ADA Changes: The New Definition of Disability

By Tim Moore

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990 and became effective on July 26, 1992 to protect those with major disabilities in the workplace. Since then, much has changed, especially the definition of the term ^D<'disability^D>'. On January 1, 2009, the definition of ^D<'disability^D>' was changed drastically.

In the initial ADA, a disability was defined as a mental or physical impairment that ^D<"substantially limits^D>" a ^D<"major life activity^D>". Major life activities were activities such as walking, hearing, seeing or breathing. Due to this strict definition, many employers used the law to prove that their employees were not truly disabled ^D<'under the law^D>', even when the employee was experiencing a disability that limited work and life activities. One case in particular was Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams. In this case, Ella Williams lost even though she had carpal tunnel syndrome because she could still perform activities such as bathing herself and brushing her teeth. In 2002 the court determined that the term disabled must be ^D<"interpreted strictly to create a demanding standard for qualifying as disabled.^D>"

In the new definition of disability, the ADA states ^D<"an impairment that substantially limits one major life activity need not limit other major life activities in order to be considered a disability.^D>" This new definition was created in hopes of providing greater protection for disabled employees.

There were other major changes as well, including an expanded list of major life activities. Now the list includes ^D<"major bodily functions^D>", including reproduction, excretion and digestion. In addition, applicants are now considered disabled even if their disability is in remission or episodic. They are considered disabled even if the use of medications, prosthetic limbs or hearing aids helps their condition. Now, applicants are considered disabled based on whether or not they need medication and other medical help. For instance, if someone has seizures but takes medication for this episodic condition that keeps it under control, they are still considered disabled because they have seizures even if they are not taking their medicines. The only amendment to this rule is a visual impairment that can be corrected with corrective lenses.

These changes will bring forth many changes in the workplace: more provisions for the disabled, more training for supervisors and managers, and more training and understanding for employees. Where once companies could question whether or not an employee was truly disabled, now they must focus solely on accommodating these disabilities. Finally, the focus is moved away from employers trying to prove that an employee is not disabled, to the employer taking care of their employees.

Reference: Tim Moore is a former Examiner for the Social Security Administration. He has a website that provides information on the SSD and SSI disability system and which also provides a Social Security Disability FAQ .

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