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A narrower definition of 'disabled'

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 23, 1999



WASHINGTON

People with correctable physical limitations, like poor eyesight or high blood pressure, may not seek the protection of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the US Supreme Court ruled June 22.

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In three different cases, the high court adopted a narrow view of the federal civil rights law aimed at opening workplace doors to all Americans who are able and willing to work despite a disability.

At issue in the case was who is considered disabled under the ADA. The court ruled that mitigating factors that help an individual overcome a physical impairment - like the use of eyeglasses for someone who is nearsighted - should be considered when determining who is disabled.

"If a person is taking measures to correct for, or mitigate, a physical or mental impairment, the effects of those measures - both positive and negative - must be taken into account," wrote Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in one of the three cases.

The ruling is a victory for employers who feared that a broader reading of the law might set the stage for a tidal wave of lawsuits from a wide range of employees or job candidates, including anyone who wears eyeglasses. It is expected to make it easier for companies to reject candidates or fire employees who do not measure up to certain physical requirements.

The decision is a setback for disability-rights advocates who had hoped that the court might embrace the spirit of the ADA and see it as covering anyone who faces discrimination because of physical or mental limitations. Instead, the ruling will sharply restrict the pool of disabled persons protected under the act to those whose disability cannot easily be mitigated.

This decision "severely limits the protection of the ADA," says Gary Phalen, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the National Employment Lawyer's Association. "It opens the door to employers discriminating against people with disabilities," and it's not what Congress had in mind when it passed the ADA law.

"The law is slowly becoming insignificant, and that's not going to change unless Congress steps in," Mr. Phalen says.

In announcing two of the court's decisions, Justice O'Connor said the majority noted that Congress, when it passed the ADA, said that 43 million Americans were disabled. She said that number would have approached 160 million if Congress intended the ADA to apply to Americans who rely on mitigating measures to at least partially overcome their disability.

The purpose of the ADA is to open up opportunities for those who are qualified to perform the essential functions of a job - regardless of disability. In addition, the law's broader purpose is to break down stereotypes. It is designed to encourage employers to judge their prospective employees by their abilities, rather than their disabilities.

A key issue that emerged in many ADA lawsuits was whether the plaintiff qualified as a disabled person covered by the ADA. For example, if a nearsighted person who is legally blind has perfect 20-20 vision with eyeglasses, should that person qualify as being disabled under the ADA?

The high court resolved the issue by drawing a line between workers whose disabilities can be mitigated through corrective equipment or medicine, and those workers whose disabilities can not be so mitigated.