Amid rare displays of personal emotion, the Senate gave final approval yesterday to landmark legislation barring discrimination against an estimated 43 million Americans with physical and mental disabilities and sent the bill to President Bush, who is expected to sign it.
The legislation, described by sponsors as a long-overdue "emancipation proclamation" for the disabled, was overwhelmingly approved by the Senate after several members spoke with deep emotion of the importance of the legislation to brothers, sisters and children in their own families.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, which would give the disabled the same civil rights protections in jobs, accommodations and services that currently apply to minorities, women and the elderly, was approved by the Senate by a vote of 91 to 6. The House, voting 377 to 28, approved it late Thursday.
The way was cleared for final action on the measure when House-Senate negotiators agreed Thursday morning to a Senate proposal to drop a contentious provision that would have allowed employers to transfer workers with AIDS out of food-handling jobs.
On the Senate floor yesterday, Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) visibly struggled with their own emotions as they told their colleagues of close relatives who were inspirations to them in spite of -- or because of -- their disabilities.
Simultaneously speaking and giving his summation in sign language in tribute to an older brother who is deaf, Harkin, the bill's sponsor, said it "sends the world a clear and unequivocal message that people with disabilities are entitled to be judged on the basis of their abilities -- and not on the basis of ignorance, fear and prejudice."
"America will be a better place because of the action we take today," said Hatch, who fought back tears as he told of the inspiration he drew from a brother-in-law who was stricken by polio and slept nights in an iron lung after working every day until his death.
Kennedy told of his mentally retarded sister, Rosemary, and his son, Ted, who lost a leg to cancer. He also paid tribute to the years of lobbying efforts by activists for the disabled, some of whom sat in the visitors' gallery, some listening from wheelchairs or watching the sign language interpreter, who had been relaying the entire debate. They broke into applause when the final roll call was read.
The bill would expand the access of disabled people to jobs, public accommodations, a wide range of retail and service establishments, and to transportation and communications systems.
While the disabled have been protected against discrimination in federally funded activities and in housing by earlier legislation, they were not among those covered by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which banned discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion and national origin in employment and public accommodations. The new legislation goes beyond the 1964 law by broadening the accommodations protections to include services ranging from museums, theaters and sporting events to doctors' offices, hospitals and pharmacies, which would have to be made accessible to the disabled.
It would cover people with physical or mental disabilities that "substantially" inhibit their activities, including people who have AIDS or are infected with the virus. However, it does not extend protections to those who are disabled by use of illegal drugs.
Employers would be prohibited from discriminating against disabled workers in hiring and promotion so long as they can carry out "essential" job responsibilities. They would have to make "reasonable accommodations" for disabled workers to perform in jobs for which they are qualified so long as the accommodations do not involve "undue hardship" to the employer.
The job provisions would take effect in two years for employers with 25 or more employees and four years for those with 15 or more. Businesses with fewer than 15 workers would be exempt from the new rules.
Newly constructed or renovated buildings would have to be accessible to the disabled; others would have to make only "readily achievable" modifications.
Newly purchased or leased buses, subway and commuter train cars would also have to be accessible, although retrofitting of existing vehicles is not required. Railroad operators, including Amtrak, would have to have at least one accessible car per multi-car trains within five years, and train platforms would have to be made accessible within three years.
The bill also requires telephone companies to provide relay services so people with speech and hearing impairments can use the systems.
While there is no official estimate of costs of compliance, Hatch said it will be expensive and warned that the government should consider costs, especially to small businesses, in drafting regulations to carry out the law. But he also agreed with Harkin that the entire economy will benefit ultimately from the productivity of disabled workers and their decreased reliance on the government for support.
Senators who voted against the bill were Republicans Christopher S. Bond (Mo.), Jake Garn (Utah), Jesse Helms (N.C.), Gordon J. Humphrey (N.H.), Steve Symms (Idaho) and Malcolm Wallop (Wyo.).