The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 became effective January 1, 2009. The Act has expanded protections of disabled workers under Federal law, bringing Federal disability laws in sync with already broad protections California offers disabled employees under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA.)
In the Amendments Congress expressed its intent to specifically overrule the U.S. Supreme Court’s holdings over the years with regard to the definition of “disabled.” Now, the term “disability” is to be interpreted broadly. And, according to the Amendments, the question of whether an individual’s impairment is a disability should not demand extensive analysis.
The following are some specific areas addressed by the Amendments:
An Impairment That Substantially Limits
A Major Life Activity. In order for an impairment to be considered a disability, it need not limit more than one major life activity.
The list of major life activities covered under the ADA has been expanded to include many previously recognized activities and to include a list of Major Bodily Functions not specified before such as digestive, neurological, respiratory, brain, reproductive and circulatory functions.
The Amendments also specify that an individual with an impairment which is episodic or in remission, will be considered disabled if that impairment substantially limits a major life activity when it is active.
Congress specifically rejected the Supreme Court’s prior holing in Sutton v. United Airlines, and its companion cases, that required a court to consider whether mitigating measures such as medication, should be considered in determining whether an individual is disabled under the ADA. Now, the determination of whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity shall be made without regard to the ameliorative effects of mitigating measures, other than “ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses.”
Regarded as Having an Impairment
One area where Congress actually limited the ADA’s coverage is with respect to individuals who are regarded as disabled.
Now, it is clear that an employer need not provide a reasonable accommodation to an individual who is not actually impaired, but is merely regarded as having an impairment that affects a major life activity.
Such an individual may still have a discrimination claim against his employer on another ground, but he or she is not entitled to an accommodation for a nonexistent disability.
Further, the definition of a disability, which includes a person regarded as having an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, will not extend to a “transitory impairment” with an actual or expected duration of 6 months or less.
How do the Amendments Affect the California Employer?
As a practical matter, for California employers, these Amendments mean little since California law has long offered extremely broad protections to the disabled in the employment arena. However, California courts will now be able to look to Federal law more readily for interpretive cases to guide their decisions in disability-discrimination cases.
And, the ADA Amendments Act should serve as a good reminder to review your policies with regard to hiring, firing and managing your employees so that your business handles all issues regarding disabled employees and applicants in compliance with these broad laws.