Congress Expands Protections for People With Disabilities

President Bush recently signed into law a bill that greatly extends protections for people with disabilities. The law harmonizes the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) with other pieces of civil rights legislation and remedies several Supreme Court rulings that had limited the right of individuals with disabilities to file suit under the ADA. The law also makes it easier for chronically ill people to obtain workplace accommodations for their disabilities.

In essence, the law expands the definition of "disability" to include people who were not previously considered disabled under federal law because their condition could be managed with medication. When Congress passed the original ADA, it had intended for its definition of "disability" to be a broad one. However, the Supreme Court read the language of the law differently, and ruled in several cases that people suffering from diseases like epilepsy, diabetes, heart conditions and cancer might not be disabled because medication alleviated many symptoms of their condition. This led to what Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) described to the New York Times as a "Catch-22 situation. The more successful a person is at coping with a disability, the more likely it is the court will find that they are no longer disabled and therefore no longer covered under the A.D.A." Courts would consider these individuals too "functional" to be considered "disabled," even though employers often considered them too disabled to be hired.

As Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) told the Times, "courts have focused too heavily on whether individuals are covered by the law, rather than on whether discrimination occurred." Under the new law, lawsuits alleging discrimination based on disability will now focus on the nature of the discrimination, making disability discrimination claims similar to other civil rights claims, which was Congress's true intent when it passed the ADA in 1990.

For a previous article on the introduction of this bill, click here.

For a New York Times article describing the bill's passage, click here.

To read the bill itself, click here. Article Last Modified: 09/19/2008

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