Congressional Action Reverses U.S. Supreme Court Rulings on Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

September 18, 2008

On September 17, 2008, the United States House of Representatives approved the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) after it was unanimously passed by the Senate the week before.  The White House anticipates that President George W. Bush will soon sign the bill into law. 

The bill will reverse rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court which had narrowed the applicability of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.  The changes proposed by the bill will broaden interpretation the ADA. 

One of the biggest changes reverses rulings that disabled employees who attempted to diminish the impact of their impairment with the use of medicine, technology, equipment, devices, and other aids could be denied ADA protection for doing so.  Under the ADAAA, such efforts at mitigation will not be considered when employees are attempting to prove they are disabled under the ADA (though the use of glasses and contact lenses may still be considered in deciding whether protection should be granted).  

Another change is that those with episodic conditions or conditions in remission may still qualify as disabled if the condition substantially limits a major life activity when the condition is active.

The ADAAA also revises the standard for determining what “substantially limits” a life activity.  The Supreme Court had ruled that the phrase should be a “demanding standard.”  The bill now defines “substantially limits” as “materially restricts.”

Also, the definition of “major life activities” now includes specific examples such as “major bodily functions” relating to the “immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions.” 

Lastly, the bill also narrows “regarded as” claims by excluding minor/transitory conditions lasting six months or less.

With these substantial changes, employers may find themselves having to accommodate employees suffering from conditions that formerly were not protected by the ADA.  If you have any questions or would like additional information regarding the subject of this advisory, please contact the Frost Brown Todd Labor and Employment Department

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