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Disabled-Rights Bill To Bar Bias by Private Schools

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Washington--Private, nonsectarian schools--including those that accept no federal funds--would be barred from discriminating against the handicapped in employment and other areas under a bill moving quickly through the Congress.

The Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee unanimously approved the proposed "Americans with disabilities act" on Aug. 2. The 16-0 vote came only hours after Bush Administration officials and Senate leaders reached a compromise on the measure.

Observers say the Administration's backing, coupled with the committee's endorsement, makes the bill's passage likely this year.

The measure would prohibit discrimination against the disabled--including victims of aids or those infected with the virus that causes the disease--in private employment, public and private accommodations, and transportation.

Under the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, public schools and other agencies that accept federal funds are barred from discriminating against the handicapped in employment and are required to make their buildings accessible to disabled people.

The proposed bill would extend those requirements for the first time to a broader segment of society, including private, nonreligious preschools, precollegiate schools, and colleges and universities.

Robert Silverstein, a Senate aide who helped draft the bill, said private, nonsectarian schools would be covered under both the legislation's public-accommodations sections and its employment sections.

This would mean, for example, that private schools could be found to discriminate if they fail to hire qualified handicapped job applicants, if they set eligibility standards for students that tend to screen out disabled individuals, or if they fail to provide elevators in buildings of more than two stories.

It would also mean that private schools may have to buy buses with wheelchair lifts or other alterations necessary to accommodate disabled passengers. And public telephones in the schools would have to have special devices for hearing-impaired users.

Employers with fewer than 25 workers would not be affected by the law during its first two years. Thereafter, only employers with fewer than 15 employees would be exempt.

The bill provides a strong legal recourse to handicapped individuals who believe they have been discriminated against.

"We're watching it very carefully," said Joyce McCray, executive director of the Council on Private Education. "We obviously have very positive feelings about the purpose of the bill. But, certainly, we have schools that are going to suffer great hardship if the timetable is too demanding."

Ms. McCray said she was pleased that the compromise bill reported out of the Senate committee contained language that indicated some flexibility on the part of lawmakers.

The bill stipulates, for example, that private entities would be required to remove architectural barriers only when such a change is "readily achievable."

An earlier version of the bill also would have covered church-affiliated schools--a provision that prompted objections from a number of religious organizations, including the U.S. Catholic Conference.

Mr. Silverstein said religious entities were removed from the bill during last-minute negotiations with the Administration.

A companion bill in the House would still apply to religious schools, Ms. McCray said. But that bill must make its way through four subcommittees, and some House subcommittee aides said they expect the bill, in its final form, to closely resemble the Senate measure.

The Senate committee's vote was hailed by advocates for the disabled and by civic and civil-rights organizations. More than 200 groups support the measure.

Handicapped citizens were not among the groups protected by the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. And advocates for the handicapped have lobbied since then to extend the same benefits to the disabled.

"For 25 years, our handicapped citizens have been outside the umbrella of basic civil rights," said Senator Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who sponsored the Senate bill. "Today, we bring them in."

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