A proposal to include handicapped persons under Fairfax County laws prohibiting discrimination against minorities and women has drawn heavy fire from businessmen, who say the regulations are vague and could cost them hundreds of dollars.
The ordinance would outlaw discrimination in hiring and would require many businesses to have special accommodations for handicapped workers and customers.
"The Chamber of Commerce is concerned with the rights of the handicapped," said chamber president Phillip M. Reilly during a recent public hearing on the proposed ordinance. "But we also owe an obligation to our members to ensure that a remote bureaucracy is not setting unrealistic guidelines and goals."
The law could require employers to simplify jobs so that retarded persons could qualify for them, to teach sign language to a deaf worker's supervisor or to provide a reader for a blind employe, according to staff reports explaining the proposed regulations.
It also could require businesses to make facilities used by all employes accessible to the handicapped by installing ramps, widening aisles and remodeling bathrooms.
Although several federal and state laws prohibit discrimination against the handicapped, some local officials argue that these laws often are not enforced and offer little recourse to persons who think they have been victims of discrimination.
Federal laws apply primarily to agencies and businesses that receive federal money, said Peter Clark, a member of the Commission for the Handicapped, which was formed four years ago by the county Board of Supervisors to study the problems of the disabled.
The commission estimates that about 10 percent of Fairfax County's population, or about 69,500 persons, have mental or physical disabilities.
The Fairfax County Human Rights Commission, which enforces local discrimination ordinances, receives about 36 complaints a year from handicapped persons, according to staff member Fred Allen.
"But we have no authority to do anything about the complaints," said Allen. He cited a recent example in which a job applicant contacted an employer by telephone about a clerical opening.
"The applicant showed up in a wheelchair, and all of a sudden the job was not available," said Allen.
County officials have been working almost two years on drafts of the amendment to the human rights ordinance. Although county supervisors are scheduled to vote on the proposed amendment at their meeting next Monday, staff members still are trying to work out compromises with local businessmen and say they may ask the board to postpone action.
Chamber president Reilly argued that the proposed law may end up punishing all businessmen in the county for the mistakes of a few biased employers.
"It's a question of whether you levy burdens on the entire business community," Reilly said.
The two most controversial provisions of the law would require employers to:
Hire without discrimination on the basis of a handicap, if a person is qualified for the job;
Make reasonable accommodations in the workplace for handicapped employes, without undue hardship or undue expense to the business.
According to Reilly and other businessmen, such regulations are "too vague, and open to abusive interpretation that would lead to counterproductive results."
Although county officials said they don't know how much discrimination complaints might increase under such a law, they estimate the Human Rights Commission will need $42,000 more each year to handle the larger workload.
That would include $4,000 to renovate the white frame building that houses the commission to make it physically accessible to handicapped persons.
Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland, the District of Columbia and the City of Alexandria already have discrimination ordinances to protect handicapped persons.
About a fifth of the discrimination cases handled by the Montgomery County Human Relations Commission involve handicapped persons, according to reports compiled by Fairfax County officials. More than half of those cases involve employment; others are related to housing and public accommodations.
In Prince George's County, complaints from handicapped persons comprise about 15 percent of the discrimination cases; and in Alexandria, cases involving the handicapped total 9 percent of the caseload.