Definition of Disability Expanded under the ADAAA
On September 25, 2008, President George W. Bush signed the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) into law, to be effective as of January 1, 2009. Congress first passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. The ADA outlawed discrimination against disabled individuals in housing, education, access to public services and facilities, and in employment.
ADA Amendments Act of 2008
The ADAAA expands the interpretation of the ADA’s original definition of disability, as being:
- an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities;
- a record of impairment; or
- being regarded as having such an impairment.
In expanding upon this disability definition, the ADAAA rejects several United States Supreme Court rulings and parts of the original ADA legislation.
Disability Should be Interpreted Broadly
Overall, the ADAAA requires the definition of disability be construed to favor a broad range of individuals, allowing a court to more easily find a disability. The Supreme Court previously determined in Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, 534 U.S. 184 (2002) that the definition of disability needed to be interpreted strictly, making it more difficult to find a disability.
Expansion of Definition of a Disability
The ADAAA also expands the actual definition of a disability in several ways. First, the ADAAA expands the definition of major life activities. The amendment includes a nonexhaustive list of major life activities, which if impaired, can be considered a disability. The list includes:
- Basic Activities: seeing hearing, eating, sleeping, and walking.
- Major Bodily Functions: immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, circulatory, or reproductive functions.
The ADA previously included no guidance on how to define major life activities.
Second, the ADAAA dictates that mitigating measures, besides eyeglasses or contact lenses, should not be considered in looking at whether a person has a disability. The Supreme Court previously decided in Sutton v. United Air Lines, Inc., 527 U.S. 471 (1999) that to find a disability, a court had to consider mitigation used by an individual to offset an impairment. The ADAAA expands a court’s ability to find a disability.
Third, the ADAAA includes individuals with disabilities that are episodic or in remission that substantially limit a major life activity. The Supreme Court previously chose to focus on an individual’s present state at trial. This adjustment allows a court to hypothetically consider an individual’s condition to determine the existence of a disability. For example, a court could still find a disability, even if an individual shows no existing physical or mental manifestations of an impairment that once existed.
Clarification of ADA Coverage to Individuals Regarded as Having an Impairment
The ADAAA also clarifies the rules for individuals that are believed to have impairment (not a disability) by a defendant. If a plaintiff shows he has an impairment that motivated the defendant to take a negative action, then the plaintiff is covered under the act. If the plaintiff shows that the defendant merely perceived the plaintiff as having an impairment that led the defendant to take an adverse action, then the plaintiff is also covered by the act. For example, if an employer refuses to hire someone believing the individual to be blind, the individual could be protected by the ADAAA even if he is sighted. Under the ADA, plaintiffs had to establish that a defendant mistakenly believed the plaintiff had a disability under the limited ADA disability definition.
Affect of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008
The ADAAA substantially changes the ADA. Many individuals not previously protected under the ADA may now be considered to have a disability. As a result, employers, the government, and businesses may face more requests for accommodations and may have to adjust their accommodations and policies accordingly.
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