by Eric E. Kinder
President Bush signed the ADA Amendments Act into law. The ADAAA significantly increases the scope of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 as it has been interpreted by federal courts by overturning several United States Supreme Court decisions regarding the Act. According to the Congressional Committees that oversaw the passage of the ADAAA, these amendments will restore the original Congressional intent behind the ADA. The ADAAA, however, does provide some additional protection for employers.
The ADAAA takes effect on January 1, 2009.
Perhaps most importantly, the amendments overturn the United States Supreme Court decision in Sutton v. United Airlines, which held that individuals were not covered by the ADA if they had disabling conditions that could be mitigated by medication, assistive equipment, or learned behavioral adaptations. As a result, individuals with disabilities that are treatable with medication (such as a diabetic who treats her condition with an insulin regimen) or by commonly available equipment (except an individual who wears corrective lenses to bring his eyesight back to 20/20) are now covered by the ADA.
Under the ADA, for an impairment to be a disability it must: 1) substantially limit 2) a major life activity. The ADAAA reverses court rulings that had heightened that standard. First, the ADAAA reverses the Supreme Court's holding that in order to trigger the protections of the ADA, a disability must substantially limit more than one major life activity. Second, the Amendments expand the scope of what is a major life activity by stating that activities such as working, communicating, concentrating, thinking, bending and lifting are major life activities. Third, the ADAAA overturns the holding of the United States Supreme Court in Toyota v. Williams that required an individual be "severely restricted" in his or her ability to perform major life activities as well the EEOC's interpretation of the Act that required a "significant restriction." According to the ADAAA, those standards are too restrictive and the Amendments restore the original Congressional standard that the impairment simply be substantial limitation.
Importantly, the amendments contain one significant concession for employers. Resolving an issue that had created a split among the federal courts, the ADAAA eliminates an employer's obligation to provide "a reasonable accommodation" to an individual who is "regarded as" having a disability. The amendments make clear that an employer's duty to offer a reasonable accommodation only applies to individuals with an actual disability.
In all, the ADAAA means employers will see more reasonable accommodation requests, and almost certainly more discrimination charges and lawsuits. Employers should make sure their HR departments are fully versed in the current state of disability law.