ADA Amendments Act, Part 1: What changed?

In September, President Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act as an effort to restore protection for disabled individuals that were created in the original 1990 bill. The new ADA Amendments will go into effect on January 1, 2009 and every employer and HR professional must be prepared to stay in compliance with the new regulations.

The new ADA changes allow more protections for disabled individuals by reversing Supreme Court decisions that once narrowed the definition of disability and what is a major life activity. It also forms broader parameters to how the law may be interpreted by the courts in the future.

One of the biggest questions the amendments answer is in regards to: What is a major life activity? As written, the new ADA states that it shouldn’t be interpreted strictly and whether someone is disabled “should not demand extensive analysis.” According to The Word on Employment Law with John Phillips, Phillips explains:

The Act includes a nonexhaustive list of activities that constitute major life activities, including caring for oneself; bending; performing manual tasks; speaking; seeing; breathing; hearing; learning; eating; reading; sleeping; concentrating; walking; thinking; standing; lifting; communicating; and working. Are you beginning to get the picture? If an employee can’t perform one of these activities, he/she is automatically disabled. Wow!

We’re just beginning, however. The Act also includes a subset of major life activities called “major bodily functions,” including functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, and digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions. There is no requirement that the functions have any relation to the ability to perform a job. Indeed, some are completely unrelated to work. If these functions are substantially impaired, however, you have a disability.

In another big change, the Act reverses Supreme Court rulings that denied disability status to people with conditions in remission or improved by medicine or medical treatment. The new amendments state that such a condition is still considered a disability if it limits a major life activity when that person is active. According to Phillips:

A disability is to be determined without regard to the ameliorative effects of mitigating measures such as “medication, medical supplies, equipment, or appliances, low-vision devices . . . prosthetics including limbs and devices, hearing aids and cochlear implants or other implantable hearing devices, mobility devices, or oxygen therapy equipment and supplies; use of assistive technology; auxiliary aids or services; or learned behavioral or adaptive neurological modifications.” The only exceptions are eyeglasses and contact lenses.

Additionally, the amendments make the process of claiming a disability less involved. To prove that an employee was disabled under the original ADA, one had to prove they were regarded as having a physical or mental impairment and that the impairment considerably limited a major life activity. “Pandora’s box will be opened,” by the new act, in that an employee may be considered disabled “whether or not the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity.”

The definition of disability has been significantly altered by the new ADA Amendments Act, employers must be educated on how to fully comply with the latest changes. In our next post, we’ll explain how employers should prepare for the new ADA changes before it becomes effective on the first of the year.

For help managing ADA accommodation requests under the new amendments, take a look at the ComplyRight ADA Administration System. It contains all the necessary forms, tools and information to effectively manage employee requests for reasonable accommodation.

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