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Freeing the Disabled From Bias

Legislation to protect the disabled from discrimination in the private sector and in public accommodation is moving toward final adoption in Congress, with the encouragement of President Bush. It is an appropriate and long-needed extension of the protections already provided by the 1973 Rehabilitation Act.

The protections of existing legislation are provided only in connection with federal institutions and programs and those that receive federal support. The new law, called the Americans with Disabilities Act, covers all other areas, in much the same way that the 1964 Civil Rights Act set a national standard against discrimination based on race.

The new law would cover the workplace, transportation, hotels and restaurants, opening new opportunities to an estimated 43 million Americans who now often encounter discriminatory barriers in their lives. The number of those to be protected is large, because the definition of disability specifically includes those with contagious diseases, a provision that would address the growing population infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS. In this way, the new law would in effect implement one of the most important recommendations of the Presidential Commission on the Human Immunodeficiency Virus Epidemic, which called last year for federal protection against discrimination.

The legislation has run into stiff opposition from some business interests and from those who oppose anti-discrimination protections for persons with HIV infections. We disagree with those in the business community who feel that the required standards will make American businesses, and particularly small businesses, less competitive. There are protections written into the legislation to guard the businesses from “undue hardship.” And we certainly disagree with those who oppose protections for those with HIV or other infectious diseases. It is fear of discrimination that has driven many people to conceal their infections, placing others at risk, or to resist having a test for HIV, placing both themselves and others at risk.

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Some further amendments are expected as the legislation moves to final Senate action in August. It will be important, in that process, to see that the act’s basic protections against discrimination are preserved. They are an extension of protections that go to the heart of the American concern for personal freedom and opportunity.


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