PEOPLE BORN after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act probably look back with amazement to the time when, in the South,schools and hospitals were segregated by law, the races were separated on buses and trains and even the water fountains were designated black or white. The country went through great turmoil before those practices were changed. But eventually and after much resistance and struggle, society was transformed. The country became more just.

On Friday, the Senate completed action on a bill to ensure the rights of the disabled, and it promises to have some of the same kind of impact. The measure extends the protections of the 1964 law to 43 million Americans with physical or mental impairments. It will prohibit discrimination in employment based on disability. It will require places of public accommodation, like restaurants, hotels, theaters and stores, to be accessible to disabled patrons and will mandate the gradual replacement of buses and railroad cars with equipment that can accommodate the handicapped. It will make telephone services available for the deaf and speech-impaired, nationwide.

During the extensive debate on this bill there has been much discussion of the cost of implementing it. There is a key distinction to be made here. Before, all the costs of discrimination were borne by the disabled. Now they will be phased in gradually and spread widely to taxpayers and the consumers of goods and services. With no great strain, we suspect, those costs will be absorbed and accepted.

When the president signs this bill, as he has promised to do, millions who will directly benefit by its provisions will have cause for celebration. So will their fellow citizens; a new era of fairness and opportunity will begin.