In 2008, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was amended. Under the existing law, most people who tried to sue for employment discrimination because of their disability were found not to be disabled for the purposes of the ADA. This meant that most plaintiffs who sue under the ADA would lose, no matter how greatly their disability interfered with their ability to work. The Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act (ADAAA) changed the focus of a disability discrimination claim from whether or not a person was disabled, to the discriminatory actions that an employer took on the basis of someone’s disability.
What has the ADAAA changed?
The ADA was originally written to protect people with disabilities from an employer taking a hostile action against them (such as not hiring, firing, or refusing to promote) on the basis of that person’s disability. It also required employers to accommodate a disabled employee’s handicap, unless that accommodation caused “undue hardship” to the employer. Prior to the ADAAA, most courts would dismiss what would seem to be a clear case of employment discrimination because the person was not “disabled” for the purposes of the law. The Supreme Court ruled in Toyota v. Williams that a person was not disabled for the purposes of the ADA unless their disability prevented them from performing a “major life activity,” such as eating, bathing, or brushing one’s teeth. Strangely enough, an injury that prevented you from performing your job was not considered a disability that impacted a “major life activity.”
The ADAAA expressly overruled the Supreme Court’s narrow definition of disability in favor of a broader definition. Under the new disability law, any condition that interferes with a major life activity (including working) or a major organ system is a disability for the purposes of the ADA. Also, if an employer takes a hostile action against someone based on the belief that that person has a disability, they can be sued, whether or not the disability was real.
Under the old law, it was almost impossible for a person to successfully sue for employment discrimination on the basis of a disability. The ADAAA changes the balance of power, and makes it clear that employers must accommodate employees with disabilities.