WASHINGTON -- The Senate, spurred by emotional speeches from the floor, overwhelmingly approved a measure safeguarding the civil rights of the nation's 43 million disabled people and sent it to President Bush, who has promised to sign it.
The Senate's 91-6 vote on the Americans with Disabilities Act followed Thursday's 377-28 vote in the House.
Rarely has the Senate seen as much emotion flow as normally feisty senators described in deeply personal terms the meaning for them of the bill, which prohibits discrimination against the disabled in employment, public accommodations, in telecommunications and on public or private buses or trains.
Sen. Thomas Harkin, D-Iowa, delivered in sign language a chilling silent message to his deaf brother, Frank: 'The days of segregation and inequality are over.'
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., choked back tears as he recalled his sister, Rosemarie, who was mentally retarded, and his son, Teddy Jr., who lost a leg to cancer.
And Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, wiped away tears as he remembered the difficut battle his late brother in law, Raymond Hansen, waged against polio.
Bush said in a statement the legislation 'will serve as a declaration of independence' for the millions with disabilities.
'I am looking forward with great pleasure to signing this important civil rights legislation,' he said. Press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said Bush probably will sign it next week.
The landmark legislation, building on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, prohibits discrimination against the disabled in employment. Also, the disabled would have to have ready access to public places -- such as restaurants and theaters and stores -- and public or private buses and trains. Hearing- and speech-impaired individuals also would be provided access to special telephone services.
'By approving the (bill), the Congress affirms its commitment to remove the physical barriers and the antiquated social attitudes that have condemned people with disabilities to second class citizenship for too long,' Kennedy said. 'Today we are shedding ... condescending and suffocating attitudes and widening the door of opportunity for people with disabilities.'
Kennedy, Harkin and other supporters noted the vigorous and indefatigable efforts of disabled advocates. In particular, they cited the hard work of Pat Wright of the Disability Rights, Education and Defense Fund.
After Hatch's emotional speech praising the bill for removing 'senseless discrimination,' he said he thinks it 'will prove very expensive to implement and Congress ought to begin thinking of ways to make this burden, especially for small business, a little lighter.'
The six senators voting against the measure were Sens. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., Jake Garn, R-Utah; Gordon Humphrey, R-N.H.; Christopher Bond, R-Mo., Malcolm Wallop, R-Wyo., and Steve Symms, R-Idaho.
The most heavily debated provision in both houses concerned how to deal with food handlers who have AIDS or other communicable diseases.
Under compromise language sponsored by Hatch, the Department of Health and Human Services will publish a list of infections and communicable diseases that are transmitted through food handling. If acquired immune deficiency syndrome or any other disease appears on the list, a restaurant could transfer an infected worker to other duties where no food is involved, with no loss in salary.
Health Secretary Louis Sullivan and the Centers for Disease Control have said AIDS cannot be transmitted through food.
When the House originally passed the bill, it approved an amendment, sponsored by Rep. Jim Chapman, D-Texas, that would have allowed restaurants to reassign any worker with a communicable disease 'of public significance.' Opponents said it played on irrational fears that AIDS could be spread by food preparers.
The employment requirements would become effective two years after enactment and would cover employers with more than 25 workers. Two years later, employers with 15 or more workers would be subject to the measure.
The public accommodations provisions would take effect 18 months after enactment.