Lisa Carl waited in line with the rest of the moviegoers in her home town of Tacoma, Wash., but when she wheeled her wheelchair to the ticket booth, the owner of the theater shoved back her dollar.
"You can't go in," Carl, who is 21 and was born with cerebral palsy, remembers being told. "Move out of the way," the woman added.
The theater owner was just as blunt when Vickie Franke, Carl's mother, called her about the incident. "She can't even open the goddamn door," Franke says the woman told her. "I don't want her in here, and I don't have to let her in."
The theater owner stood her ground, Franke complained to the local human rights commission, and two years later, Carl still can't go to the theater around the corner from her home. But after a congressional conference committee puts the finishing touches on a disability rights bill that passed the House this week, there will be no more question: Carl will get in or the theater owner will be paying her attorney's fees.
The bill, which has already passed the Senate and has the strong backing of President Bush, will not only protect Lisa Carl from blatant acts of discrimination like the incident she told a congressional committee left her "crying inside."
It will also help her when she goes to look for the word-processing job for which she is training. It will increase her access to stores, banks, and restaurants. And eventually, it will enable her to get on every public bus and train.
For an estimated 43 million disabled individuals -- one-sixth of the population -- the Americans with Disabilities Act is a long overdue "Emancipation Proclamation" that extends to them the legal protections granted to racial minorities and women 26 years ago. For many of the four million businesses it will affect, it is a source of trepida- tion.
"I can't give you any numbers, but it will impose substantial costs," said Fred Krebs of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "There's a very real fear of the potential for litigation and the obligations it will impose."
The bill's impact will be measured not so much in ramps and grab bars, but in how employers, stores, banks, and other private businesses think about and treat the disabled.
The legislation, considered the most significant civil rights bill since the 1964 Civil Rights Act, envisions a degree of "accommodation" of the disabled well beyond what society has been willing to show.
Exactly how much accommodation is required is a question that even the bill's proponents acknowledge will be partly decided in the courts. The legislation states only that whatever constitutes an "un- due burden" on a business or an employer is too much. That standard, the bill says, will vary depending on the size and nature of the business.
A grocery store wouldn't have to label its items in braille but would be expected to train its employees to help the blind find what they need, according to drafters of the legislation. A neighborhood dry cleaners might have to adopt sidewalk service if, at minimum expense, the building could not be made accessible to those in wheelchairs.
A bank probably wouldn't have to hire an interpreter to communicate with deaf customers but employees would be expected to write notes. And if the teller windows are too high, the bank would be expected to station an officer at a separate table to serve those in wheelchairs.
Taxi cab drivers would be required to treat a wheelchair like a piece of luggage to put in the trunk. Hotels would have to find ways to alert deaf and blind customers of an emergency. Car rental agencies would have to equip a car with hand controls. And restaurants would be required to rearrange tables rather than simply adopting the policy: "we don't serve wheelchairs."
"When they tell me that, I tell them, 'Good, I wasn't planning on ordering one," says Patrisha Wright, a lobbyist for the Disablity Rights Education and Defense Fund.
Under a special provision for the deaf, phone companies will be required to provide a nationwide "relay" service that will use operators to translate written messages from deaf individuals who will use special phones with keyboards. AT&T Co. estimates that the service will add an extra three to five cents a month to everyone's phone bill.
The bill's effect on the workplace may be even more dramatic. Though the discrimination might be impossible to prove, the legislation would make it illegal for a clothing store or beauty salon to deny someone a job on the basis of a facial disfigurement.
The bill envisions that employers will remove architectural barriers, modify jobs, provide aides and alter work schedules for disabled employees, as long as the changes do not cause significant difficulty or expense.
As the legislation is written, a large law firm probably could not refuse to hire a blind attorney if the attorney is qualified to perform the work with the help of a reading assistant -- even if that added $20,000 to the firm's labor costs. A state health department probably could not turn down a deaf applicant who could perform the job with an interpreter.
If a would-be waiter with an artificial leg could handle five tables but not the usual station of seven, a restaurant owner might be required to bend his expectations. Other waiters might pick up the extra two tables while the disabled waiter sets up their trays, according to Robert Silverstein, chief counsel for the Senate Subcommittee on Disability Policy.
Such adjustments will call for a major shift in thinking for many employers. Joseph F. Danowksy, a blind attorney with a degree from Harvard Law School, wrote 1,800 job letters in 1985 when he went looking for a job with a corporation's legal department.
He told interviewers that he needed a reading assistant but
said the person could also do filing and other research tasks. If he had to work longer hours to keep up with the reading, Danowsky was willing.
The result? Not a single job offer.
Danowsky ultimately found a job with Bear Stearns & Co. but figures he would still be looking if he didn't have Harvard credentials. "Why should someone with a disability have to go to one of those schools to get a job?" he asked.
An individual claiming to have been unfairly denied a job can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, then can go to court. Individuals unfairly denied access can also file suit. The Justice Department can also sue if it determines there is
a "pattern or practice of discrim- ination" by a an individual busi- ness.
Experience with a 1973 law that banned discrimination against the disabled by federal agencies, contractors or recipients of federal aid provides the only suggestion of what the legislation might cost employers. A study of 367 federal contractors found that as a result of the law, 51 percent paid nothing and 30 percent paid less than $500 to accommodate the disabled. Only 8 of them percent paid more than $2,000.
The passage of the new disabilities bill represents the culmination of a long struggle by the disabled rights movements, which had to overcome two vetoes by then-President Nixon before it saw the 1973 legislation become law. A 1975 federal law ensured all disabled children access to schools. A 1988 amendment to the Fair Housing Act extended housing discrimination laws to the disabled.
With increasing militance, disabled groups stepped up their protests, demonstrating successfully for a deaf president at Galludet University and backing their wheelchairs against buses at a Greyhound terminal in Los Angeles that they can't use.
They joined together in a massive coalition that also included AIDS activists, who succeeded in extending the legislation's coverage to protect people with the AIDS virus.
Advocates for the disabled recounted to congressmen their horror stories, such as the children with Down's syndrome who were turned away from a New Jersey zoo a few summers ago because the zoo owner claimed they would upset the chimpanzees. But they also mounted an economic argument: with most disabled individuals unemployed, the government pays an estimated $60 billion a year to support them.
That was a point the prime movers of the bill could easily understand. Like President Bush, each has a close relative with a disability.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the prime sponsor on the Senate side, likes to tell how his deaf brother complained to him that the call button next to his hospital bed was broken. "I keep pushing for my medicine and no one comes," the brother said.
So Harkin pressed it, and a voice filled the room: "Hello. May I help you?"