President Bush signed the ADA Amendments Act into law last week without a whole lot of fanfare. Did you miss it?
In recent years, the ADA -- the world's first human rights law for people with disabilities -- has been dramatically narrowed in the courts, leaving citizens with epilepsy, diabetes, mental illness, HIV-AIDS and other disabilities unprotected from discrimination. The ADA Amendments Act clarifies the intent of Congress and reverses the "judicial activism" that has resulted in more than 95% of employment-related ADA cases being dismissed on summary judgment.
Millions of Americans with diseases or impairments such as diabetes, epilepsy, heart disease, cancer and carpal tunnel syndrome will be protected from job discrimination under a new disability rights measure set to become law this week.
The measure overturns a series of Supreme Court rulings that sharply limited who was covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act. When it was first passed in 1990, Congress said the anti-discrimination law protected anyone with a "physical or mental impairment" that "substantially limits" them.
But the high court interpreted the law to apply only to people who were truly disabled, not to those with common impairments such as a hearing loss or a medical condition that can be treated.
In another widely cited case, the court ruled in 2002 that an auto worker with carpal tunnel syndrome did not have a disability, even though she could no longer perform the repetitive tasks on the assembly line.
Here's the crazy thing. The U.S Chamber of Commerce, the arm of big and small business alike, backed the bill, which in turn led to quick passage of the bill:
"Michael J. Eastman, a lawyer for the Chamber of Commerce, agreed that the courts had excluded too many people. "This means many more people will be deemed to have a disability, and some employers are nervous about that."
Nancy M. Zirkin, a longtime civil rights advocate, said it was remarkable that Republicans and Democrats came together to expand the reach of the disability rights law and that the resulting bill won unanimous approval in both houses. "It's a stunning achievement in this partisan atmosphere," she said.
I'm proud of the business community for getting behind this bill. After all, the measure will not mean people who can show they have a disability will always win a discrimination claim. They still must show they are qualified to do the job. If an employee is deemed to have a disability, an employer must seek a "reasonable accommodation" that would permit him to work. Nothing's changed in that regard. It's all stuff most of us would do for any employee, covered by the ADA or not.
Of course, broadening the act does open up your HR shop to a broader set of ADA-related claims, most of them occuring/filed after you've taken an employment action, most of the time for good reasons unrelated to a disabilty.
That's OK - just keep doing the right thing for the employees and the business alike, and everything else takes care of itself.