Employers won a big victory last month when the U.S. Supreme Court made it tougher for workers with job-related physical impairments to claim protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The high court unanimously ruled that a worker's disability can't be measured solely on her ability to do certain tasks at work. Disabilities must be more pervasive. Whether someone is disabled, the court said, depends on whether she's limited in activities that are "of central importance to most people's daily lives." Also, the disability must be "permanent or long-lasting." The decision overturned a 6th Circuit decision. (Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky Inc. v. Williams, No. 00-1089)
Former automobile worker Ella Williams thought she had a disability under the ADA. She blamed her carpal tunnel syndrome on her repetitive assembly line work. Restrictions from her doctor meant she could perform some, but not all, of her assigned duties on the factory floor. She asked for reassignment and sued under the ADA when Toyota refused.
The high court reasoned that her disability wasn't limiting enough as a whole to meet the strict interpretation of the ADA's protections. The kicker in this case: Williams was able to cook and clean for herself, even garden so long as she didn't overdo it.
Bottom line: Don't use this ruling as an excuse to shrug off accommodation requests. While the decision clearly raises the bar of what's considered a "disability," it does not close the door.
The ruling doesn't automatically exclude workers with carpal tunnel syndrome or other partial disabilities from the ADA's protections, but it does make those claims harder to prove. Workers can't just say, "I have carpal tunnel syndrome" to prove they're disabled. They'll have to offer evidence of the severity, impact and expected duration of the impairment.
Note: The high court went out of its way to say that employers must still look at each request on a case-by-case basis to determine who truly has an ADA-protected disability. You may have to delve a little deeper into gauging an employee's abilities off the job before you say no to a requested accommodation.
Best bet: When in doubt, accommodate, or at least make every reasonable effort to find a solution. Your extra effort will likely be less costly than fighting a worker in court over this new definition of disability.