ADA Amendments Act Expand Scope of Protected Disabilities

Chris Hanslik

January 20, 2010

In 2009, Congress drafted the Americans With Disabilities (ADA) Amendments Act to address the increasingly narrow definition of “disability” that courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have applied in interpreting the original act for more than a decade. The Amendments Act took effect on January 1, 2010 (a similar amendment to the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act took effect on September 1, 2009).

The ADA Act’s original definition of “disability” was “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Subsequently, the Supreme Court held that courts must take into account the effects of mitigating measures such as medication, hearing aids and prosthetic devices when determining if an individual has a substantially limiting impairment protected by the ADA. In the event such mitigating measures ameliorated the condition the individual was not considered disabled under the act. The Supreme Court also narrowed what could be considered a “major life activity” to something that was of “central importance to most people’s daily lives.”

The ADA Amendments Act broadens the ADA’s coverage by specifically disapproving the Supreme Court’s interpretation of “disability.” As amended, the new law requires the term to be “construed in favor of broad coverage of individuals … to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of this Act.” But Congress did not stop there. The amended act also states that an impairment that is episodic or in remission qualifies as a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active. In fact, courts are not to consider mitigating measures as a factor when determining whether an impairment substantially limits a major life activity.

Finally, the ADA Amendments Act expands the definition of “major life activities” by including a non-exhaustive list for courts to consider, including: seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, reading, communicating and working. These amendments make it more likely that courts will find impairments qualify as a “disability” under the law.