History & Amendments of ADA

  • As introduced into law, the ADA itself noted that some 43 million Americans fit the definition of “disability.”
  • Soon after, however, the Act was subject to a number of legal challenges. Its constitutionality was questioned. And the core definition of disability was addressed in a litany of cases, ultimately resulting in significant rulings by the United States Supreme Court that in effect gutted much of the Act.
  • A number of disability rights attorneys noted that after those decisions, the number of people protected by the Act had dropped from 43 million to 43, total.
  • Many disability rights attorneys folded their practices; others refocused their expertise to areas of law that were viewed as still viable. For a summary of those Supreme Court decisions, see the presentation by Joyce Glucksman: "Workplace Issues: What Congress Giveth, Courts Taketh Away."
  • Thankfully for people with impairments, Congress took heed and amended the ADA, restoring (effective 2009) many of the rights that it originally intended and the courts had taken away.
  • It did so primarily by retooling the definition of “disability.”
  • Congress’s support for the rights of people with disabilities was reflected, in part, by a series of findings about reflecting its belief that the Supreme Court had: narrowed the broad scope of protection intended to be afforded by the ADA, thus eliminating protection for many individuals whom Congress intended to protect; narrowed the broad scope of protection intended to be afforded by the ADA; and, in particular, interpreted the term “substantially limits” to require a greater degree of limitation than was intended by Congress, thereby excluding many people with disabilities from protection.
  • To be sure, this was by any measure a significant victory for the civil rights of people with impairments. However, it would not be surprising to see an array of legal assaults on the current ADA. And it will take time to know whether and how much of the amendments would withstand those challenges. Moreover, even if they survive 100%, the ADA amendments do not fully address, and may even complicate, discrimination claims by people with progressive illnesses such as Parkinson’s.
  • Note: ADA claims based on facts prior to 2009 will be judged by the law before it was amended.

Congress’ 2008 ADA “Restoration”

The approach that Congress took to remedying these problems was to refocus and redefine the definitions of key phrases within the definition of disability. Chief among those changes was making it easier to establish that an impairment “substantially limits one or more major life activities” by expanding the definition of “major life activities:”

(A) In general

… major life activities include, but are not limited to, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.

(B) Major bodily functions

…a major life activity also includes the operation of a major bodily function, including but not limited to, functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions.

In addition, Congress specified that in construing the word

(A) The definition of disability in this chapter shall be construed in favor of broad coverage of individuals under this chapter, to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of this chapter.

(B) The term “substantially limits” shall be interpreted consistently with the findings and purposes of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008.

(C) An impairment that substantially limits one major life activity need not limit other major life activities in order to be considered a disability.

(D) An impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active.


(i)The determination of whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity shall be made without regard to the ameliorative effects of mitigating measures such as:

(I) medication, medical supplies, equipment, or appliances, low-vision devices (which do not include ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses), prosthetics including limbs and devices, hearing aids and cochlear implants or other implantable hearing devices, mobility devices, or oxygen therapy equipment and supplies;

(II) use of assistive technology;

(III) reasonable accommodations or auxiliary aids or services; or

(IV) learned behavioral or adaptive neurological modifications…


Content for this section provided by Mark Rubin, J.D.

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