Perceptions of Disability Are Changing and What That Means for the ADA, Part 1

The following is a guest post from Jim Hasse, the editor of Perfectly Able: How to Attract and Hire Talented People with Disabilities.

When it was passed 21 years ago (on July 26, 1990), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) included a definition of disability based on what was stated in the Rehabilitation Act of 1973:

“An individual with a disability has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment.”

Congress used that definition in the ADA because it seemed to work well in the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. But, in 1999 the Supreme Court started to narrow the definition of disability in unexpected ways. Here are just two examples:

In Sutton v. United Airlines, for instance, the court said that when you determine whether an individual has a disability under the ADA, you have to consider the effects of mitigating measures (such as corrective lenses, medications, hearing aids and prosthetic devices) when deciding whether an impairment is substantially limiting.

The Court did one other thing in Sutton. It essentially overturned an old Rehabilitation Act of 1973 case, School Board of Nassau County v. Arline. Arline had broadly viewed the part of the definition of disability that mentions having a “record of” impairment. The Court in Sutton required a more restrictive view of that part of the definition, which practically eliminated it.

In Toyota v. Williams, 2002, the Supreme Court focused on the word “substantially” in the definition of disability, and said that it means “considerably” or “to a large degree.” The Court also narrowed the scope of “major life activity,” stating that it must be something that is of central importance to most people’s daily lives.

Between Sutton and Toyota and other cases, the definition of disability was narrowed to such a degree that most cases became more about whether a person met the definition of disability instead of access or accommodation.

To remedy the situation, Congress passed and President Bush signed the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, which became effective on January 1, 2009. It simply attempts to bring the law back to what Congress intended it to be when it passed the ADA in 1990 by outlining nine rules to follow in defining disability.

ADA rulings, however, continue to be handed down through U.S. Supreme Court and lower court decisions. The ADA (and the definition of disability) will be refined indefinitely.

Check back tomorrow for more from Jim Hasse.

Jim Hasse is an Accredited Business Communicator and Global Career Development Facilitator. He was previously senior content developer of eSight Careers Network, the premier social networking website for visually or physically impaired job seekers.

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2 responses to “Perceptions of Disability Are Changing and What That Means for the ADA, Part 1

  1. Pingback: Guest Post: Perceptions of Disability Are Changing and What That Means for the ADA, Part 2 | AMACOM Books Blog

  2. Seriously, Jim, you write well.

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