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Read Ruth O'Brien's Crippled Justice: The History of Modern Disability Policy in the Workplace (University of Chicago Press, 2001).


The Supreme Court's Catch-22

by Ruth O'Brien

Jan. 25, 2002 -- Ella Williams -- after being injured with carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive motion problems in a Kentucky Toyota factory -- is trapped. She's trapped in another variation on the "Catch 22" in the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Instead of bringing people with disabilities into the workforce, the Supreme Court has kept them out..

On Jan. 8, a unanimous Court held, in effect, that although Williams is so disabled that she cannot work without accommodations, she is not disabled enough to receive protection under the ADA. The Supreme Court is presenting Williams and the 600,000 workers who lose work time every year because of similar injuries with a dilemma that is both perverse and precarious. To be recognized as disabled, Williams would have to injure herself further. People with impairments that prohibit them from performing manual tasks at work, the Court ruled, do not have a disability. An impairment must limit their ability to perform tasks that "are of central importance to people's daily lives" (i.e., their private lives).

Apart from the perversity of this option, exacerbating her injury still presents Williams with a precarious choice. Who knows what is centrally important in someone's daily life? While the Court reprimanded the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals for not assessing how Williams' injuries limited her at home, legal analysts like Chai Feldblum of the Georgetown Law Center predict that she still would not prevail on these grounds. That Williams could not sweep the floor or play with her children would have been balanced by, among other things, her ability to brush her teeth or wash her face.

"Central," "substantial," "major" -- the definition of a disability depends on very subjective terms.

While the cases have overwhelming favored employers (80 percent of all employment cases thrown out on summary judgment, and 94 percent of the remaining 20 percent decided in the employer's favor), the Supreme Court's decisions have nonetheless created an inconsistent body of law. Following the Sutton decision (the lead case in the 1999 trio of employment decisions, which held that if someone could mitigate their impairment with medication or a prosthesis, they were not disabled), the lower federal courts have made no clear distinction between so-called "traditional" and less traditional disabilities.

One federal district court judge ruled that a pharmacist with cerebral palsy could not be considered disabled working because with a graduate degree, two sons, and second floor master suite proved she was "successful." By contrast, other judges have held that people with asymptomatic HIV and hepatitis C are disabled, since they cannot procreate without a strong likelihood of passing on their disease. The disease, in other words, impedes the person's substantial major life activity of reproduction.

Yet even this is no sure-fire way of clearing the definition hurdle. When several plaintiffs conceded that they never wanted children, other federal judges ruled that their lifestyle mitigated their disability.

The federal courts have ruled that it is not what you have, but what you cannot do, that makes you disabled. Like the pioneers in rehabilitation programs before it, the Supreme Court has adopted a functionalist definition of disability. Rehabilitation experts had long sought programs that would put the disabled to work. This was clearly Congress's intent with the ADA in 1990. Yet, in Toyota v. Williams, the Supreme Court has again turned the functionalist definition on its head. Focusing on what people cannot do and accepting just about any mitigating factor -- medication, a prosthesis, a lifestyle choice -- the Court's interpretation has had exactly the opposite effect. Instead of bringing people with disabilities into the workforce, the Supreme Court has kept them out.

The Court may be concerned that fulfilling Williams‚ requests for reasonable accommodations would give her too much power over her employer. In Sutton, for example, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor put a new twist on the employment-at-will doctrine, which maintains that people can be fired for good reason, bad reason, or no reason at all. If people do not have impairments that rise to the level of a disability, O'Connor argued, employers have every right to use their impairments to justify why they won't hire them or why they fired them.

Ella Williams image

Also read,
'An absurd way to apply a civil rights law'.


While the logic underlying the Toyota v. Williams decision is not quite so startling, the effect is the same. Quitting her job before her work injury fully affected her home life means that Williams cannot ask for accommodations from the very firm that injured her. The manual tasks that she must perform to maintain her position, though providing her livelihood, are not central enough in her daily life to make her disabled. They are, however, central enough to stop Williams from working on this and undoubtedly many other factory lines.

Ruth O'Brien, Associate Professor at John Jay College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, is the author of Crippled Justice: The History of Modern Disability Policy in the Workplace (University of Chicago Press, 2001).

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