Cynics call the Americans with disabilities act (ADA) a lifetime employment contract for lawyers and consultants. Both groups are braying about how woefully unprepared most companies are to cope with this far-reaching statute, how much must be done, and how costly it will be.

The truth is, it isn't that hard to comply with the act or employ the disabled. John Cannata, president of SBM Maintenance Contractors, a $5-million janitorial-service company in Villa Park, Ill., has hired some 75 handicapped people -- 20% of his work force -- over the past few years. "We treat them exactly the same as we treat other workers," he says.

The law, signed by President Bush in July 1990, prohibits discrimination against the disabled in employment, public accommodations, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications. The act's greatest impact on businesses will be in its employment provision. Any company with more than 15 employees will have to review its recruiting, interviewing, hiring, and promotion practices to rid them of bias against the disabled. Here are some things those employers must do for their companies to be in compliance:

* Revise job descriptions. The act requires you to hire any qualified person with a disability as long as that person can perform, with or without "reasonable accommodation," the essential functions of the job. You must specify what's essential in job descriptions.

* Create accommodation guidelines. Set up an employee review board to establish and publish guidelines for making accommodations.

* Expunge health questions. Don't ask, "Is there any physical or mental condition that would prevent you from performing this job?" on application forms or in an interview. Questions about previous on-the-job injuries are forbidden.

* Ban most physicals. You can't ask someone to take a medical exam before you make a job offer. And you can't withdraw an offer upon learning the results, unless they show that the candidate cannot perform an essential function. The results of any physical exam must be segregated from other personnel files and kept confidential. Drug testing is allowed.

To be on the vanguard of hiring the disabled, ask how you could adapt the equipment or jobs of current employees to accommodate their impairments, which you may not be aware of. Also contact and build relationships with agencies that help disabled persons find jobs.

Two other methods of accommodation: job coaching and job carving. The first provides a disabled employee with a work-site coach. Carving a new job -- with functions that a disabled person can handle -- out of an existing job is another way to be proactive.

SBM's Cannata has found disabled workers to be both reliable and loyal. What's more, they've brought his business a wealth of tax credits through various federal and state programs. "We've been commended for our hiring," says Cannata, "but actually, it's been very advantageous for us."

-- Ellyn E. Spragins