Americans With Disabilities Act Sees Possible Restoration After Seventeen Years

In those 17 years, much has improved for people with disabilities ... Yet for some, the glimmer of hope as been snuffed out simply because of advancements in medicine and court decisions.

by / July 26, 2007

Photo: Press conference on the introduction of the ADA Restoration Act, July 26, 2007.

On July 26, 1990, a landmark piece of legislation became law. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed by President George H.W. Bush who called it "the world's first comprehensive declaration of equality for people with disabilities."

What was first intended to increase access to physical spaces such as government offices, improve employment opportunities and create real social integration, now includes the technological realm as well. The ADA addresses the need to make telephone communications services accessible to individuals who have impaired hearing or speech. Yet according to a Brown University Study only 54 percent of federal Web sites and 46 percent of state Web sites meet the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) disability guidelines.

"When the original version of the ADA was enacted 17 years ago, the Internet was not a factor," explains Ron Graham, writer of the Access Ability blog. "However, as times and technologies evolve, so should our laws."

Today marks the 17th anniversary of the ADA. In those 17 years, much has improved for people with disabilities -- many have gained better employment, accessibility has become more prevalent in everyday life. Yet for some, the glimmer of hope as been snuffed out simply because of advancements in medicine and court decisions.

The Supreme Court has been chipping away at the protections of the ADA, leaving millions of citizens vulnerable to a narrow interpretation of the law. Take Tony Coelho for example: Coelho has epilepsy, and was on the receiving end of discrimination much of his life. In 1998 the Supreme Court decided, in Sutton v. United Airlines, that the effects of "mitigating measures" (such as taking medication) are required to be considered in determining if someone has a disability under the ADA. So because of the improvements in anti-seizure medications and other medical devices, Coelho and others with epilepsy are no longer protected under the Act. The irony is that the Americans with Disabilities Act was written by Coelho.

People with other disorders and disabilities such as diabetes, muscular dystrophy and those who use hearing aids are also "not disabled enough" to be protected under the ADA -- people who were intended to be.

"The rulings that have been handed down under current guidelines allow employers to say somebody is too disabled to do a job, but not disabled enough to be covered by the ADA," said Graham. "Just because a person manages his/her disability with prosthetics, hearing aids, or medications does not mitigate the existence of the disability or its impact on the total functionality of that individual."


Today, the ADA Restoration Act of 2007 was introduced in Congress. This bi-partisan legislation means to restore the initial meaning of the ADA, ensuring that being "not disabled enough" no longer hampers the lives of people with varying degrees of disability.

"The language change in the ADA Restoration Act removes the hurdle of people claiming discrimination having to first prove the degree of disability, thus allowing the discrimination claim to be heard, not being collectively dismissed because the claimant failed to demonstrate they were a party covered by the law," continued Graham.

"The Supreme Court's interpretation has created a vicious circle for Americans with disabilities," said Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, co-sponsor of the Act. "It has created a broad range of people who benefit from 'mitigating measures' such as improvements in medicine, who still experience discrimination from employers, yet have been labeled 'not disabled enough' to gain the

protections of the ADA. This is unacceptable."

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer pointed out the issues the bill intends to improve: "Among other things, the bipartisan House bill -- which already has more than 130 co-sponsors -- will restore the original intent of the ADA by:

  • Amending the definition of 'disability' so that people who Congress originally intended to protect from discrimination are covered under the ADA, and
  • Preventing courts from considering 'mitigating measures' -- such as eyeglasses or medication -- when determining whether a person qualifies for protection under the law.

"The fact is," Hoyer continued, "the Supreme Court has improperly shifted the focus of the ADA from an employer's alleged misconduct, and onto whether an individual can first meet -- in the Supreme Court's words -- a 'demanding standard for qualifying as disabled.'"

In an official proclamation current President Bush stated: "On the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), we celebrate our progress towards an America where individuals with disabilities are recognized for their talents and contributions to our society ... I call on all Americans to celebrate the vital contributions of individuals with disabilities as we work towards fulfilling the promise of the ADA to give all our citizens the opportunity to live with dignity, work productively, and achieve their dreams."

Gina M. Scott Writer