Disability Liability

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Some time this summer, the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on three cases involving the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the law banning discrimination against the disabled. The court's decision will help define who's covered by the law: the severely disabled or millions more with ailments like asthma and diabetes.

Corporate America, not surprisingly, worries that a broader definition will increase its responsibilities under the law-and lead to litigation hell.

Yet according to a 1998 study by the American Bar Association, employers win 92 percent of the time in ADA cases. And over the last few years, the number of cases brought by employees has actually declined.

Maybe that's because companies are doing better by their disabled employees. In a new survey of human resources managers by Cornell University's Program on Employment and Disability, 78 percent of respondents said their company had a disability management program that helped implement ADA regulations. Eighty percent reported that their organization made changes to existing facilities to accommodate disabled workers.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, roughly 21 percent of the total population, or 54 million people, have some level of disability. A person is considered disabled by the bureau if he meets any of a number of criteria, such as use of a wheelchair, difficulty with functional activities (seeing, hearing), or difficulty with daily-life activities (bathing, eating). Of the 15.2 million adults aged 21 to 64 with moderate disabilities, 77 percent, or 11.7 million people, are employed. They represent 10.3 percent of all employed persons aged 21 to 64.

Health-care benefits are a major concern for disabled workers-and their employers as well. But a full 87 percent of survey participants said that insurers did not deny benefits to employees or dependents with disabilities. The Cornell study also found that health, life, and disability insurance costs rarely rise because of hiring disabled people. While wrongful firing was cited as the claim most frequently filed against employers by disabled workers, 71 percent of respondents said their organizations had a dispute resolution process to handle disability issues instead of going to court.

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