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Americans with Disabilities Act now applies to more people

Watch for more lawsuits alleging discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act now that a new law amending the ADA has gone into effect as of Jan. 1.  Over the last decade, the Supreme Court had substantially narrowed the number of people eligible for legal protection under the act. The new statute, passed by Congress and signed into law this fall, affirms a broader definition of disability.Notably, the Supreme Court decided in 1999 that a person with a serious but well-controlled medical condition couldn’t be considered disabled under the ADA. Examples include people with epilepsy or diabetes who respond well to medication.

Advocates for the disabled argued that the court’s interpretation was overly strict. By its reasoning, someone with well-managed epilepsy couldn’t prevail on a discrimination charge even if an employer put up signs saying “epileptics not welcome here,” according to Robert Burgdorf Jr., a professor of law at David Clarke School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia.

In a separate case, the Supreme Court held that a disability must be permanent or long-term to qualify for protection, which excluded people with episodic illnesses that flare up and subside. Similarly, the court said an impairment had to be severe enough to affect activities central to a person’s life.

With these and other restrictions, employers prevailed in as many as 97 percent of disability discrimination cases, according to testimony last year by Andrew Imparato, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities.

The 2008 amendments to the ADA make it clear that Congress intended to cast a wider net of protection.

As of Jan. 1, people are deemed disabled on the basis of their underlying medical condition, not the therapy they’ve pursued. (An exception is made for people with poor eyesight rectified by eyeglasses.)

If someone has an episodic illness—for instance, relapsing and remitting multiple sclerosis—the impact on that person’s functioning when the condition is most acute will be used to determine disability.

The ADA still requires an individual to establish that he has a mental or physical impairment that substantially affects a major life activity. But the list of activities that qualify has been expanded significantly to include such tasks as concentrating, thinking, communicating, working, bending, lifting, standing, reading, performing manual tasks and caring for oneself.

“As a result of the passage of the [ADA amendments], the number of disability discrimination claims is likely to increase,” the law firm Goodwin Procter, headquartered in Boston, noted in an advisory.

Recently disabled veterans are among those who Congress hopes will benefit from the newly strengthened ADA protections.

“For our returning war veterans with disabilities, [the new law] will ensure their transition back to civilian life will not include another battle here at home—a battle against discrimination on the basis of disability,” said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, in a September statement in Congress


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