Workers with disabilities have faced huge hurdles in protecting their rights at work.
Congress is helping out.
The federal law that protects workers with disabilities, called the Americans With Disabilities Act, had been interpreted by the courts so narrowly that many discrimination claims were thrown out before trial because it was so hard to prove many types of disabilities under the restrictive federal court interpretations.
As of last week, both houses of Congress said "no more." They have approved the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA). It clarifies the definition of disability and overturns Supreme Court decisions that had made it more difficult for employees to prove disabilities. President Bush has said he will sign the law, which will become effective January 1, 2009.
Definition of Disability. The term "disability" continues to mean: (A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more "major life activities" of such individual, (B) a record of such impairment, or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment. The new law clarifies these components.
Major Life Activities. The law adds a definition of "major life activities" to address the restrictive interpretations by federal courts. The major life activity affected does not need to be directly related to working. The definition of major life activities now will include caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working. These are just examples, so other activities may also qualify.
Major life activities also include "major bodily functions," such as functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions. As this plays out in the courts, workers now may be considered disabled if they have sleep apnea, dyslexia, stuttering, ADD, or infertility.
Substantially Limiting. An impairment still must "substantially limit" a major life activity to qualify as a disability. Congress has now made clear that it intends for courts to interpret that phrase broadly. Congress has instructed the EEOC to issue interpretive guidelines. By doing so, Congress intends to overturn portions of the Supreme Court case TOYOTA MOTOR MFG., KY., INC. V. WILLIAMS, which disqualified an assembly line employee with carpal tunnel syndrome from disability protections because she could still brush her teeth.
Mitigating Measures. Also, the determination as to whether someone is disabled now will be made without considering mitigating measures. A worker who controls a condition by medication, prosthetics, hearing aids, assistive technology, or other medical equipment or aids can no longer be excluded from the definition of disabled just because of these mitigating measures.
If a person's condition would qualify as a disability without these aids, the person is considered disabled for the meaning of this law. This overturns the Supreme Court's decision in SUTTON V. UNITED AIR LINES, INC., which denied protections for airline pilot applicants with uncorrected vision of 20/200, because they had glasses.
Interestingly, the new law provides an exception stating that poor vision corrected through ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses is not a disability. This exception is limited to vision, so a person who corrects poor vision with eyeglasses generally is not disabled under this law, but a person with hearing aids may be considered disabled. Employers cannot use vision tests based on applicants' uncorrected vision, unless a certain level of uncorrected vision is required by the job and is a business necessity.
Remission. Workers in remission or with episodic recurrences are still considered disabled if the condition would qualify as a disability when active.
No Reverse Disability Discrimination. The law prevents non-disabled workers from bringing claims of reverse discrimination.
Disability litigation is always hard - for workers and businesses - and these amendments won't change that. There's no substitute for open communications and reasonable accommodations. Maybe this new clarification will help employers and employees understand their rights and responsibilities. At least it's a step in the right direction.