One in six Americans is disabled -- too many to ignore. But that's what employers have pretty much done for decades. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is meant to help this group take its rightful place in the work force. Translation to most company owners: more regulation, more litigation, more expense.

In some ways, they're right. Clearly the ADA represents another unwelcome intrusion on how you hire and promote. There's no question that lawsuits will escalate. But the cost and level of effort required to accommodate workers with disabilities may surprise you. According to the Job Accommodation Network (800-526-7234), a service of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, 50% of all workplace accommodations cost less than $50, and 31% cost nothing.

Also, consider this: The top four most frequently occurring disabilities among noninstitutionalized people are arthritis, hypertensive disease, hearing impairment, and heart disease. Fitting workers with those disabilities into your company is often "just a matter of making small changes," says Mike King, president of Mari-Mann Herb, a spice and fragrance company in Decatur, Ill. Between 60% and 80% of the 20 people in King's fragrance-manufacturing division have disabilities. Here are four elements King says are needed to successfully incorporate a disabled worker:

* Focus. Zero in on ability, not disability. That sounds easy, but it's a big mental step for most employers. For example, someone with a learning disability can follow simple instructions and may take great pride in accomplishing a repetitive task.

* Individualize. Every worker has a unique array of qualities; think of a worker's disability in the same vein. "A short person works at a short worktable. A person with a hearing impairment may gather written information," says King.

* Listen to the worker. A person who is blind or in a wheelchair knows what he or she needs -- and doesn't need. Just ask.

* Education. Teaching all your employees the specifics about disabilities helps level the psychological barriers and provides an opportunity to convey essential information. When he first hired a worker with epilepsy, King had a local epilepsy association conduct several (free) seminars on the disorder.

-- Ellyn E. Spragins