Academic journal article Stanford Law Review

Not Disabled Enough: The ADA's "Major Life Activity" Definition of Disability

Academic journal article Stanford Law Review

Not Disabled Enough: The ADA's "Major Life Activity" Definition of Disability

Article excerpt


The Americans with Disabilities Act(1) ("ADA" or "the Act") states that its primary purpose is "to provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities."(2) It also articulates the goal of ensuring that individuals with disabilities have "equality of opportunity."(3) Despite these broad pronouncements, a surprising number of people who one might assume would benefit from the ADA are left outside its protections. These exclusions occur because the Act sets up a stringent definition of disability based on substantial limitation "in a major life activit[y]."(4) If an individual cannot prove that she is disabled according the ADA's strict definition of disability, then she cannot receive protection under the Act.

The definition of disability has created many counterintuitive results in employment-related suits brought under the ADA by individuals with physical impairments. Many plaintiffs who seemingly should benefit from the Act's goal of increasing the opportunities of people with disabilities have their suits dismissed because their impairments are not considered limiting enough to qualify as disabilities. For example, in McKay v. Toyota Motor Manufacturing,(5) the plaintiff claimed that she was fired from her assembly line job because she developed carpal tunnel syndrome that kept her from performing her job without accommodation.(6) The Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the case on summary judgment, finding that the plaintiff's carpal tunnel syndrome did not substantially limit any major life activities and that the plaintiff therefore was ineligible to bring suit under the ADA.(7) Because the court found that the plaintiff was not disabled under the ADA, it never asked whether she was able to perform her former job with or without accommodation, or whether she was discharged because of her carpal tunnel syndrome.(8) Similarly, courts have found that people with diabetes(9) and severe myopia(10) do not qualify as disabled under the Act, rejecting their claims outright.

Because the ADA's stated goals provide somewhat contradictory indications of whom Congress meant the Act to cover, it is not clear whether Congress intended to exclude such plaintiffs. However, these and other surprising ADA decisions suggest that the employment provisions, which constitute Title I of the Act, should be reexamined.

In the employment context, the Act addresses the goal of improving the status of people with disabilities by implementing the "General rule" that "[n]o covered entity shall discriminate against a qualified individual with a disability because of the disability."(11) Although this sounds like a single rule, the ADA actually uses it to place two distinct requirements on employers. First, as the language of the "General rule" itself suggests, the ADA forbids employers from discriminating against individuals with disabilities on the basis of their disability. Second, by defining forbidden discrimination to include "not making reasonable accommodation to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability,"(12) the ADA requires employers to actively accommodate individuals' disabilities.

These two requirements are different in many ways and raise a number of distinct legal issues. Yet, because the Act defines the antidiscrimination requirement as encompassing the accommodation requirement, the two requirements are grouped together and are not distinguished for purposes of any of the other provisions of the Act. In particular, in determining to whom they apply, both requirements rely on the same definition of disability. This statutory structure has created many strange results because the single definition of disability is not well-matched to the two distinct components of the Act's approach to employment.

A restructured ADA could avoid many of the primary flaws in the current Act. …

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