July 26, 2013 marked the 23rd anniversary of the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act (the “ADA”). The landmark legislation, which was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990, is one of America’s most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation. The ADA is an “equal opportunity” law for people with disabilities which prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life – to enjoy employment opportunities and use of public services such as transportation, guaranteeing access to public accommodations such as restaurants, stores, hotels and other types of buildings to which the public has access, and participating in State and local government programs and services.
The ADA has five titles:
Title I – Employment
Title II – State and local government
Title III – Public accommodations (private businesses)
Title IV – Telecommunications
Title V – Transportation and miscellaneous provisions
The ADA prohibits discrimination against any qualified individual with a disability. Specifically, the ADA protects three categories of individuals:
- Individuals who have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.
- Individuals who have a record of a physical or mental impairment.
- Individuals who are regarded as having an impairment, whether they have an impairment or not.
At the signing of the ADA on July 26, 1990, President George H. W. Bush stated:
“Three weeks ago we celebrated our nation’s Independence Day. Today we’re here to rejoice in and celebrate another ‘independence day,’ one that is long overdue. With today’s signing of the landmark Americans for Disabilities Act, every man, woman, and child with a disability can now pass through once-closed doors into a bright new era of equality, independence, and freedom.”
Source: Remarks of President George Bush at the Signing of the ADA
The preamble to the ADA Handbook states that, “the Enactment of the ADA reflects deeply held American ideals that treasure the contributions that individuals can make when free from arbitrary, unjust, or outmoded societal attitudes and practices that prevent the realization of their potential. The ADA reflects a recognition that the surest path to America’s continued vitality, strength and vibrancy is through the full realization of the contributions of all of its citizens.”
In the 18 years following the enactment of the ADA, the Supreme Court decided twenty ADA cases, five of which centered on the definition of disability. Four of these cases significantly narrowed the definition of disability: Sutton v. United Airlines, 527 U.S. 471 (1999); Murphy v. United Parcel Service, 527 U.S. 516(1999); Albertson’s, Inc. v. Kirkingburg, 527 U.S. 555 (1999); and Toyota Motor Mfg., Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, 534 U.S. 184 (2002).
On September 25, 2008, Congress enacted the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA). The amendments became effective on January 1, 2009. By enacting the ADAAA, Congress overturned several Supreme Court decisions that Congress believed had interpreted the definition of “disability” too narrowly, resulting in a denial of protection for many individuals with impairments such as cancer, diabetes, and epilepsy. It also directed the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to amend its ADA regulations to reflect the changes made by the ADAAA.
The ADAAA made a number of significant changes to the definition of “disability” under the ADA. In enacting the ADAAA, Congress made it easier for an individual seeking protection under the ADA to establish that he or she has a disability within the meaning of the statute. The ADAAA states that the definition of disability should be interpreted in favor of broad coverage of individuals. In addition, an important statement in the Purposes section of the ADAAA clarifies that Congress intends that the focus of the ADA, like other civil rights statutes, should be on whether discrimination occurred, not on an exhausting analysis of whether the person has a disability.
If you have questions about the application of the ADA and/or employment law questions regarding your job or your business, please contact Kevin P. Wicka or Jenna S. Strazzulla at 716-849-6500.