Disabling a Civil Right : THE SUPREME COURT HAS MADE A DECISION THAT IS WRONGHEADED, AND WRONG

Article excerpt

The case of Toyota Motors v. Williams, which the Supreme Court decided on January 8, virtually wipes out a legal remedy for millions of workers who face job discrimination because of a physical impairment. The unanimous opinion by Sandra Day O'Connor was a serious blow to the already reeling Americans with Disabilities Act and reflected how indifferent our society, courts and legislature are to the issue of disability discrimination.

Ella Williams developed carpal tunnel syndrome from doing repetitive tasks at the Toyota plant where she worked in Kentucky. When she sued Toyota for disability discrimination for refusing to give her work she could do that didn't involve exacerbating her injury, the auto company argued that Williams was not "disabled" and thus had no right to use the law. The Supreme Court agreed, ruling that Williams's condition did not constitute a "disability" because she could still perform tasks "central to daily life" such as cooking her meals or brushing her teeth.

What the Supreme Court decided in the Williams case was wrongheaded, and wrong. The Americans with Disabilities Act is a civil rights law; its intent was to focus on eliminating employers' practices that are discriminatory. It would be one thing for the Court to rule that a company did not discriminate against a worker in a case like Williams's. But the Court never even deals with that; it simply says that someone like Williams has no right to even be allowed to use the law. This is far different from the way other civil rights laws are applied. Toyota has succeeded in limiting the use of the law to only those people deemed "disabled enough" to have the "special privilege" of using the law--as if, in the 1960s, companies had successfully argued that only people who were of 100 percent African-American heritage could use the Civil Rights Act (and first they had to have a doctor prove they were "truly Negro"). We may think this idea bizarre, but that's exactly like what Toyota has now got the Court to agree to. It's simply a way to limit access to civil rights, and tragically, it's working.

The business community cheered the decision. They saw Toyota's legal strategy as a way to head off expensive lawsuits by closing the courtroom door to injured or impaired workers. "The definition of disability is the ballgame," wrote Samuel Issacharoff and Justin Nelson in a law review article earlier this year. In its amicus brief to the Supreme Court, the American Trucking Associations extolled Toyota's legal tactic as a way of "keeping the lid on ADA litigation."

Now workers with conditions like Williams's (repetitive-motion injuries accounted for more than a third of the 1.7 million workplace injuries reported in 1999, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) and other "nontraditional" disabilities who face discrimination on the job because of injuries will never even get a chance to make their case in court.

Yet the Toyota case has provoked little discussion among disability activists. This points up the peculiar situation disability rights finds itself in: Although disability--and the prejudice one can face being disabled--affects potentially all of us, the discrimination faced by everyday people like Ella Williams is rarely addressed by the movement; and legislators and the courts don't seem to understand it. Because almost no one treats the issues advanced by the disability rights movement as serious public issues--certainly not as racial rights issues were three decades ago--the promises of the Americans with Disabilities Act remain largely unrealized.

The law, passed in 1990, was intended to be a broad proscription against discrimination on the basis of disability by private employers, places of public accommodation and state and local governments. Enforceable only through lawsuits, it is mostly ignored by employers, public accommodations and state and local governments. Of all the cases heard by federal courts of appeal in the first eight years after the ADA became law, only 5 percent concerned access; most involved job discrimination--and employers won more than 90 percent. …