On Wednesday, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly granted approval to a Senate bill that will make sweeping changes to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The new law will overrule a number of Supreme Court cases defining who is and who is not disabled under the ADA, and will significantly lower the initial burden of proof for plaintiffs who believe they have been discriminated against due to a disability.
The ADA amendments resulted from a string of federal court decisions that narrowly interpreted the ADA’s definition of a protected individual with a disability. The original ADA language required the plaintiff to be impaired enough so that he or she could not perform a major life activity. However, the plaintiff also had to demonstrate that he or she could perform the essential functions of the job. This dichotomy resulted in a large percentage of ADA claims being dismissed by courts at an early stage because the plaintiff could not prove he or she fell within this narrow definition.
The new law is the result of extensive negotiations between employer groups and disability rights advocates. It expands the definition of disability to include impairments of bodily functions. Courts would not look at most mitigating measures such as medication when determining if a person qualifies as disabled. Inability to work would be defined as a significant impairment under the ADA.
In return, employers receive confirmation that impairments lasting less than six months will not be considered ADA disabilities. Also, employers will not be required to provide reasonable accommodation to persons who claim they have been regarded as disabled under the ADA.
The new definitions take effect upon President Bush’s signature. For employers, the immediate effect of the new law will be to heighten the importance of spotting possible disability discrimination issues at an early stage, and using the interactive reasonable accommodation process to fulfill legal responsibilities. Employers will not be able to rely on the courts to reject ADA claims based on threshold definition issues.
Over the next several weeks, EmployNews will analyze the new ADA provisions in detail.