How Has the Supreme Court Affected the Americans with Disabilities Act? You Be the Judge

By Huber, Joseph | Palaestra, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

How Has the Supreme Court Affected the Americans with Disabilities Act? You Be the Judge


Huber, Joseph, Palaestra


When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bush in 1990, it was hailed as the proclamation of emancipation for Americans with disabilities who were considered unemployable. The ADA defines a "disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more ... major life activities," 42 U.S.C.S. 12102 (2)(A).

Many within the disability community thought the ADA would lead to dramatic changes in employment. But with the 10th anniversary of the ADA approaching, a recent survey conducted by Louis Harris & Associates found that employment statistics remain grim. The pollster found that among people with disabilities who are of working age, 71% were unemployed in 1998, five percentage points higher than in 1986. Of those not working, three out of four said they would like to be employed (The Boston Sunday Globe, July 4, 1999).

To add to the plight of the disability community, the U.S. Supreme Court (Court) ended its 1998-1999 term with a deeply disturbing vote. By a 7-2 margin in three separate decisions, the Court narrowed the scope of the ADA.

The pivotal case involved twin sisters who applied for positions as global pilots with United Airlines and were rejected because of their nearsightedness. This judgement was rendered even though they have 20/20 vision with corrective lenses and are currently regional pilots. The two severely myopic twin sisters have uncorrected visual acuity of 20/200 or worse, but with corrective measures, both function identically to individuals without similar impairments. A companion case involved a truck driver who, despite a good record, was fired because he was nearly blind in one eye.

This condition rendered him unfit under federal safety standards. The last case involved a UPS driver who was fired because of high blood pressure that was correctable with medication (All Things Considered, National Public Radio, June 22, 1999).

Writing the court majority, Justice O'Connor declared that individuals with physical impairments that can be easily corrected are not "disabled" and, therefore, are not entitled to protection under the ADA-even though the disabilities cost them their jobs. A "disability" exists only where an impairment "substantially limits" a major life activity, not where it "might," "could," or "would" be substantially limiting (Supreme Court of the United States, Sutton et al. …

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How Has the Supreme Court Affected the Americans with Disabilities Act? You Be the Judge
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