ADA Amendments Act of 2008 Expands Definition of “Disability”
Topics: New Laws & Legislation
On September 25, 2008, President Bush signed the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 into law. The Act overturns prior United States Supreme Court precedent interpreting the meaning of “disabilities” under the ADA, and greatly expands the scope of covered disabilities.
Prior to its amendment, the ADA defined a “disability” as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.In a series of cases, the United States Supreme Court held that determining whether a condition substantially limits a major life activity depends on consideration of whether “mitigating measures,” such as medication or medical devices, ameliorate the individual’s impairment. The Supreme Court also held that the terms “substantially limited” and “major life activities” were to be strictly construed and that only individuals who are not prevented or severely restricted in their ability to engage in activities that of central importance to most people’s lives, will qualify as “disabled” under the ADA. The new Act reverses this Supreme Court precedent by specifying that the Act’s definition of “disability” is intended to be interpreted broadly and in favor of coverage.In addition, the Act specifies that the determination of whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity generally is to be made without regard to the presence of mitigating measures (e.g. prosthetics, hearing aids, medication) that may ameliorate the impact of the impairment. Furthermore, the Act makes clear that an impairment need only limit one major life activity in order to qualify as a disability. The Act specifically defines “major life activities” to include “caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.” It also includes “the operation of a major bodily function.”
Also of significance, the Act newly specifies that an impairment that is only episodic or is in remission (such as epilepsy or cancer) still qualifies as a “disability” if it would substantially limit a major life activity in its active state.
Impact of the Act on California Employers
Although the Act greatly expands the definition of “disability” under the ADA, this will not have much impact on California employers, who are already covered by California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act and its historically broad definition of “disability.” However, for multi-state employers who are only covered by the ADA in some states, they will need to examine their policies and practices to ensure they are complying with the new law. Whereas much of the litigation under the ADA has historically focused on the issue of whether the employee was actually “disabled” under the ADA, it should be expected that under the new law, that issue will be much more easily decided in favor of the employee. As a result, the litigation focus will be on the employer’s action and whether it was truly discriminatory or whether it was taken for legitimate, non-discriminatory business reasons.