The bill now goes to the House for expected approval. President Bush endorsed the measure last month.
"Without question, this is the most comprehensive civil rights legislation since 1964," said Ralph G. Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, referring to the historic legislation that extended civil rights protections to racial minorities. "It will have a profound, positive impact."
Under provisions that parallel the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act and other anti-discrimination laws, the legislation would prohibit employers from denying a person a job because of a disability so long as he or she can do the work.
The jobs provision would be phased in over four years, ultimately exempting only businesses that employ 15 or fewer workers. Employers would have to provide reasonable accommodations for disabled workers unless it would be an unreasonable hardship to do so.
Bush administration lobbyists joined advocates for the disabled yesterday in opposing efforts to modify the legislation to meet business objections that it would be too costly to small firms.
Such concern over cost, especially for small businesses, was evident in a close but unsuccessful vote on a proposal to give businesses with 15 or fewer employees and less than $1 million in gross annual income a tax credit of up to $5,000 a year for compliance-related costs.
Business leaders warned that the measure could put some employers out of business if they were required to make expensive structural changes in their buildings to accommodate disabled customers and workers.
Critics also said the compliance provisions of the bill were vague and would result in years of litigation in federal courts over what constituted discrimination against the disabled.
"We think it is so broadly written that business owners can never be quite sure whether they are in compliance with the law or not," complained John Sloan, president of the National Federation of Independent Business.
But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D., Mass.) said: "This legislation is a bill of rights for the disabled, and America will be a better and fairer nation
because of it." He also contended that it would also more than pay its own way in terms of expanded earnings and tax revenues and lower welfare payments.
The bill is the product of months of negotiations between congressional Democrats and Republicans and top Bush administration officials. Bush courted the disabled in the presidential campaign with promises to support the legislation.
New public buses and trains would have to be made accessible to the handicapped. Subway and other transit stations would have to be made accessible within 20 years.
Existing privately owned restaurants, hotels, stores, doctors' offices and other businesses catering to the public would have to take "readily achievable" steps to improve access under criteria that include cost. New construction or major renovations would have to be fully accessible to the disabled.
Telephone companies would have to provide special services under which hearing- and speech-impaired people could communicate. The proposed compliance deadline was extended from two to three years.
A victim of discrimination could seek relief in court, including injunctions and back pay. For public-accommodations discrimination, the attorney general could seek monetary damages and civil penalties of up to $50,000 for initial violations and $100,000 for subsequent offenses.
"We're not asking for special treatment," said Pat Wright, government affairs director of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund Inc. ''Whether it's putting a ramp in or providing a reasonable accommodation in employment, it makes you equal, not special."
Extending civil rights protections to people with AIDS or the AIDS virus had been recommended by a Reagan administration commission on AIDS, but was opposed by President Ronald Reagan himself. Bush, however, has supported the protection.
The bill bars employment discrimination against people with AIDS, but does permit employers to deny jobs if the employee poses a significant risk of transmitting the infection to others.
Homosexuals, however, are not covered by the legislation. They can still be discriminated against solely on the basis of their sexuality.
After an inquiry by Sen. Jesse Helms (R., N.C.), sponsors agreed to delete transvestites from discrimination protections. Helms also raised questions about providing protection to schizophrenics, manic-depressives and psychotics, but their status remained intact in the measure.
The bill also bars job discrimination against recovered alcoholics and former drug addicts, but does not extend the protection to alcohol abusers or current drug users.
All area senators voted for the measure, except William V. Roth Jr. (R., Del.), who was not present.