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'An Absurd Way to Apply a Civil Rights Law'

Jan. 9, 2002 -- The U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 8 said that Ella Williams' carpal tunnel syndrome isn't enough of a disability to allow her to use the Americans with Disabilities Act. The law was intended to protect people like Williams, insist disability rights experts.

Ella Williams image

Rep. Steny Hoyer writes of the "perils of judicial attempts at retroactive mind reading" in the Jan. 20 Washington Post.


Not what the law's drafters intended

"The Williams case is just another in a line of cases where the Supreme Court has constricted the scope of coverage under the ADA," says Georgetown University Law School's Chai Feldblum. "When Congress passed the ADA it intended to cover people with a range of medical conditions, including things like carpal tunnel syndrome," she insisted.

"The hornet's nest Ella Williams got caught up in has to do the fact that the ADA's definitions are vulnerable to restrictive readings" -- and the court has done that over and over. "What the courts have said is that because a person's "impairment" does not 'substantially limit' enough of a 'major life activity,' then they're not disabled under the law. "It's an absurd way to apply a civil rights law," says Feldblum, "but it's the reality of where we are today."

The National Council on Disability's Kathleen Blank told the Washington Post the ruling "is going to give employers a lot of confidence that they can challenge workers on whether they are disabled" and would "embolden employers who are already disinclined to make accommodations" for workers who have disabilities.

Disability rights experts disagree with Toyota General Counsel Patrick Nepute's statement that the Court had applied the law ''the way Congress originally intended.'' The Justices' interpretation of who's "disabled" is cutting "large numbers of people with significant disabilities out of the law's protection in a way the people who wrote the law would never have dreamed would happen," says Fordham University law professor Matthew Diller. "Everyone working on the ADA in Congress envisioned a much larger group" of people than the Supreme Court sees as being covered by the law, Harvard Law School's Sam Bagenstos agreed.

"It is insufficient for individuals attempting to prove disability status under this test to merely submit evidence of a medical diagnosis of an impairment," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in the 18-page opinion. During the oral arguments in the Williams case, O'Connor insisted that the ADA law was supposed to focus on the "wheelchair bound," not "carpal tunnel syndrome or bad backs!"

O'Connor "clearly misunderstands the intent of the statute; she has a paternalistic, stereotypical perspective," says Ohio State University's Ruth Colker. Perhaps O'Connor intentionally misunderstands the law, Colker suggests.

Colker says O'Connor's use of "wheelchair bound" is no different than if she were to refer to women as "girls". But O'Connor's language is just the tip of the iceberg. The real problem is what Colker calls "judicial backlash": "the business community has free rein," she says. "We usually have a system of checks and balances," says Colker, who holds the Constitutional Law chair at Ohio State University School of Law. "If the legislature is conservative, the courts are liberal.

"But right now all three branches of government -- executive, legislative and judicial -- are tilted in the same direction -- to the right. The legislative branch has resisted revisiting the ADA; we have no backstop. The business community has a completely free wheel to take an anti-employee perspective." She calls it "a one-way ratchet."

A well funded and active group of employers' attorneys "is bent on limiting protections offered by the ADA," says Bagenstos. And while disability rights organizations have been involved in these cases, their financial resources cannot begin to match the deep pockets of the legal community that represents the nation's employers.

The Bush administration, too, has consistently backed business at the expense of the disabled worker. "In case after case, the Bush Administration has filed briefs taking the side against people with disabilities," says Bagenstos. The president "has a lot of explaining to do if he want's to say he's on the side of people with disabilities."

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