Some of the most significant changes in the history of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) came one step closer to becoming law on September 11, 2008, when the United States Senate unanimously approved the ADA Amendments Act (S. 3406). The bill would overturn several significant Supreme Court ADA holdings and expand the number of Americans who could qualify as "disabled" under the ADA.
Specifically, the bill changes the current rule that courts will consider the effects of medication and other treatments when determining whether a person is disabled under the ADA. That approach was originally adopted in 1999 when the Supreme Court held in Sutton v. United Airlines, Inc. that two nearsighted pilots were not disabled under the ADA because they could see normally with the use of contact lenses or eyeglasses. Although the Senate bill provides that courts may still consider the use of ordinary eyeglasses and contact lenses when determining whether someone qualifies as disabled under the ADA, it prohibits consideration of other mitigating measures such as medications or artificial limbs that courts are currently taking into account in deciding whether someone is disabled under the ADA. This change will expand the number of individuals qualifying for the ADA's protections by making even conditions that have been effectively mitigated with treatment, such as certain forms of cancer, diabetes, and even hearing loss, protected disabilities under the ADA.
The bill also lessens the effect that an impairment must have on an individual's life to qualify as a disability. Under the Supreme Court's decision in Toyota Motor Mfg Co. of Ky. v. Williams (2002), an impairment must "substantially limit" a "major life activity" to qualify as a disability under the ADA. Although it retains the requirement that persons be "substantially limited," the Senate bill makes clear that the standard for evaluating a substantial limitation is less demanding than the Supreme Court held in Toyota. The bill also provides some specific examples of major life activities, including concentrating, communicating, and working, and adds to the list of major life activities the operation of major bodily functions such as digestive and reproductive functions.
The bill will now be sent back to the House of Representatives for consideration. The House previously adopted its own version of the ADA Amendments Act in July, which varied slightly from the bill the Senate passed on September 11, 2008. House of Representatives leaders have indicated that the House will likely adopt the Senate's bill without modification. Following passage, the President is expected to sign the bill into law. The new legislation would take effect January 1, 2009.