The Center for An Accessible Society Disability Issues Information







Supreme Court Williams ruling misguided, say advocates
Note to readers: links to news articles may not work after a few weeks, as news media remove current stories to their archives. The link may take you to the archives section, where, for a fee, you can view the article.

Jan. 15, 2002 -- Last Tuesday's Supreme Court ruling in the case Toyota V. Williams has angered disability rights law experts, who say that the Court simply does not understand disability rights.

"Why are the Supreme Court Justices so uneducated when it comes to disability rights?" asks constitutional law expert Ruth Colker of Ohio State University School of Law, who says O'Connor's archaic use of the term "wheelchair bound" signals her lack of understanding of disability rights in general. At oral arguments last November in the case, O'Connor remarked that The ADA "was supposed to focus on 'the wheelchair bound,'" not "carpal tunnel syndrome or bad backs." O'Connor "clearly misunderstands the intent of the statute; she has a paternalistic, stereotypical perspective," adds Colker. "Merely having an impairment does not make one disabled for purposes of the ADA," wrote O'Connor in the unanimous opinion. "Claimants also need to demonstrate that the impairment limits a major life activity."

"Everyone working on the ADA in Congress envisioned a much larger group" of people than the Supreme Court sees as being covered by the law, said Harvard Law School's Sam Bagenstos. But a well funded and active group of employers' attorneys, he said, "is bent on limiting protections offered by the ADA," adding that disability rights organizations' financial resources have not begun to match the deep pockets of the legal community that represents the nation's employers.

"In all previous civil-rights law," Philadelphia's Thomas Earle of the Disabilities Law Project said, "a plaintiff's membership in the specified class was not questioned. The case proceeded directly to the question of discrimination. Under the ADA, however, defendants have chosen to question the plaintiff's very right to coverage under the law. As a result, the courts have systematically narrowed the definition of disability without even addressing the core issue of discrimination." For more, go to

In an excellent commentary, Chicago Tribune business columnist David Greising called cases like Toyota's "unproductive cul de sacs": "Imagine if the same thing had happened after the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964," he wrote. "A decade later, the courts wouldn't have decided what skin tone made a person 'black enough' to be considered African-American. Or whether a Muslim was 'devout enough' to merit protection from religious discrimination."

Dr. Peter David Blanck, Director of the Law, Health Policy & Disability Center at the Iowa College of Law, which received NIDRR funding, told Greising that some companies "resist [embracing the ADA] even if it doesn't make a bit of difference to their cost." Read Greising's column online at

Read The Washington Post story on the ruling is online at

More E-Letters



About The Center for An Accessible Society