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ADA’s 20th Anniversary: A Contrary View

ADA’s 20th Anniversary: A Contrary View

Much has been favorably written about the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. It is my view, however, that the ADA hasn’t helped the truly disabled as much as it’s helped people with ordinary physical and mental ailments. With the passage of the ADA Amendments Act and its new definition of disability, this unfortunate result will be exacerbated.

We need a disability discrimination law. Early on when the law was being crafted, many observers thought its purpose was to help citizens who had been traditionally eliminated from the workplace without much consideration — the blind, deaf, paralyzed, a schizophrenic — to finally break through.

Almost from the beginning, though, the law was used for workers’ comp injuries, bad backs, arthritic knees, sore feet, headaches, nervous conditions, on-again off-again ailments, and the like. I’m inclined to believe that one reason the U.S. Supreme Court issued rulings to narrow the ADA’s application is to prevent the law from covering non-disabilities, at least from a traditional point of view. Now that Congress has overturned these rulings with the ADAAA, disabilities are destined to become caricatures.

I’m not complaining about a needed disability discrimination law. I’m complaining about a law that cheapens the struggles and accomplishments of those with real disabilities by covering “disabilities” so broadly defined by the ADAAA that it’s hard to imagine an ailment or illness that isn’t a disability. Perhaps someone has already expressed this contrary view, but I haven’t seen it — not in conjunction with marking the ADA’s 20th anniversary. It needs to be said.

I’m not encouraging ADA civil disobedience. For 20 years, I have tried to help employers comply with this law, and I will continue to do so. I’m saying that it is an example of a law with good intentions being turned on its head.

  1. John – Thanks for posting this. Your comments are right on the mark. I remember talking to a roomful of business men and women during the ADA debate and suggesting that the law might be stretched to conditions that were not traditionally considered disabilities. They were nervous about the law but skeptical of my remarks. We now live with the upsidedown results of ADA.

  2. Thanks, Kurt. I’m not surprised that you were ahead of your time.

    Still enjoy your Cultural Offering blog.


  3. Um, bad backs can be crippling, particularly if accommodations are denied and they become worse. Arthritis calls for reasonable accommodations or it will get worse, until the person is no longer able to work at all. Many illnesses are “on again, off again.” For instance, cancer treatments, lupus, asthma, and many more are a problem sometimes and not a problem other times. Sore feet greatly limit how much you can walk. They can also indicate an underlying problem that needs to be addressed, such as undiagnosed arthritis.

    The ADA was NOT intended to apply only to ventilator-dependent people with quadriplegia. It was intended to get employers to work with their employees, not throw them away as soon as they become inconvenient. And employers are not supposed to abuse their employees until they become totally unable to work, at which point they are thrown away and labeled “parasites” because they go on disability.

  4. SLCCOM,

    Thanks for your comment. You are a very good advocate for the ADA being an expansive law.

    In my opinion, the original ADA was never intended to be as expansive as your apparently think. The courts have supported, for the most part, my opinion. The ADAAA is clearly intended to be incredibly expansive.

    All of the things you argue in your comment that should be disabilities apparently are under the ADAAA. We’ll see if the courts really interpret it that way.

    The ADA was never intended to only cover ventilator-dependent people with quadriplegia. Neither was it intended to cover every possible ailment known to man or woman. Arguably, the ADAAA now does that, but again, let’s wait on court interpretations.

    If you’ve read much of my blog, you know that I have often advised employers to respect their employees and treat them fairly. There may be some employers like the ones you describe, but I don’t know of any employer who throws away employees when they become inconvenient or who abuses them by making them work until some impairment they have makes them totally unable to work.

    I again appreciate your articulate comment. You and I just disagree on this subject, at least in part. If you’re right about what the ADAAA covers now, employment lawyers will have a field day. Perhaps I shouldn’t complain at all.


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