Revamped Disabilities Rights Bill on Fast Track Here's something that you don't often see in civil rights law — two opponents agreeing on a law that would extend civil rights protection to millions of people. Lobbyists for people with disabilities and the business community have done that. Both sides are trying to get Congress and the White House to go along with it.
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Revamped Disabilities Rights Bill on Fast Track

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Revamped Disabilities Rights Bill on Fast Track

Revamped Disabilities Rights Bill on Fast Track

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

There's expected to be a highly unusual outbreak of bipartisanship in Washington today. If all goes well it will result in a major piece of civil rights legislation. Two groups that have been at odds - people with disabilities and American businesses - have but aside their differences to design a bill that now seems on an improbable fast track through Congress, as NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: Earlier this year, Kerry McClure told a Congressional committee how he got hired to be an electrician at a General Motors plant in Texas. He explained how he quit the job he did have.

Mr. KERRY MCCLURE (Electrician): Sold my house, packed my bags, relocated my family from Georgia to Texas for the dream job I'd been trying to get my whole professional life.

SHAPIRO: But when McClure got to Texas, a company doctor discovered that he couldn't raise his arms above his shoulders, the result of a kind of muscular dystrophy he'd had since he was a teen. That disability hadn't stopped him from working as an electrician for more than 20 years. He simply used a ladder to reach high places. So when GM revoked the job offer, saying he was too disabled, McClure sued. Then GM argued in court that McClure wasn't disabled enough to sue using the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Mr. MCCLURE: Well, you can't have it both ways. Am I disabled or not? If I am, then the ADA should've been there to protect me.

SHAPIRO: But the courts agreed with GM and ruled against McClure. Judges pointed to a series of Supreme Court decisions that have limited who gets counted as disabled.

Mr. ANDY IMPERATO (American Association of People with Disabilities): It makes no sense for a person with muscular dystrophy to be told by a court that they're not disabled enough to be protected by the ADA. And if you went to any member of Congress who voted for the ADA in 1990 and you asked them, does this law protect people with muscular dystrophy, every one of them would say yes.

SHAPIRO: Andy Imperato runs the American Association of People with Disabilities. He and other advocates felt court rulings have made the employment protections of the disability civil rights law almost meaningless, especially to people with diabetes, epilepsy, cancer and mental illness. Last year, a court even ruled that a man with mental retardation was not considered disabled under the law.

So advocates for people with disabilities have talked about rewriting the civil rights law, even at the risk of giving opponents a chance to weaken it further. Last year a version of a bill quickly got support from more than half the House of Representatives. That forced the business community to negotiate.

Mr. MIKE AIKEN (Society for Human Resource Management): On occasion public policy works.

SHAPIRO: That's Mike Aiken with the Society for Human Resource Management. He was one of the key negotiators for business.

Mr. AIKEN: Many of us here in Washington, you know, it's much easier to be on the defensive and just say no to everything. And sometimes it's very difficult to reach compromise.

SHAPIRO: He says employers want to hire qualified workers with disabilities and businesses benefit when the law is clearly defined. The disability side gave up parts of its original proposal and agreed to a definition of disability that's a little more narrow than some disabled people wanted. But the result is that this morning two House committees will mark up the ADA Restoration Act. It's the version endorsed by the disability and business communities - two groups that have often been at bitter odds.

Kurt Decker heads the National Disability Rights Network, a group of public attorneys.

Mr. KURT DECKER (National Disability Rights Network): It has been truly an interesting experience to go on the Hill to meet with members and staff in conjunction with the business community. Most members care both about the disability community and protecting small business. So when you can offer them a response that seems to balance both of those constituencies, they really utter a collective sigh of relief.

SHAPIRO: That's why the bill is on a fast track through the House and possibly the Senate. If all goes smoothly it will get to President Bush by July 26. That's the 18th anniversary of the original ADA, which was signed into law by a key supporter - President George H. W. Bush.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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