The Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against disabled people in the workplace and at public facilities, will see major revisions this fall that could translate into big changes — and big costs — for businesses as early as January of next year. If current proposals in Congress and from the Department of Justice (DoJ) stay on track, companies will have to take a hard look at everything from human-resources practices to building codes to make sure they maintain the “equal opportunity employer” designation.
At press time, the Senate was considering a bill that would broaden the definition of “disability” to include such afflictions as epilepsy and diabetes. The law would not pressure companies to hire more people with disabilities, but would give employees who qualify as disabled under the new definition more grounds to ask for special accommodations, or to press discrimination suits. “More employees would have a claim, [and] the difference is that they would be far more likely to win,” says Jeffrey F. Webb, a partner at McDermott Will & Emery LLP. The bill has already cleared the House.
Meanwhile, the DoJ is finalizing a long-awaited proposal that would transform guidelines for accessibility (governing all commercial buildings, including offices and retail spaces) into hard-and-fast rules.
The DoJ estimates that the changes will cost companies a combined $23 billion. Businesses are particularly eyeing an “all-or-nothing” provision in which any modification to an old building would trigger the need to update the entire facility to the new standard. “We’re concerned that [the rules] could retroactively impose massive new costs on companies,” says Mallory Duncan, senior vice president and general counsel for the National Federation of Retailers. The rules could take effect as early as March 2009.
New conditions that would be covered by a revised ADA
• Cerebral Palsy
• Mental Illness