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Supreme Court limits Americans with Disabilities Act in Williams case

Jan. 8, 2002 -- The U.S. Supreme Court today narrowed the reach of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, ruling that the "impairment" must prevent a person from performing tasks important to daily life before it can be considered a "disability" enabling an individual to sue for protection against disability discrimination.

Rep. Steny Hoyer writes of the "perils of judicial attempts at retroactive mind reading" in the Jan. 20 Washington Post.

"In resisting accommodations for people with disabilities, the business community is expressing the larger societal fear of disability itself," writes Gil Ott in the Philadelphia Inquirer

Text of Supreme Court case and decision

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"It is insufficient for individuals attempting to prove disability status under this test to merely submit evidence of a medical diagnosis of an impairment," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in the 18-page opinion.

The decision, although expected by disability rights advocates, is nonetheless dismaying. "The Williams case is just another in a line of cases where the Supreme Court has constricted the scope of coverage under the ADA," says Georgetown University Law School's Chai Feldblum. "When Congress passed the ADA it intended to cover people with a range of medical conditions, including things like carpal tunnel syndrome," she insisted. "The hornet's nest Ella Williams has gotten caught up in has to do the fact that the ADA's definitions are vulnerable to restrictive readings" -- and the court has done that over and over. "What the courts have said is that because a person's "impairment" does not 'substantially limit' enough of a 'major life activity,' then they're not disabled under the law. "It's an absurd way to apply a civil rights law," says Feldblum, "but it's the reality of where we are today."

In its amicus brief to the Supreme Court, American Trucking Associations called this "keeping the lid on ADA litigation." If the business community has its way, workers with conditions like Williams' and other "nontraditional" disabilities who face discrimination on the job because of their injuries (repetitive motion injuries accounted for more than a third of the 1.7 million workplace injuries reported in 1999, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) will never even get a chance to make their case in court.

"We are at a high-water mark of the Supreme Court's articulation of the Americans with Disabilities Act," says Peter David Blanck, law professor at the University of Iowa and Commissioner on the American Bar Association's Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law.

The ADA "was supposed to focus on 'the wheelchair bound,'" not "carpal tunnel syndrome or bad backs!" said Justice Sandra Day O'Connor during the oral arguments.

"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.

Disability rights legal experts say that employees like Ella Williams who have repetitive stress injuries are precisely those individuals Congress sought to protect under the law. The Justices' narrow interpretation of the law would "cut large numbers of people with significant disabilities out of the law's protection in a way the people who wrote the law would never have dreamed would happen," says Fordham University law professor Matthew Diller.


The experts on disability rights law listed below can discuss the Williams decision and other disability rights cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Peter David Blanck
(319) 335-9043
Peter David Blanck is a Professor of Law and of Psychology at the University of Iowa and concentrates much of his research on the Americans with Disabilities Act. Blanck is a Commissioner on the American Bar Association Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law and a former President of the American Association on Mental Retardation's Legal Process and Advocacy Division. The U.S. District Court for the State of Wyoming appointed Blanck to the Compliance Advisory Board, which oversees the development of community, educational, and employment services for people with mental disabilities in the state. He received his Ph.D. in Psychology from Harvard University and his J.D. from Stanford Law School where he was President of the Stanford Law Review.

Robert Burgdorf, Jr.
(202) 274-7334
Professor Burgdorf teaches Constitutional Law, Civil Procedure, and the Disabilities Rights Seminar at the David Clark School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia. He also co-directs the Legislation Clinic. Professor Burgdorf has been active in securing equal rights for persons with disabilities, most recently through his work on the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1991. He has held positions with various groups, including Project ACTION (Accessible Community Transportation in Our Nation), the National Council on the Handicapped, and the National Center for Law and the Handicapped. From 1976 to 1981, he co-directed the University of Maryland School of Law's Developmental Disabilities Law Project. Professor Burgdorf has published a casebook and numerous articles and reports in his field. He recently completed a legal treatise on disability discrimination in employment law for the Bureau of National Affairs.

Ruth Colker
(614) 292-0900
Ohio State University Professor Colker is one of the leading scholars in the country in the areas of Constitutional Law and Disability Discrimination. She is the author of five books, two of which have won book prizes. She has also published more than 50 articles in law journals such as the Harvard Law Review, Yale Law Journal, Columbia Law Journal, and University of Michigan Law Journal. She has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio to comment on disability and constitutional law topics. Before joining the faculty at Ohio State, Professor Colker taught at Tulane University, the University of Toronto, the University of Pittsburgh and in the women's studies graduate program at George Washington University. She also spent four years working as a trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice where she received two awards for outstanding performance

Matthew Diller
(212) 636-6980
Professor Diller is Associate Director, Louis Stein Center for Law and Ethics; Scholar in Residence, Brennan Center for Justice, NYU School of Law, Fall 1999; The Legal Aid Society, 1986-93; Adjunct Assistant Professor of Law, New York University School of Law, Fall 1989, Spring 1993; Law Clerk to the late Hon. Walter R. Mansfield, United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, 1985-1986; Principal subjects: Civil Procedure, Administrative Law, Social Welfare Law, Seminar in Ethics and Public Interest Law.

Chai R. Feldblum
(202) 662-9595
Professor of Law; Director, Federal Legislation Clinic Expertise: federal legislation, disability rights, gay and lesbian rights, AIDS, privacy, welfare and Medicaid reform. Professor Feldblum joined the faculty as a visiting professor for the 1991-93 academic years. In 1993, she established a new law school clinic, the Federal Legislation Clinic, and has served as the Clinic's Director since 1993. Prior to joining the law faculty, Professor Feldblum worked as a legislative counsel at the AIDS Action Council, and at the ACLU AIDS Project, focusing on federal legislation concerning AIDS. She clerked for First Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Frank M. Coffin in 1985, and for Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun in 1986. >From 1989-90, Professor Feldblum played a leading role in the drafting and negotiating of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a law that prohibits discrimination based on disability. She has also worked extensively in advancing gay and lesbian rights, particularly in the drafting of the Employment Nondiscrimination Act. Professor Feldblum engages in scholarly work and practical advocacy in the areas of disability rights, lesbian and gay rights, and health and social welfare legislation.

Read more on the meaning of "disability" under ADA.






Expert sources

From the Disability and Business Technical Assistance Centers:

Historical Context of the ADA

ADA definition of disability

Overview of law's structure

The ADA is changing the landscape of America -- commentary

"The ADA changed my life" -- personal stories

The meaning of "disability" under ADA

"A misunderstood law" -- commentary

The ADA Notification Act

Supreme Court ADA decisions:

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