Friday, June 20, 2008

Bush Proposal Seeks Greater Access for Disabled

The Bush administration is about to propose far-reaching new
rules that would give people with disabilities greater access to tens of
thousands of courtrooms, swimming pools, golf courses, stadiums, theaters,
hotels and retail stores.

The proposal would substantially update and rewrite federal standards for
enforcement of the Americans With Disabilities Act, a landmark civil rights
law passed with strong bipartisan support in 1990. The new rules would set
more stringent requirements in many areas and address some issues for the
first time, in an effort to meet the needs of an aging population and
growing numbers of disabled war veterans.

More than seven million businesses and all state and local government
agencies would be affected. The proposal includes some exemptions for parts
of existing buildings, but any new construction or renovations would have to
comply.

The new standards would affect everything from the location of light
switches to the height of retail service counters, to the use of monkeys as
"service animals" for people with disabilities, which would be forbidden.
The White House approved the proposal in May after a five-month review. It
is scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on Tuesday, with 60
days for public comment. After considering those comments, the government
would issue final rules with the force of law.

Already, the proposal is stirring concern. The United States Chamber of
Commerce says it would be onerous and costly, while advocates for disabled
Americans say it does not go far enough.

Since the disability law was signed by the first President Bush, advances in
technology have made services more available to people with disabilities.
But Justice Department officials said they were still receiving large
numbers of complaints. In recent months, the federal government has settled
lawsuits securing more seats for disabled fans at Madison Square Garden in
New York and at the nation's largest college football stadium, at the
University of Michigan.

The Census Bureau says more than 51 million Americans have some kind of
disability, with nearly two-thirds of them reporting severe impairments.
The proposed rules, under development for more than four years, flesh out
the meaning of the 1990 law, which set forth broad objectives. The
215,000-word proposal includes these new requirements:
Courts would have to provide a lift or a ramp to ensure that people in
wheelchairs could get into the witness stand, which is usually elevated from
floor level.

Auditoriums would have to provide a lift or a ramp so wheelchair users
could "participate fully and equally in graduation exercises and other
events" at which members of the audience have direct access to the stage.

-Any sports stadium with a seating capacity of 25,000 or more would have to
provide safety and emergency information by posting written messages on
scoreboards and video monitors. This would alert people who are deaf or hard
of hearing.

Theaters must provide specified numbers of seats for wheelchair users (at
least five in a 300-seat facility). Viewing angles to the screen or stage
must be "equivalent to or better than the average viewing angles provided to
all other spectators.

-Light switches in a hotel room could not be more than 48 inches high. The
current maximum is 54 inches.

-Hotels must allow people with disabilities to reserve accessible guest
rooms, and they must honor these reservations to the same degree they
guarantee other room reservations.

-6At least 25 percent of the railings at fishing piers would have to be no
more than 34 inches high, so that a person in a wheelchair could fish over
the railing.

-At least half of the holes on miniature golf courses must be accessible to
people using wheelchairs, and these holes must be connected by a continuous,
unobstructed path.

-A new swimming pool with a perimeter of more than 300 feet would have to
provide "at least two accessible means of entry," like a gentle sloping ramp
or a chair lift.

-New playgrounds would have to provide access to slides, swings and other
play equipment for children who use wheelchairs.

The Justice Department acknowledged that some of the changes would have
significant costs. But over all, it said, the value of the public benefits,
estimated at $54 billion, exceeds the expected costs of $23 billion.
In an economic analysis of the proposed rules, the Justice Department said
the need for an accessible environment was greater than ever because the
Iraq war was "creating a new generation of young men and women with
disabilities.

John L. Wodatch, chief of the disability rights section of the Justice
Department, said: "Disability is inherent in the human condition. The vast
majority of individuals who are fortunate enough to reach an advanced age
will benefit from the proposed requirements."

By 2010, the department estimates, 2 percent of the adult population will
use wheelchairs, and 4 percent will use crutches, canes, walkers or other
mobility devices. Likewise, it said, as the population ages, the number of
people with hearing loss will increase.

Under the 1990 law, businesses are supposed to remove barriers to people
with disabilities if the changes are "readily achievable," meaning they can
be "carried out without much difficulty or expense."

The Bush administration is proposing a safe harbor for small businesses.
They could meet their obligations in a given year if, in the prior year,
they had spent at least 1 percent of their gross revenues to remove
barriers.

Curtis L. Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights
Network, a coalition of legal advocates, said: "Safe harbors make us very
nervous. A small business could spend the requisite amount of money and
still not be accessible."

Randel K. Johnson, a vice president of the United States Chamber of
Commerce, said the proposed rules "are so long and technically complex that
even the best-intentioned small business could be found out of compliance by
a clever lawyer looking to force a settlement."

The Justice Department cited the "monetary cost cap" as one of several steps
it was taking to limit the rules' impact on small businesses. But Mr.
Johnson said he feared that courts would view the ceiling as a floor and
tell businesses they should spend 1 percent of their revenues on removing
barriers.

The proposed rules affirm the right of people with disabilities to use guide
dogs and other service animals in public places, but they tighten the
definition to exclude certain species.

When the existing rules were adopted in the early 1990s, the Justice
Department said, few people anticipated the current trend toward "the use of
wild, exotic or unusual species" as service animals.

The proposed rules define a service animal as "any dog or other common
domestic animal individually trained to do work or perform tasks" for a
person with a physical or mental disability.

Under this definition, the administration says, monkeys could not qualify as
service animals, nor would reptiles; amphibians; rabbits, ferrets and
rodents; or most farm animals.

Under the rules, a hotel, restaurant, theater, store or public park could
ask a person with a disability to remove a service animal if the animal was
out of control or not housebroken, or if it posed a direct threat to the
health or safety of others.

By way of example, the rules say that a theater could exclude a dog that
disrupted a live performance by repeated barking.The rules confirm that people with disabilities can use traditional wheelchairs, power wheelchairs and electric scooters in any public areas open to pedestrians.

But shopping centers, amusement parks and other public places could impose
reasonable restrictions on two-wheeled Segway vehicles, golf carts and
"other power-driven mobility devices" used by those with disabilities.

By ROBERT PEAR June 16, 2008 New York Times

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