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ADA Amendment Strikes the Right Balance

September 18 2008 | by

Last August, the US Chamber of Commerce, an association of three million businesses, sent a letter to Congress opposing a bill that would amend the Americans with Disabilities Act. Calling it an essential “re-writing” of the Act, the Chamber said it believed such changes would open the floodgates for litigation by “virtually all of the entire working population in the United States ” who believed they may have been discriminated against due to disability. “The bill would change the definition of ‘disability’ so that any individual with an impairment — such as poor eyesight correctible by wearing glasses — would be considered disabled and would trigger the employer’s duty to accommodate them.”

I wrote about disability discrimination litigation for BusinessWeek Online. In a famous 2002 case, Toyota v. Williams, the Supreme Court sided with Toyota Motor Manufacturing, which refused to tailor a job for an assembly-line worker who claimed she developed carpal-tunnel syndrome on the job. In its unanimous decision, the court held that Ella Williams’ condition did not meet the ADA’s definition of a disability because it had not “substantially limit[ed]” any “major life [activity].”

I agreed with the decision because I believe the ADA is designed to encourage employers to hire the disabled, who may have abilities that are perceived as not being on par as their able-bodied counterparts. (One leg missing is mostly irrelevant when you’re smart and educated, but using it as a ploy to get hired is a problem.) In this case, a ruling in Ella Williams’ favor might have enticed other U.S. workers to make specious claims, such as passing off an out-of-workplace injury as a disabilities case. There’s a place for workplace injury claims. It’s the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration.

Today, one year — and several Chamber-esque tweaks to the bill later — the ADA Amendments Act passed Congress and will be sent to President Bush to sign. (His father signed the original ADA in 1990.) The revised bill offers better balance between protections for individuals with disabilities and the obligations and requirements of employers.

Under the ADA Amendments Act, the definition of a disability is still a physical or mental impairment that “substantially limits one or more major life activities.” However, the legislation would expand coverage by making changes to the meaning of major life activity under that definition to include caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, working, and most importantly — any “major bodily function”. OK, so basically anything you do while you’re alive, but Congress is hoping employees heed the spirit of the law.

I applaud Congress for expanding the ADA to include more life activities. The bill will give protections to those whose disablity is eposodic or may go into remission, such as someone with epilepsy, diabetes or cancer. However, we still needed strong architecture around the ADA or else it risked cancelling itself out. It’s a law designed to protect those who need it in the workplace and lifespace. Which brings me back to Toyota v. Williams. I wonder if Ella Williams could win her case under the new parameters.

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  1. Response to NYT article on ADA