By Amy Angel
In 1990, Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act to eliminate discrimination against individuals with disabilities in many areas of public life, including employment. Effective Jan. 1, 2009, Congress redefined key terms of the ADA The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has now published final regulations to implement the ADA Amendments Act. These regulations will go into effect on May 24, so employers should take time to review the new rules. Here are some highlights:
To be protected, an individual must have a “disability,” which is defined as: 1, a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities (“actual disability”); 2, a record of such an impairment (“record of”); or 3, being regarded as having such an impairment (“regarded as”).
The new rules clarify that an individual who is “regarded as” disabled must still establish the other elements of a claim — namely, that he is qualified for the position and was subjected to a prohibited action because the employer regarded him as disabled. Likewise, the employer may raise any available defenses — such as the employee posing a direct threat to himself or others.
The ADAAA relaxes the definition of “disability” and provides that the question of whether an impairment is a disability should not require extensive analysis. Congress directed the EEOC to revise its regulations and define “substantially limits” to be consistent with this intent. Rather than define “substantially limits,” the EEOC has provided nine rules of construction to determine whether an impairment “substantially limits” a major life activity:
1. The term “substantially limits” is to be construed broadly in favor of expansive coverage and is not meant to be a demanding standard.
2. An impairment is a disability within the meaning of the regulations if it substantially limits the ability of an individual to perform a major life activity as compared to most people in the general population.
3. The primary object of attention should be whether the covered employers have complied with their obligations and whether discrimination occurred — not whether an individual’s impairment substantially limits a major life activity.
4. The determination of whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity requires an individualized assessment.
5. The comparison of an individual’s performance of a major life activity to the performance of the same major life activity by most people in the general population usually will not require scientific, medical or statistical analysis.
6. The determination of whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity must be made without regard to the ameliorative effects of mitigative measures (except ordinary eyeglasses and contact lenses), and without regard to whether measures exist but the individual refuses to use them. The EEOC’s final regulations add psychotherapy, behavioral therapy and physical therapy to the non-exhaustive list of mitigative measures that should not be considered in evaluating whether the individual has an impairment.
7. An impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active.
8. An impairment that substantially limits one major life activity does not need to substantially limit others in order to be considered a substantially limiting impairment.
9. Transitory and minor impairments are significant only as to the “regarded-as” coverage and do not apply to the definition of disability under the “actual” or “record of” disability prongs.
The final rule includes a non-exhaustive list of impairments that will virtually always be found to impose a substantial limitation on a major life activity. These include deafness, blindness, autism, cancer, diabetes, HIV, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia.