The US Supreme Court has made it harder for workers with job-related physical impairments to claim protection under the Americans With Disabilities Act.
In a unanimous decision Tuesday, the high court ruled that the determination of who is disabled - and thus covered by the ADA's protections - requires proof that the worker is unable to perform a wide range of manual tasks central to daily life, such as brushing one's teeth.
The determination is not strictly related to the performance of tasks at work, the court says.
The ruling comes in a case involving a Kentucky automobile assembly-line worker, Ella Williams, who was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome, a repetitive-strain injury that causes pain in the hands, wrists, and arms.
Ms. Williams sued her employer, Toyota Motor Corp., seeking an accommodation at work under the ADA.
The Supreme Court decision overturns an appeals-court panel that ruled Williams could qualify for ADA protection if her disability affected her ability to perform manual tasks at work.
Writing for the court, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said the Sixth US Circuit Court of Appeals applied a standard too broad to comply with the high court's own narrow interpretation of the ADA.
The decision makes clear that federal judges are to sharply restrict the number of workers who may file suit seeking an accommodation at work because of a claimed disability.
In effect, the ruling says that a person's disability must be severe enough that it affects the types of manual tasks that are of central importance to people's lives. They include the ability to tend to personal hygiene and carry out personal or household chores.
"While the court of appeals in this case addressed the different major life activity of performing manual tasks, its analysis circumvented [prior Supreme Court precedent] by focusing on [the worker's] inability to perform manual tasks associated only with her job," Justice O'Connor writes. "This was error."
The justice adds, "When addressing the major life activity of performing manual tasks, the central inquiry must be whether the claimant is unable to perform the variety of tasks central to most people's lives, not whether the claimant is unable to perform the tasks associated with her specific job."
The ADA was passed by Congress in 1990 with the aim of helping those with physical impairments overcome their disabilities and more fully participate in mainstream American life.
One major difficulty in enforcing the law has been how to determine who qualifies for the substantial protections provided under the ADA. If the court adopted a broad definition of who is disabled, a large segment of the population would qualify for protection.
But the court has determined that Congress did not intend for the law to apply to such a large pool of Americans, and instead views the law as applying only to those whose disabilities are severe.