The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) is a federal civil rights law that was enacted by Congress in  1990, and prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities. The purpose of the ADA is to ensure that people with disabilities are protected in their everyday lives and have the same rights and opportunities other people. The ADA protects people with disabilities in many areas of their lives including: at their place of employment, at schools, on public transportation, on the internet, and in all other public and private places of public accommodation. 

Additionally, the ADA provides that employers must provide reasonable accommodations, within reason,  to their disabled employees in order to allow the employee to perform their work tasks, despite their disability. 

What are the Amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act?

In 2008 Congress passed the ADA Amendments Act (“ADAAA”), as a result of numerous Supreme Court cases which restrictively interpreted the definition of the term disability under the original Act. The purpose of the ADAAA was to broaden the original definition of the term disability in order 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 the term disability to whether or not the entity had discriminated against that individual. 

By broadening the definition of the term disability, the amendments to the ADAAA makes it easier for an individual that is discriminated against to file a federal disability claim. 

How Is the Term Disability Defined Under the ADAAA?

As mentioned above, the ADAAA made a number of changes to the definition of the term disability under the ADA. The original ADA defined the term disability as: 

  1. A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of an individual; 
  2. A record of such an impairment; or 
  3. Being regarded as having such an impairment.  

Importantly, 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. In fact, the ADAAA states that the definition of the term disability should be interpreted in favor of broad coverage of many individuals. 

Within the ADAAA, the following specific changes were made to the definition of the term disability: 

  • Substantially Limits: Before the ADAAA, a person seeking the protection of the ADA  had to prove that their disability resulted in a severe or significant restriction on their major life activities. This was due to the fact that  the phrase “substantial limiting effect” was construed very narrowly by courts. By enacting the ADAAA Congress rejected the Supreme Court’s narrow definition of disability, and broadened the definition of the term disability in favor of broad coverage of individuals;
  • Major Life Activities: The ADAAA also provided an expanded definition as to what may constitute a major life activity, specifically expanding the category of major life activities to include the operation of major bodily functions. Further, the ADAA provided that a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one major life activity does not need to limit other major life activities in order to be considered substantially limiting;
  • Ameliorative Effects: Before the ADAAA, mitigating measures, such as medication or the use of assistive technology, could be considered when reviewing a disability claim made under the ADA. The ADAAA prohibits consideration of the ameliorative effects of mitigating measures when determining whether an individual’s physical or mental impairment constitutes a disability under the ADA;
  • Recurring or Episodic Impairments: The ADAAA provides that a recurring or episodic disability, such as epilepsy, are now protected by the ADA, so long as they would substantially limit a major life activity when active. This includes episodic impairments that are dormant or in remission, such as cancer; and
  • Regarded as Disabled: The ADA Amendments make it clear that the “regarded as” prong of the disability definition does not mean that an individual is required to demonstrate that they have an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, but rather that they have been subjected to an action prohibited under the Act because of their impairment. 

As can be seen, the new amendments to the ADA make it easier for an individual seeking protection under the Act to establish that they have a disability in accordance with the Act’s definition of disability. However, the ADAA makes it clear that not all physical or mental impairments will be classified as a disability within the meaning of the Act.

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 act, especially with respect to the definition of the term 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 employment attorney in your area will be able to assist you in understanding the ADAAA, as well as help you file your disability claim. Additionally, an experienced attorney will be able to represent you in court, as necessary.