Congress Approves Bill to Expand ADA’s Definition of ‘Disability’

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Congress gave final approval on Sept. 17 to legislation that will bring more Americans under the umbrella of “disabled” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). President Bush said he’d sign the bill (S. 3406).

The bill reverses several court rulings from recent years that had limited the scope of ADA protections. It directs U.S. courts to apply a broader definition when deciding what truly qualifies as an ADA-covered disability.

The biggest change: The bill makes clear that courts (and employers) should not take into consideration any “mitigating measures” that reduce the impact of an impairment—such as medication, hearing aids and other assistive technology—in determining whether an employee is “disabled” under the ADA. 

“The Supreme Court has slowly chipped away at the broad protections of the ADA and has created a new set of barriers for disabled Americans,” said Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), a chief sponsor of the ADA Amendments Act. “The purpose of this legislation is to restore the intent of Congress to cover a broad group of individuals with disabilities under the ADA, and to eliminate the problem of courts focusing too heavily on whether individuals were covered by the law, rather than on whether discrimination occurred.”

The bill passed by wide margins in large part because several business groups, including the Society for Human Resource Management and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, supported the compromise, saying the bill “strikes an appropriate balance” between employees’ and employers’ needs.

THE DETAILS: According to a Congressional Research Service summary, the bill would amend the ADA to redefine the term "disability" and make clear that:

  1. Such term shall be construed in favor of broad coverage of individuals under the ADA;
  2. An impairment that “substantially limits one major life activity” (the hurdle for an impairment to be deemed a disability) need not limit other major life activities in order to be a disability;
  3. An impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active;
  4. The determination of whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity shall be made without regard to the health improvements caused by mitigating measures, such as medication and hearing aids.

The bill also clarifies that the ADA prohibits employment discrimination against a qualified individual on the basis of disability. Current law prohibits employment discrimination against a qualified individual with a disability because of the disability.

The bill prohibits the use of employment tests or other selection criteria based on an individual's uncorrected vision unless a test or criterion shown to be related to the position and is consistent with business necessity.

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