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Not all vision impairments qualify as disabilities

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Several UPS employees who could only see out of one eye claimed their sight was a disability and that UPS' policy of not allowing them to drive a truck was discriminatory under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

A lower court said the employees were disabled and barred the company from using its strict vision policy. But a federal appeals court reversed and sided with UPS, saying the workers were not disabled.

The employees claimed that UPS "regarded" all those who can see with only one eye as being disabled. And when a company regards workers as disabled, they're protected under the ADA. However, as with actual disabilities, a "regarded as" disability must be one that is substantially limiting to a major life activity. And because the workers could still drive their own cars, read and play sports, they didn't have an impairment that substantially limits the major life activity of being able to see. (EEOC v. United Parcel Service, Nos. 01-15410, 01-15977, 9th Cir., 2002)

In this case, the court applied the strict new definition of disability established in last winter's pivotal Supreme Court ruling in Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky Inc. v. Williams. (YATL February 2002)

Advice: This case sends a message that safety wins out over accommodation. Requiring UPS to hire visually impaired drivers would have forced it to "take a chance" with safety, the court said.

To determine who truly has an ADA-protected disability, you must look at each case individually. But pay attention to the Toyota Motor ruling, which said a worker's disability can't be measured solely on his ability (or inability) to do certain tasks on the job, such as driving a delivery truck. Whether someone is truly disabled depends on whether he's substantially limited in activities "of central importance to most people's daily lives." Disabilities must also be "permanent or long-lasting."

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