In 1990, Congress enacted a landmark piece of civil rights legislation known as the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The purpose of the ADA is to ensure that disabled people are not discriminated against in employment, housing, school, public transportation, the internet, and other areas of life.
The U.S. Department of Justice has called the ADA “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.”
Concerning employment, the ADA ensures businesses and employers are held accountable if they have discriminatory policies and practices. It provides that employers must provide reasonable accommodations to their disabled employees to allow them to perform their work tasks despite their disability. It applies to any employer that has more than 15 employees. What exactly are reasonable accommodations?
The definition is purposely broad. Depending on the disability, it might be an adjustment to the physical workspace, such as a padded chair, a raised toilet seat, or a new tool, or the company might need a new anti-discrimination policy, work schedule, or method of communication to create a more equitable work environment.
What are the Amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act?
In 2008, Congress overturned several Supreme Court decisions that Congress believed had interpreted the definition of “disability” too narrowly, resulting in a denial of protection for many individuals with impairments such as cancer, diabetes, and epilepsy. The Americans with Disability Amendments Act (“ADAAA”) lists amendments to the ADA and states that the definition of disability should be interpreted in favor of broad coverage of individuals.
The purpose of the ADAAA was to expand the original definition of the term “disability” to increase the number of persons protected under the ADA. One major result of the ADAAA was that courts shifted their focus and analysis of ADA claims from whether the individual seeking the Act’s protection had physical or mental impairments that fit the technical definition of disability to whether or not the business had discriminated against that individual.
By broadening the definition of the term disability, the amendments to the ADA make it easier for an individual who is discriminated against to file a federal disability claim.
How Is the Term Disability Defined Under the ADAAA?
In enacting the ADAAA, Congress made it easier for a person with disabilities seeking protection under the ADA to establish that they have a disability within the meaning of the ADA. The ADAAA directly states that the definition of “disability” should be interpreted in favor of broad coverage for many people.
The ADAAA made several changes to the definition of “disability” as used in the ADA. The original ADA defined the term “disability” as:
- A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of an individual;
- A record of such an impairment; or
- Being regarded as having such an impairment.
The ADAAA kept the original ADA definition of the term “disability,” but the regulations passed by Congress to effectuate and clarify the definition implement significant changes that Congress made regarding how those terms should be interpreted.
With the ADAAA, the following specific changes were made to the definition of the term “disability”:
[An impairment that] “Substantially Limits” [one or more life activities]
The standard applied by the courts before the ADAAA required a fairly high level of functional limitation to meet the requirement that it “substantially limits” the individual’s life. The term “substantially limits” requires a lower degree of inability to function. Per the ADAAA regulations, an impairment does not need to prevent or severely or significantly restrict a major life activity to be considered “substantially limiting.” Now, “substantially limits” are to be construed broadly in favor of expansive coverage to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of the ADA.
As was true before the ADAAA, determining whether an impairment “substantially limits” a major life activity requires an individualized assessment rather than basing it on how the disability limits most people.
Moreover, with two exceptions (ordinary eyeglasses and contact lenses), determining whether an impairment “substantially limits” a major life activity must be made without considering measures that can mitigate the effects, such as medication or hearing aids.
Finally, an episodic or in remission impairment is a true disability under the ADA if it “substantially limits” a major life activity when it is active.
[Being] “regarded as” [having an impairment]
The ADAAA regulations also make it easier for individuals to establish coverage under the part of the definition of “disability” that says a person has a protected disability if they are “regarded as” having a disability. Before the ADAAA, it was difficult for individuals to establish coverage under the “regarded as” prong.
The ADAAA regulations clarify that the “regarded as disabled” prong of the disability definition does not mean that an individual must demonstrate an impairment substantially limiting a major life activity. Rather, they must establish that they have been subjected to an action prohibited under the Act because they perceive that they have a disability. The focus for establishing coverage is on how a person has been treated because of a physical or mental impairment rather than what an employer may have believed about the person’s impairment.
[Substantially limits one or more] “major life activities”
The ADAAA also provided an expanded definition of what may constitute a “major life activity” by including the operation of major bodily functions. Further, the ADAAA provided that a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one major life activity does not need to limit other major life activities to be considered substantially limiting.
“Recurring or Episodic” Impairments
The ADAAA provides that a recurring or episodic disability, such as epilepsy, is now protected by the ADA, so long as it would substantially limit a major life activity when active. This includes episodic impairments that are dormant or in remission, such as cancer.
As can be seen, the new amendments to the ADA make it easier for individuals seeking protection under the ADA to establish that they have a disability per the ADA’s definition of disability. However, the ADAAA does make it clear that not all physical or mental impairments will be classified as a disability within the meaning of the ADA.
Should I Hire an Attorney for Help with ADA Issues?
As can be seen, the ADA Amendments Act made numerous changes to the original ADA, especially concerning the definition of “disability.” Thus, if you are seeking protection under the ADA and filing a disability claim, it is important to familiarize yourself with the changes the ADAAA made.
An experienced and well-qualified disability rights representative or discrimination lawyer in your area will be able to assist you in understanding the ADA and the ADAAA and help you file your disability claim. Additionally, an experienced attorney can represent you in court as necessary.