Workers With Disabilities Unprotected Against Employment Discrimination, Witnesses Tell House Labor Committee

Advocates say legislation needed to restore intent of the Americans with Disabilities Act

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

WASHINGTON, DC -- Legislation is needed to reverse court decisions that have left most workers with disabilities without any on-the-job protections against discrimination, witnesses told the House Education and Labor Committee today.

The Americans with Disabilities Restoration Act (H.R. 3195), introduced by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), would restore the original intent of the historic Americans with Disabilities Act. The bipartisan bill would reverse recent court decisions that have made it easier for employers to discriminate against workers with disabilities.

With several rulings beginning in 1999, the Supreme Court dramatically narrowed the definition of who is protected under the ADA. The court held that disabled workers who are able to mitigate their impairments, such as by wearing hearing aides or taking medication, should not be considered disabled. In such cases, these workers would have no remedy under the law when they are discriminated against because of their disability. In other words, an employer could fire or refuse to hire a fully qualified worker simply on the basis of his or her disability, while contending in court that the worker is not "disabled enough" to qualify for protection under the law - a Catch-22 that workers' advocates said today must be remedied.

Hoyer, who was the chief House sponsor of the ADA in 1990, testified that Congress needs to act to ensure that workers with disabilities are treated fairly in the workplace.

"The bill does not seek to expand the rights guaranteed under the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act. Instead, it seeks to clarify the law, restoring the scope of protection available under the ADA," said Hoyer. "It responds to court decisions that have sharply restricted the class of people who can invoke protection under the law. And it reinstates the original Congressional intent when we passed the ADA."

"Despite our progress, the courts - including the U.S. Supreme Court - have narrowly interpreted the ADA, limiting its scope and undermining its intent," Hoyer continued. "We could not have fathomed that people with diabetes, epilepsy, heart conditions, cancer, and mental illnesses would have their ADA claims kicked out of court because, with medication, they would be considered too functional to meet the definition of 'disabled.'"

Carey McClure testified that an initial job offer was revoked by General Motors because of his muscular dystrophy. But the courts ruled that because McClure had adapted to his condition by modifying the way he performed everyday tasks such as showering or brushing his teeth, he was not disabled and, therefore, not protected by the ADA.

"Even though GM revoked my offer because of my disability, GM's lawyer started arguing to the federal courts that I didn't have a disability at all," said McClure. "Well, you can't have it both ways - am I disabled or not? If I am, then the ADA should have been there to protect me. If I'm not, then I should be workingat GM right now."

Andrew Imparato, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities, said that the initial promise of protecting disabled workers under the ADA has largely faded as a result of Supreme Court rulings.

"In 1990, the ADA was heralded as an 'emancipation proclamation' for people with disabilities," said Imparato. "Seventeen years later, on account of judicial activism, we are far from having a law that can be counted on to safeguard the fair treatment of people with disabilities in the workplace."

Robert Burgdorf, a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia, agreed and noted that fewer than one in ten ADA complaints is successful.

"Even a cursory review of the cases decided under the ADA reveals a plethora of court decisions in which people with conditions everyone thought were covered under the law when it was enacted have had their lawsuits thrown out of court based on technical, harshly narrow interpretations of what a 'disability' is," said Burgdorf.

"It is evident that the Supreme Court's misinterpretation of Congress's intent when enacting the ADA has left many Americans without protection from workplace discrimination," said Rep. Rob Andrews (D-NJ), chairman of the Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions. "Without question, Congress must act to rectify this mistake so individuals like Carey McClure can apply for a job without fear of being fired because of their disability."

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