NY Times Editorial: Defining Disability Down

The New York Times

April 20, 1999

Early a decade after it was enthusiastically signed into law by President Bush, the Americans with Disabilities Act faces a major review by the Supreme Court. Over the next two weeks, the justices are to hear four cases that will help define the true dimensions of the law.

The Court's role should be to reaffirm the nation's commitment to fair treatment of people with some kind of physical or mental impairment.

Tomorrow the Court will take up the first of the cases ,involving two Georgia women diagnosed with mild retardation, mental illness and brain damage. Georgia is challenging a sound appellate court decision that held that the Act, and a 1991 regulation designed to carry it out, forbid the states to segregate individuals in an institution when a small, supervised group home would be medically and socially more appropriate.

Some 58 ormer state commissioners and mental health directors from 36 states, including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, have filed an amicus brief, urging the Court to reject Georgia's "alarmist claims"about the fiscal impact of requiring an end to unnecessary segregation of the mentally disabled. By following that wise and humane advice the Court would honor the law's language and purpose.

The three other cases are employment disputes that raise another basic question. Are people whose conditions can be medically corrected so that they can function normally considered "disabled" and thus entitled to protection under the statute? One case involves a truck driver whose high blood pressure is controlled by medication. A lower appellate court, viewing his condition in its medicated state, held that he was not a person with a disability and thus not entitled to sue his employer for discrimination in dismissing him. In another similar case, twin sisters were denied jobs as pilots because they did not meet a United Airlines requirement for uncorrected vision. The same appeals court in Denver barred a lawsuit because their correctable vision was not a disability. In the final case, a lower appellate court in San Francisco went the other way, finding that a truck driver who sees out of only one eye but whose brain has compensated for the deficiency was disabled and therefore entitled to sue the employer that dismissed him.

The Court in these cases will not reach the ultimate issue of whether these individuals were "qualified" for the jobs or were appropriately rejected because their impairment interfered with their ability to do the job. But its decision as to whether a disability should be assessed in its "mitigated" or uncorrected state will have profound implications for civil rights. At first blush, it may seem absurd to find that nearsightedness and hypertension are "disabilities" entitled to anti-discrimination protection. But the legislation calls for an expansive interpretation, and for a very good reason. What would be truly unfair would be for the Court to rule that people with corrected impairments are too disabled to hold a particular job but not disabled enough to bring suit under the Disabilities Act to show they were improperly rejected.

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

Last updated May 15, 1998 by NARPA