Unimpaired Rights

The House votes resoundingly to recognize civil rights for the disabled

For Immediate Release:

July 6, 2008

Contact:Editorial

The Washington Post

THE AMERICANS With Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990, was supposed to level the playing field for the disabled. It ended up helping some more than others. If you had an incurable disease, such as epilepsy, that affected your everyday actions but could be treated with medication, you were not disabled, the Supreme Court determined, and you did not deserve the accompanying rights. That soon may change, thanks to a remarkably cooperative effort by businesses and advocates of protections for the disabled. The House recently voted overwhelmingly to expand those protections, and the Senate is expected to follow suit. Although President Bush has expressed concerns that excess litigation may ensue, he is unlikely to veto the bill, nor should he.

The ADA's ambiguous language -- a disability is an "impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities" -- shackled many of the protections offered by the law and saddled the Supreme Court with a no-win choice: either limit the definition of "substantially limits" and exclude people with serious impediments, or expand the definition and provide protections for those with minor impairments whom Congress didn't intend to protect. The court has consistently chosen the former definition. The revision of the ADA should ease this dilemma.

What changed? Last year, a majority of the House supported a version of the Americans With Disabilities Restoration Act that offered more generous protections than the original one; this convinced businesses that it was in their interest to negotiate with disability groups. The compromise, which both sides find amenable, instructs the courts to broadly interpret the definition of disability but not to include every impairment under the definition. Someone with an "actual or perceived impairment" will also be able to seek damages on the basis of that impairment. For example, an applicant for airline pilot can no longer be discriminated against on the basis of eyesight, as long as he or she has corrective eyewear. Most significantly, the Restoration Act defines "substantially limits" as anything that "materially restricts" a major life activity, a distinction that will give the disabled more opportunities to seek protection without putting an undue burden on employers.