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Disability law can build on 25 years

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Happy 25th birthday, Americans with Disabilities Act! The ADA, which was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990, guaranteed equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in public accommodations, employment, transportation, state and local government services and telecommunications.

In particular, Title I, which applies to private-sector businesses, has had a positive impact overall.

This is not to say that things have always moved smoothly. Unquestionably, it has led to increased litigation against employers. The whole issue of accommodating disabled employees can also pose a dilemma.

It is not always necessarily clear, for instance, what constitutes a reasonable accommodation to an employee or applicant's disability. Under the law, employers are not required to make an accommodation should it impose an “undue hardship” on the business, but questions can remain as to when an accommodation crosses that line.

Also a challenge is the expanded list of who is considered disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Amendment Act of 2008, which has grown to include the morbidly obese.

Future challenges include dealing with the issue of pregnancy, in light of the U.S. Supreme Court's March ruling in Peggy Young v. United Parcel Service Inc., in which the court held the Atlanta-based package delivery firm had acted unlawfully in refusing to accommodate a pregnant part-time workers' lifting restrictions while accommodating workers who were unable to work for other reasons.

There are also ongoing issues from the disabled worker's perspective. Advocates say that while the ADA has done a great job in helping people who become disabled keep their jobs, and in insuring current disabled workers' ability to get promotions, it remains difficult for visibly disabled applicants, such as the deaf or blind, to get hired initially. The unemployment rate for the blind, for instance, remains at around 62%.

But the law has also been highly effective in changing employers' mindset about the disabled and in providing well-intentioned employers with guidance on how to proceed.

Expanding the pool of qualified workers, disabled or not, can only help American business, beyond being the right thing to do. And the ADA has done a good job in setting American business along that path.