ADA Amendments Act (ADAA) Signed Into Law -- Federal Disability Protections Broadened

It didn't get much press this last week -- what with the economy collapsing in the midst of a presidential election -- but on Thursday President Bush signed the ADA Amendments Act (ADAA) into law.  The legislation will take effect on January 1, 2009 and will significantly broaden the federal definition of the "disabilities" that require accommodation under the ADA.

The new legislation preserves the traditional verbal formula that a covered disability is one which "substantially limits one or more major life activities."  However, Congress has now expressly changed the meaning of these words to expand the number of employees who will be covered by the ADA.  For example:

  • The term "disability" shall henceforth be interpreted broadly in favor of finding coverage under the Act.
  • A covered disability now includes any condition that "materially restricts" (rather than "substantially limits") a major life activity.  There is no telling what this new term is intended to means except that it is intended to be broader than the prior definition. 
  • An employees is now covered under the ADA whether or not he has a covered disability, so long as the employer "perceives" that he has an "impairment" that has an expected duration of more than six months.  
  • The employee's condition shall now be judged in its unmitigated state -- i.e., without regard to the effects of any corrective measures such as medications that would control the symptoms.

The main purpose of the legislation is to overturn a number of pro-employer Supreme Court decisions, including Sutton v. United Airlines, Inc., 527 U.S. 471 (1999), and Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, 534 U.S. 184 (2002).  

Interestingly, the effect of these amendments will be to essentially conform the ADA to the already broadened disability protections of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). 

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