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Recent Supreme Court Ruling Seems to Narrow Scope of Disabilities Law - 2002-01-17

The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, was hailed as landmark civil rights legislation for people with disabilities when it took effect 10 years ago. But a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling has apparently narrowed the scope of the law.

The ADA prohibits private employers and state and local governments from discriminating against employees with disabilities. The law defines a disability as a "physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities."

The ADA requires employers to make what it calls "reasonable accommodations," such as building wheelchair ramps, so disabled individuals can have access to the workplace. Since the law took effect in 1992, more than 100,000 lawsuits have been filed on behalf of people who said employers refused to make accommodations for their disability. But last week, in a case involving a Toyota employee in Kentucky, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that many lower courts had defined the term "disability" too loosely.

In a unanimous ruling, the court made the distinction between an individual who has an "impairment" that limits activity at work - and someone whose disability makes it difficult or impossible to take part in "central, major life activities" - as one justice put it - like "bathing or brushing one's teeth."

"Who qualifies for the [designation of 'having a disability'] is the threshold issue for the ADA," Josh Ulman said.

Josh Ulman is an attorney with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a major business group, which supports the high court ruling. As he puts it the high court "reaffirmed the original intent of the ADA legislation."

"What had happened over the course of the years since the statute was passed was there had been confusion over what constitutes a disability and what Congress meant the bill to cover. The court cleared that confusion up, and by 'confusion,' I mean lower court decisions which were all over the place [inconsistent]. The ADA was not meant to insure that everyone can do every single job. It wasn't the goal of the bill," Mr. Ulman said. Kathleen Blank is an attorney with the National Council on Disability, a federal agency in Washington, D.C. that promotes disability rights. She says in her view the Supreme Court does not understand the intent of the law.

"What they're trying to do is reduce what they view as a burden on employers. What the law was attempting to do was to expand access to work by people with disabilities without creating an undue burden on employers. That was the purpose of the law. It seems that if employers of good faith are willing to engage in that process, then we don't have to focus on 'just how disabled is this person, do they really need an accommodation, are they really entitled to an accommodation.' The facts show that the vast majority of accommodations are not that expensive. Probably eighty percent cost less than $500."

But Josh Ulman of the Chamber of Commerce says many employers are already assisting employees with impairments even though these workers may not have disabilities under the strict definition recently handed down by the high court.

"Employees who are not considered disabled under the ADA employers make accommodations for those employees every single day. They're not legally required to make those accommodations. But they do it anyway. There are obviously going to be occurrences where an employer feels that, because of cost considerations, it can't make the accommodations. It's free to do so unless that employee is disabled. That's where Congress has spoken."

Kathleen Blank says that the high court apparently views the ADA - as she puts it as a "charity law," and that people with disabilities are perceived as "mostly a burden." Ms. Blank says the ADA was designed to turn that view on its head - and send a message that disabled people only need a little assistance to make them productive members of society.

"Our reaction was disappointment because of the impact this is going to have on lots of people who have impairments of various kinds and would look to the ADA to qualify for a reasonable accommodation that would enable them to do their job."

The Supreme Court case involved Ella Williams, a Toyota automaker employee, who said she suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome, a nerve and ligament disorder of the forearms linked to repetitive movement. Ms. Williams, a native of Georgetown, Kentucky, blamed assembly line and other work that required her to handle tools and extend her arms. She requested disability status and an appeals court agreed. But the Supreme Court did not.

In the view of disability rights advocates, the latest ruling follows a pattern of other recent high court decisions that have narrowed the scope of the Americans With Disabilities Act. In other rulings, the high court considered whether people who took corrective action to lessen their disabilities - like wear eyeglasses or take medication could be designated as disabled. The court ruled that such corrective measures mitigated a person's disability.

Advocates form both business and disability groups agree that the latest high court decision Toyota vs. Williams - more clearly defines the broad and somewhat ambiguous language of the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act terms like "disability" and "major life activities." Disability activists worry that in the process of seeking legal precision, the high court has dealt their cause a setback.