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ADA Amendments of 2008 - Broadens Meaning of Disability

On September 25, 2008, President Bush signed new legislation amending the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to take effect on January 1, 2009. The amendments broaden the meaning of disability and in turn expands the legal protection for disabled workers. Here are some of the important highlights.

The new law, know as the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) reverses several Supreme Court rulings which had narrowed the ADA's scope of protection. While the new legislation retains the basic definition of "disability" provided by the ADA, it supplements that definition with new language intended to broaden significantly the meaning of disability under federal law.

Disability is defined under the ADA as:

  1. a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,
  2. a record of such an impairment, or
  3. being regarded as having such an impairment.

The Supreme Court had narrowly interpreted the meaning of "substantially limits" under the ADA's definition, ruling that the impairment must prevent or severly restrict the employee in the performance of a major life activity. The ADAAA, however, relaxes this strict standard, requiring that "substantially limits" be more broadly interpreted consistent with the purposes of the new legislation. In amending the ADA, Congress expressly stated its intent to repudiate the narrow holdings of the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts on this issue, and empowered the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to give meaning to the new, broader interpretation.

The ADAAA broadens the definition of "major life activity," and expressly provides the following examples: seeing, hearing, eating , sleeping, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, working, caring for oneself, and performing manual tasks.

The ADAAA also broadens the definition of "disability" by specifying that an impairment that is episodic or in remission is a "disability under the ADA," if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active.

The ADAAA further stipulates that employees do not have to prove that an impairment actually limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity. Instead, employees can satisfy the ADA's "regarded as" by merely establishing they were subjected to a prohibited action based on an actual or perceived impairment.

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