Within days after President Bush signed the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, Jan Galvin’s telephone began ringing off the hook.
Galvin, who works at the National Rehabilitation Hospital here, is an expert in “rehab engineering,” a specialty that involves designing homes and work sites to make them easier for the disabled to use. There are fewer than 500 people in the field in the United States.
Suddenly, Galvin’s services have been very much in demand.
ACTION REQUIRED: The new law, which prohibits discrimination against the disabled in the private sector, requires most businesses to accommodate disabled employees in the workplace. That means many companies will have to make structural changes in their facilities--such as installing wheelchair ramps or widening doorways--so that disabled workers can perform their jobs. Depending on a company’s size, it will have between two and four years to comply.
“There are millions of businesses around the country that have never had to come under such federal requirements before,” said Pat Wright, director of governmental affairs for the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund.
As a result, many employers have realized that they do not know how to make these changes and have begun to turn to those who do--people such as Galvin and her colleague, Donald W. Ross. A whole new consulting industry has begun to flourish, Galvin says. “These people need practical advice.”
Galvin and Ross are in a good position to offer their skills. Besides their work at the hospital, they have fashioned a program--under a grant from the Social Security Administration--designed to help people get off government disability rolls and come back into the work force.
“The rehab engineers really are in the best position to go out and make these recommendations,” Galvin said.
Like Galvin and Ross, architect Ron Mace of Raleigh, N. C., has experienced a surge in business. In 1973, he founded Barrier Free Environments, a company that specializes in what he describes as “universal design--which is usable by everyone all of the time.” He saw it then as the architectural way of the future--although, he notes, “not too many people were listening at the time.”
“This is something for everyone, everywhere,” Mace said. “This is what I’ve been waiting for. It came sooner than I thought it would, and I’m delighted.”
Mace said his company has never lacked for work, but, as a result of the new anti-discrimination law, his clientele has begun to change. Until recently, he said, it had consisted mostly of individuals, advocacy groups, governmental agencies or public institutions. Today, he said, it is “across-the-board"--including many private businesses. Mace said his firm has also been training other architects who have no experience in universal design and want to expand their work.
Most rehab engineers say that, contrary to the fears of many businesses, it need not cost much to make the kind of structural changes that are needed to accommodate the disabled.
“One company official called me and said: ‘It’s going to cost me $15,000 to lower all my drinking fountains,’ ” Wright recalled. “I suggested he go down to the local supermarket and buy a Dixie-cup dispenser for $1.98 and hang it low on the wall.”
Galvin agrees that accommodations need not be expensive. “They can be made very easily,” she said, “without making the place look like it’s been specially designed.”
Ross cites a 1982 study by Berkeley Planning Associates of one company’s experiences in modifying its facilities. In 51.1% of the cases--in other words, 458 workers--there was no additional cost whatsoever for making the necessary changes. For an additional 169, or 18.5%, the extra cost totaled between $1 and $99. The most expensive changes--for 15 employees, or 1.6% of the total disabled force--ran to $20,000 or more.
WORD OF CAUTION: To the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund’s Wright, the biggest fear--one shared by others in the field--is that the new law will spawn an industry of get-rich-quick consultants.
“I’ve already received at least 150 ads for training seminars around the country on how to understand the law,” she said.
Wright advises businesses to “hook up with the disabled community,” whose members can refer them to the experts. “If they talk to someone who is disabled, or a professional in the field, they will learn the shortcuts,” she said.