ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA)

SIGNED BY: President George W. Bush

SIGNED ON: September 25, 2008

SIGNIFICANCE: The ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) clarified the meaning of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by rejecting several Supreme Court decisions. It also clarified the meaning of the ADA by telling the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to change several rules. It made the definition of disability more inclusive of more people. It told rule makers that when creating rules based on the ADA, the focus should be not so much on whether a person has a disability; the focus should be on whether they were discriminated against.

After the ADA was enacted in 1990, several Supreme Court decisions had narrowed the definition of disability under the ADA. These decisions had decreased the ADA’s reach. Also, the EEOC wasn’t applying the term substantially limits the way Congress wanted it to. With the ADAAA, Congress restored the original intent of the ADA and required enforcement agencies to issue new rules to reflect the changes. The text of the ADAAA puts it nicely, saying that a purpose of the ADAAA is to:

Carry out the ADA’s objectives of providing a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination and clear, strong, consistent, enforceable standards addressing discrimination by reinstating a broad scope of protection to be available under the ADA.

The ADAAA did not change the basic definition of disability from the ADA, but made several important clarifications. Let’s look at those clarifications.

Substantially Limits

The first part of the ADA’s definition of disability says an individual is disabled if they have a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.”

But what does substantially limits mean? The ADAAA tells us that disability is meant to be understood broadly and to apply to many people. The ADAAA tells us that the Supreme Court misunderstood the intention of the ADA for how substantially limits should be understood. Because of this misunderstanding, the Supreme Court had ruled incorrectly in a way that excluded many disabilities from ADA coverage.

Other things the ADAAA has to say about impairments are these:

  • An impairment must substantially limit only one major life activity to be considered a substantially limiting impairment.
  • An impairment that occurs occasionally is a disability if it substantially limits a major life activity when active. The same is true about an impairment that is in remission.
  • The helpfulness of mitigating measures, such as medication or hearing aids, should not be considered when deciding whether an individual has a disability. Exceptions are ordinary eyeglasses and contact lenses.

The new rules issued by the EEOC in response to the ADAAA show much more flexibility about what constitutes a disability. The rules say that the goal is to avoid discrimination, not to analyze what is and is not a disability at length. Part of what the EEOC has to say about this is as follows:

The term “substantially limits” shall be construed broadly in favor of expansive coverage, to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of the ADA. “Substantially limits” is not meant to be a demanding standard. … The primary object of attention in cases brought under the ADA should be whether covered entities have complied with their obligations and whether discrimination has occurred, not whether an individual’s impairment substantially limits a major life activity. Accordingly, the threshold issue of whether an impairment “substantially limits” a major life activity should not demand extensive analysis.

To read the entire text of the EEOC’s rules about substantially limits, see 29 CFR Section 1630.2, Definitions. In that document, look for topic (j).

Major Life Activities

Another question about the first part of the ADA’s definition of disability is the meaning of major life activities. Prior to the ADAAA, there was a lack of clarity about whether bodily functions were included as major life activities. Bodily functions covered by the ADAAA include but are not limited to:

  • Immune system
  • Special sense organs and the skin
  • Normal cell growth
  • Digestive, genitourinary, bowel, and bladder
  • Neurological and brain
  • Respiratory, circulatory, and cardiovascular
  • Endocrine, hemic, and lymphatic
  • Musculoskeletal and reproductive

Regarded As

The third part of the ADA’s disability definition was also clarified by the ADAAA. The text of this part refers to the first part, saying that a person is considered disabled if they are “regarded as having such an impairment” (the impairment being a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities”)

The phrase regarded as was causing confusion, so the ADAAA explains that it is about how a person has been treated because of an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment. (This impairment cannot be transitory or minor. Transitory means it lasts for less than 6 months.)

You can file “regarded as” discrimination complaints, but you are not entitled to either reasonable accommodations in employment under Title I or reasonable modifications under Titles II and III of the ADA.

A Big Step Forward

After the ADA was passed, several Supreme Court decisions and ADA-related rules had weakened the ADA. The ADAAA strengthened the ADA by specifically discussing Supreme Court decisions that it felt were incorrect, and by saying that the EEOC’s definition of substantially limits wasn’t what Congress had meant. The ADAAA also contains new wording that clears up some of the confusion. Today, if you want to be an expert on ADA law, you have to understand the ADAAA as well!


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