The ADA Amendments Act, S. 3406, was passed by the Senate unanimously on September 11, 2008.  The bill is has been signed into law by President Bush and took effect in January of 2009.
From the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Labor and Education
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was intended to “provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities.” Just as other civil rights laws prohibit entities from basing decisions on characteristics like race or sex, Congress wanted the ADA to stop employers from making decisions based on disability.
Unfortunately, four U.S. Supreme Court decisions have narrowed the definition of disability so much that people with serious conditions such as epilepsy, muscular dystrophy, cancer, diabetes, and cerebral palsy have been determined to not meet the definition of disability under the ADA. The result: In 2004, plaintiffs lost 97% of ADA employment discrimination claims that went to trial, often due to the interpretation of definition of disability.
People who are not hired or are fired because an employer mistakenly believes they cannot perform the job – or because the employer does not want “people like that” in the workplace – have been denied protection from employment discrimination due to these court decisions. This was not the intent of the ADA.
In brief, the ADA Amendment Act:
  • Overturns the erroneous Supreme Court decisions that have eroded the protections for people with disabilities under the ADA, restoring original Congressional intent.

  • Rejects strict interpretation of the definition of disability, and makes it absolutely clear that the ADA is intended to provide broad coverage to protect anyone who faces discrimination on the basis of disability.
  • Strikes a balance between employer and employee interests.
  • Prohibits the consideration of mitigating measures such as medication, prosthetics, and assistive technology, in determining whether an individual has a disability.

  • Covers people who experience discrimination based on a perception of impairment regardless of whether the individual experiences disability.
  • Provides that reasonable accommodations are only required for individuals who can demonstrate they have an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, or a record of such impairment.
  • Accommodations need not be provided to an individual who is only “regarded as” having an impairment.
  • Is supported by a broad coalition of civil rights groups, disability advocates, and employer trade organizations.
From the Bazelon Center on Mental Health Law

We are particularly gratified that Congress has voted to rescue people with psychiatric disabilities from the Catch 22 in which Supreme Court rulings left them—that when medications reduce their symptoms, however temporarily, many no longer qualified for protection as ‘people with disabilities’ under the ADA,” said executive director Robert Bernstein. The amended law explicitly rejects the narrow standards used by the Court to determine who has a disability.

“Mental health advocates will again be able to use the ADA as an effective tool to secure the protections that help people with psychiatric disabilities participate fully in society,” said Jennifer Mathis, the Bazelon Center’s deputy legal director. “People with disabilities experience real discrimination and deserve real protections,” she added. “Now those who have been denied protection will finally be able to claim them.”

Mathis was among several members of a unique team of disability advocates that engaged in intensive negotiations with representatives from the business community over the past year to reach a compromise that became the basis for a legislative fix. The negotiators also worked with a unique coalition of disability, civil rights and business representatives collaborating with a bipartisan group of congressional members and staff to finalize and secure passage of the legislation. The groups' leaders received kudos from House sponsors of the bill (see their statements, linked in the sidebar).

The law as amended will provide important new coverage for individuals with disabilities. The amended ADA:
  • specifically overturns Supreme Court decisions that have caused many people with disabilities whom Congress intended the ADA to cover to lose important protection;
  • makes it clear that Congress intended the ADA’s coverage to be broad, in contrast to the narrow scope afforded by the courts;

  • clarifies that the courts must apply a less demanding standard than they have been using to determine who has a disability;

  • ensures that medication and other measures taken to overcome the effects of a person’s condition cannot be used to conclude that the person does not have a disability
  • makes it easier for people with episodic impairments to be protected by the ADA;

  • provides that in determining whether someone is “substantially limited in a major life activity” and thus disabled, major life activities include major bodily functions, such as brain and neurological functions;

  • affords broad coverage for individuals “regarded as” having a disability under the ADA. A person will now be covered under this part of the ADA if he or she is treated adversely based on an actual or perceived impairment, whether or not it limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity.
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