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ADA Amendments: More Protections for People With Disabilities

ADA Amendments: More Protections for People With Disabilities

Changes to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) will protect more workers from discrimination.

On September 25, 2008, President Bush signed the ADA Amendments Act. This new law strengthens protections provided in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for people with disabilities. The law overturns several Supreme Court decisions and makes clear Congress's intent that the term "disability" should be interpreted more broadly by employers and courts.

The likely result of the new law, set to go into effect on January 1, 2009, is that more employees will be found to have disabilities and, therefore, be entitled to reasonable accommodations for their disabilities, ;and protection from discrimination by their employers.

Here are some key provisions of the new law:
"Major Life Activities" Expanded

The ADA defines a disability as an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. The new law says that major bodily functions, such as cell growth and the proper functioning of the immune, brain, and respiratory systems, also count as major life activities.

This focus on the body's internal functions will cover serious conditions which have not yet appeared as outward symptoms. For example, many types of cancer wreak havoc on the body in early stages without substantially limiting the patient's ability to breathe, walk, or work. Impairments like these will now be covered without question; in the past, some courts had found that they were not disabilities.

Impairments Don't Have to Be Active

The new law makes clear that episodic impairments (such as asthma) and diseases in remission (as might be true of cancer) are disabilities if they substantially limit a major life activity when they are active. Many serious, even life-threatening diseases wax and wane in intensity or go into periods of remission. This provision ensures that employees with these types of ailments are protected by the ADA.

Impairments Must Last For More Than Six Months

The ADA has always provided that temporary impairments, such as a broken arm, are not disabilities. The new law puts a time limit on this definition: An impairment that lasts for six months or less is defined as "transitory," and does not qualify as a disability under the law.

Corrective Measures Cannot be Considered

Previously, the Supreme Court and many lower courts ruled that corrective measures (such as drug treatments or assistive devices) could be considered when determining if an employee's condition limited his or her life activities. As a result, employees who controlled their diseases with medication and other treatments were found not to have a disability.

The new law clarifies that, except for ordinary prescription glasses and contact lenses, the corrective measures an employee uses may not be considered in determining whether the employee has a disability.

Clarification of Protections For Those "Regarded As" Having a Disability

The ADA protects not only those who have a disability, but also those who have a history of disability and those whose employers perceive them as having a disability. This last category was intended to protect employees from discrimination based on stereotypes or negative assumptions about their disability (for example, that everyone with a mental illness is dangerous, or that someone with a limp won't be able to do a job that requires walking).

In the past, courts have applied different standards to employees seeking to prove these claims. The new law clarifies that an employee needs to show only that the employer regarded him or her as having a physical or mental impairment, not that the employer further believed that impairment substantially limited a major life activity. The law also clarifies that an employee who is making only a "regarded as" claim is not entitled to a reasonable accommodation.

What Does This All Mean?

It remains to be seen exactly how these changes will play out in workplaces and courts, but one thing's clear: More employees will enjoy the protections of the ADA once the new law goes into effect.

To learn more about the federal laws that apply to the workplace, get The Essential Guide to Federal Employment Laws, by Lisa Guerin, J.D. & Attorney Amy DelPo (Nolo). For information on laws that protect employees from discrimination in the workplace, get Your Rights in the Workplace, by Barbara Kate Repa, J.D. (Nolo).

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