Paychex Inc., and the way it has worked with John Hoyle, a quadriplegic who is a computer analyst with the company.

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