On Sept. 25, 2008, President Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act, a measure that significantly amends the original Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”). These changes mean that more employees will be considered disabled under the law and could possibly lead to increased compliance costs and more complicated litigation.

Originally enacted in 1990, the ADA was designed to prohibit employment discrimination against people with disabilities. However, Supreme Court decisions narrowed the application of the law by defining a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The Court also stated that an individual was not disabled under the law if the impairment could be mitigated by medication or some other means. These decisions were important because a disability determination decides whether an employer must investigate and implement accommodations and whether an employer is subject to liability under the ADA for failing to do so. Following these decisions, other courts denied ADA claims by individuals with correctable ailments (such as poor vision, diabetes, epilepsy, etc.) or who were only limited in a few classes of life activities.

The ADA Amendment Act overrules those decisions through a variety of new provisions. For example, under the new law, a court deciding whether an individual is disabled is not permitted to consider whether the condition can be mitigated by the use of medication or other means. Even a condition that is dormant or only occurs episodically is to be considered a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active. The bill also defines major life activities and includes among them major bodily functions such as digestive functions, cell growth, neurological functions, and respiratory functions. In addition, an impairment need only affect one major life activity to qualify as a disability. Finally, the law provides that the definition of disability under the act should be construed in favor of broad coverage of individuals.

Critics of the Amendments argue that it will force employers to make accommodations for individuals with fully managed conditions, such as diabetes or epilepsy. This could, in turn, lead to increased compliance costs and increased litigation when the employer declines or is unable to make a requested accommodation. Opponents also argue that if employers are forced to accommodate employees with relatively minor impairments, it could reduce their ability to provide appropriate accommodations to those employees with more serious disabilities.