Empty wheelchair parked in park

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has changed over the years and it’s important for business owners to understand the law and understand those changes.

The ADA became a law on July 26, 1990, signed by President George H.W. Bush. The ADA is one of America’s most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life — to enjoy employment opportunities, to purchase goods and services, and to participate in State and local government programs and services. Modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin – and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 — the ADA is an “equal opportunity” law for people with disabilities.

It has changed over the years, as it did in 2008 with the ADA Amendments Act of 2008;

Both Houses of Congress have overwhelmingly passed and President Bush has signed into law the ADA Amendments Act of 2008. This legislation addresses court and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission interpretations of the Americans with Disabilities Act that have, over the years, narrowed certain ADA definitions and in general made application of the ADA more restrictive than was originally intended.

The “Findings and Purposes” section of the legislation cites specific U.S. Supreme Court cases that have led to lower courts “incorrectly” ruling in individual cases that people with a range of substantially limiting life impairments are not people with disabilities. The amendments do retain the ADA’s definition of “disability”:

  • a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of the individual;
  • a record of such an impairment; or
  • being regarded as having such an impairment.

However, the amendments add language that provides a non-exhaustive list of major life activities, including routine activities such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating and working. They also clarify that a major life activity includes the operation of major bodily functions. Furthermore, the amendments specify that the definition of “disability” be construed “in favor of broad coverage.” This means, for example, that an impairment that substantially limits one major life activity need not limit other major life activities in order to be considered a disability, and that an impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active.

These provisions address the U.S. Supreme Court case of Toyota Motor Manufacturing of Kentucky v. Williams, which narrowly defined “major life activity” as one that is of central importance to most people’s lives. The Williams case also required that, in order for an impairment to be viewed as “substantially limiting” a major life activity, it must prevent or severely limit the individual from performing the activity. The amendments clearly apply a much broader standard for ADA protection to apply.

In Sutton v. United Airlines, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mitigating measures, such as medication or devices, must be taken into account in determining whether a person is substantially limited in a major life activity. Under such an interpretation, for example, an individual with epilepsy was not protected by the ADA if he or she took medication that controlled the condition. The amendments specify that, with the exception of ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses, the determination of whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity is to be made without regard to the ameliorative effects of mitigating measures. Examples given of such mitigating measures include medication, medical supplies, low-vision devices, prosthetics, hearing aids, mobility devices, oxygen therapy equipment, and the like; use of assistive technology; reasonable accommodations or auxiliary aids or services; or learned behavioral or adaptive neurological modifications.

The amendments also remove some language from the ADA that courts had relied upon to interpret the law narrowly. For example, the original ADA included a finding that approximately 43 million Americans have one or more physical disabilities, and that “individuals with disabilities are a discrete and insular minority.” In both the Williams and Sutton cases, the U.S. Supreme Court cited this language to set a strict standard for being protected by the law.

As a result of these changes, many more may be considered disabled under the ADA and thus fall under the law’s protections, including the requirement that a business provide reasonable accommodation. With these changes to the ADA, now would be a good time to review your company’s policies, procedures and handbooks to make sure your company is in compliance with these legal requirements.

It is also worthwhile to review and understand the law generally, and review changes like the one discussed above, and other changes that have happened over time.  The following links will help;