Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

The Judicial Dismantling of the Americans with Disabilities Act. (at Law)

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

The Judicial Dismantling of the Americans with Disabilities Act. (at Law)

Article excerpt

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the product of a broad coalition of persons with disabilities, was the most significant civil rights legislation since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The ADA's explicit objective was to provide a "clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities." Disability and AIDS advocacy groups hailed it as a "landmark in protecting the rights of all disabled Americans--a victory worth celebrating." (1)

That celebration was not long-lived. The Rehnquist Court has dismantled the ADA by narrowing the definition of "disability," allowing discrimination for paternalistic reasons, and removing the right to sue states for discrimination. The act disintegrated further during the Court's 2001-2002 term, which Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has said might be remembered as "the Disabilities Act term." For persons with disabilities and civil rights advocates, it will remain a painful memory--a time when the Supreme Court was unfaithful to Congress' broad aspirations for the rights of persons with disabilities.

Narrowing Definitions

Courts deciding cases under, the Rehabilitation Act (the ADA's predecessor) did not view the definition of "disability" as a strict obstacle for plaintiffs. The judgments did not turn on whether an individual had a disability; at issue instead was whether the disability was the cause of the adverse action and whether the action was justified because a person's disability rendered her unqualified for a job or ineligible for a service. The courts' approach was similar to that taken in discrimination claims based on race or gender. When making decisions regarding race or gender discrimination, courts do not engage in searching inquiries into whether the individual is "really a woman" or "really an African American." If the cases are lost, it is usually because individuals were unable to prove they had been discriminated against because of their race or gender.

Nothing during the passage of the ADA suggested a narrow definition of "disability." In fact, the ADA's definition is derived from the Rehabilitation Act, which courts interpreted broadly. Congress explicitly said that the ADA should not "be construed to apply a lesser standard than [that applied under the Rehabilitation Act]." (2) However, the legal landscape has changed dramatically. In approximately 87 percent of ADA cases from 1992 to 2000, federal appellate courts favored employers, usually on grounds that individuals failed to meet the statutory definition of "disability." (3) Even in 1997, a commentator declared that the ADA "has become increasingly narrowed to the point where. " (4) it is in danger of becoming ineffective. In 2002, Justice O'Connor, writing for a unanimous Court, declared that the ADA must "be interpreted strictly to create a demanding standard for qualifying as disabled." (5)

The Court's interpretation depends on its construal of several key concepts:

Major life activity. The ADA defines "disability" as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities,... a record of such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment." "Major life activities" include caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, reproducing, or working. (6)

The Court adopted a narrow construal of "major life activity" in Toyota Motor Mfg. Ky Inc. v. Williams. (7) The Court focused on the major activity of performing manual tasks. A woman with carpal tunnel syndrome was fired because she could not perform the manual tasks associated with her assembly line job; she claimed that, with reasonable accommodations, she was able to work. The Court found that a medical diagnosis of carpal tunnel syndrome was not sufficient to qualify a person as disabled; nor is evidence that the person cannot perform "isolated, unimportant, or particularly difficult manual tasks. …

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