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Americans with Disabilities Act

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Description: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a wide-ranging civil rights statute that prohibits numerous kinds of discrimination against persons with physical or mental handicaps in both public and private sectors. The statute emphasizes two major forms of discrimination: in employment and in physical barriers to buildings, transportation, and public services.


Significance: The ADA has been somewhat successful in improving the economic opportunities for disabled persons, but its greatest impact has been to force both government and private businesses to improve physical access to buildings and transportation facilities. Because of the subjective nature of the legislation's language, the Supreme Court's interpretations of key terms and concepts have frequently determined whether lawsuits are successful.


Often described as the world's first comprehensive law designed to protect persons with disabilities from invidious discrimination, the ADA was modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Its origins go back to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which had a provision prohibiting discrimination in federal programs against an “otherwise qualified individual” solely because of a handicap. In the presidential election of 1988, both major candidates endorsed the principle of providing additional protections. After the election, Congress and President George H. W. Bush agreed on a broad statute that is divided into five parts: Title I deals with employment discrimination; Title II covers access to government buildings and services; Title III covers a vast array of nongovernmental facilities and services; Title IV deals specifically with hearing-impaired persons; and Title V deals with a variety of technical matters. The ADA defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.” The judgment about whether a particular condition is a “disability” is made on a case by case basis. The statute requires “reasonable accommodations” to facilitate full participation of disabled persons, but it exempts measures that cause “undue hardship.” For employment purposes, a person must be “otherwise qualified” to perform a job, and employers are not required to hire or promote a disabled person who is less competent or qualified than another candidate. The meanings and applications of the ADA's rather vague terms are primarily the responsibility of federal agencies, whose decisions are subject to judicial review. In addition, private plaintiffs in many instances may sue and receive compensation for violations.


Supreme Court Decisions

The U.S. Supreme Court has often upheld the rights of disabled persons to facilities and services under Titles II and III. In Bragdon v. Abbot (1998), for example, the Court ruled five to four that infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a disability that entitles its victims to ADA protection, thereby requiring dentists and other caregivers to provide services to such persons unless a “direct threat” can be demonstrated. In another case involving a medical impairment, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections v. Yeskey (1998), when a prison inmate was denied participation in a rehabilitation program because of a history of hypertension, the Court ruled unanimously that the ADA's protections extended to prisoners as well as other citizens. When Casey Martin, a professional golfer who suffered from a degenerative circulatory disorder, was denied use of a golf cart in a tournament, the Court ruled in his favor in PGA Tour v. Martin (2001). Justice John Paul Stevens explained that the accommodation of a golf cart would not “fundamentally alter the nature” of the game. In Spector v. Norwegian Cruise Line (2006), the Court held that foreign-flag cruise ships must provide services for persons with disabilities while sailing in American waters. In employment cases under Title I, the Supreme Court has defined the word “disability” very narrowly. The key case was Sutton v. United Air Lines (1999), which involved two women who were refused consideration for employment by a commercial airline company because of their myopic vision, even though their vision was correctable with glasses. When reviewing the case, the Supreme Court found that the condition of the two women was not covered by Title I for three reasons: their condition did not substantially limit any life activity; the statute covered only conditions requiring an individualized assessment; and Congress had described the act as protecting only forty-three million Americans with severe disabilities. Reaffirming the ruling in Murphy v. United Parcel Services (1999), the Court found that the ADA did not cover an employee with high blood pressure that was treatable with medication. The definition of disability in Sutton and Murphy greatly limited the number of people qualified to bring suit under the statute. Other decisions by the Supreme Court have also disappointed advocates of disability rights. Barnes v. Gorman (2002) was a complex case about a paraplegic man who was awarded punitive damages for the serious injuries suffered while being transported by the police. Since Congress had not provided clear direction about the matter, the Court looked to parallel provisions in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, concluding that punitive damages may not be awarded in a private cause of action brought under the ADA. Disability rights activists were equally unhappy with the outcome of U.S. Airways v. Barnett (2002), a case in which seniority rules appeared to conflict with the rights of a disabled employee. The Court decided that whenever it was necessary for a disabled employee to be transferred to an alternative position within an organization, the ADA did not give the disabled person any right to a special privilege in taking over the position rather than another employee who was entitled to that position under a seniority system. Early in the twenty-first century, the Supreme Court was badly divided on the issue of whether the ADA contradicts the sovereign immunity of the states under the Eleventh Amendment. In Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama v. Garrett (2001), two public employees sought money damages under Title I, charging that the employer had not made reasonable accommodations to their disabilities. By a 5-4 vote, the Court held that the Eleventh Amendment barred Congress from authorizing money awards for failure to comply with Title I. However, in Tennessee v. Lane (2004), when two persons with disabilities sued Tennessee under Article II for not providing access to the upper floors of the state courthouse, the Court, by a 5-4 margin, ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. Recognizing that access to a court of law is a fundamental right, the Court held that Congress had the authority under the Fourteenth Amendment to protect such rights under the ADA.



Further Reading

  • Jones, Nancy Lee. The Americans with Disabilities Act: Overview, Regulations and Interpretations. Hauppauge: Nova Science, 2003.
  • Switzer, Jacqueline Vaughn. Disabled Rights: American Disability Policy and the Fight for Equality. Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2003.