The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law by the first President Bush in 1990. The bill, championed by Senator Bob Dole, who himself suffers from a physical disability, was enacted with the intention of eliminating discrimination against the disabled, whether it be a physical or mental disability. In addition to eliminating outright disability discrimination, the law allows disabled persons to request a reasonable accommodation from, amongst others, employers. Such accommodations allow the disabled individual to function normally and creates an even playing field in the work arena and society in general.
As disabled people brought claims under the ADA, and lawsuits were argued in the courts, Appellate Courts and even the Supreme Court began interpreting the language in the ADA in a more restrictive manner, thereby limiting the statutes protections to a smaller and smaller group of people. Many saw this limiting interpretation at odds with the bills “wide-net” origins. Of particular note, was the way in which Courts were restricting the definition of the term “disability”, a definition one must meet in order to claim the protections of the statute.
For those suffering from a mental illness, and in particular anxiety disorders, the limiting nature of the Supreme Court’s rulings made it harder and harder to claim that one was disabled. If the person was not disabled under the ADA that person was therefore not entitled to the Act’s protections.
Thankfully, in 2008, George W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA). This law, in large part reversed much of the Courts’ prior rulings in an attempt to return the statute to its original intention of protecting all those who suffer from a disability.
This article will discuss the original ADA and how the Court’s interpretations have resulted in limited coverage, specifically for those suffering from an anxiety disorder. Moreover, the article will discuss for each previously limiting area, how these difficulties were remedied under the ADAAA.
The Original ADA and How the ADAAA Changes the Law
First and foremost, as mentioned previously, for one to be covered under the ADA they must have a “disability” as that term is defined under the ADA. If one is not “disabled” under the ADA they can legally be discriminated against as a result of their physical or mental ailment whether that discrimination is in employment, their physical surroundings, or treatment by the government. Under the ADA disabled is defined as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.” While major life activities are ultimately defined by the Courts, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), the agency charged by Congress to issue regulations with regard to the ADA, has included certain activities, such as hearing, seeing, walking, etc. as major life activities. While the EEOC list is non-exclusive Courts have regularly looked to it in defining the term “major life activity”
There are four significant areas where Courts have interpreted the terms disability and major life activity, which negatively affected many individuals who suffer from a mental illness, and in specific, those who suffer from anxiety disorders. These rulings worked to limit, if not outright prevent, those suffering from anxiety disorders from seeking protection under the ADA in Court.
First, there is the issue of taking corrective measures, such as taking medication, to alleviate the symptoms of an ailment. Under the old ADA, the Supreme Court ruled that in circumstances where one suffers from a disease, even a debilitating disease, if that person took medication which alleviated the symptoms of that disease they would not be covered under the ADA. This is true even if without the medication the symptoms of the illness would surely leave the person disabled. This view seems to be somewhat myopic, as no medication perfectly alleviates all symptoms of an illness indefinitely.
It is not difficult to imagine how such a ruling would impact those with an anxiety disorder. Many people with anxiety disorders are capable of keeping their symptoms at bay with regular medication. This, however, does not mean that the illness leaves no traces in the person’s life. There are doctor’s visits that must be met, medication often has deleterious side-effects, and even with the assistance of medication there are occasional flare-ups that require more extensive treatment and even hospitalization. There is all of this, not to mention the general stigma associated with anxiety disorders. If it becomes known that an employee suffers from an anxiety disorder an employer may not promote that person under the misguided idea that added stress will exacerbate their symptoms.
Simply put, under the old ADA someone who suffered from an anxiety disorder that treated their illness with medication would not be protected under the Act. For example, this would bar the employee from requesting a reasonable accommodation, e.g. starting work later in the day in order to take into account the frequent medication side-effect of early morning drowsiness. In all, the Supreme Court’s previous holdings in this area unreasonably limited coverage to those that greatly needed it.
Now, under the ADAAA the fact that someone may be lucky enough to mitigate the effects of their illness through medication is not held against them. Hence, all that matters is that with or without corrective measures, i.e. medication, the person suffers a substantial limitation of a major life activity as a result of a mental or physical impairment.
Second, the Supreme Court ruled that only those who suffer from chronic and persistent symptoms of their ailment, which continuously limited them in major life activities, were disabled. Hence, those illnesses, like anxiety disorders, that have episodic flare-ups, despite how debilitating, were not covered under the ADA. The ADAAA overturned the court in this regard. Now, even if the impairment is in remission, as long as during a period of exacerbation it would cause a substantial limiting of a major life activity the person is covered under the ADA.
Third, under the previous ADA for one to be disabled a major life activity must have been substantially limited. Under the regulations enunciated by the EEOC, this meant that a major life activity must have been completely impaired and the individual unable to function. Hence, if the major life activity in question was, for example, being able to interact socially, the person must have been a complete shut in, without the ability to interact whatsoever. One can think of it on a scale from 1-10. Under the previous ADA regulations, the person must have been a 10 on the substantially limits scale to be qualified as disabled.
Now, under the new ADAAA, while the language of substantially limiting remains the same, Congress has instructed the EEOC to soften their regulations. Applying that same numerical scale, a 5 would now suffice to be substantially limited. This is all in keeping with Congress’ original intent in enacting the ADA of casting a wide net and essentially eliminating discrimination against those with a disability.
Lastly, under the old ADA many Courts had decided that thinking and concentrating were not considered major life activities. Clearly, these are the most important areas of one’s life that are affected by anxiety disorders. Often times these were the only two detrimentally affected areas that someone with an anxiety disorder could point to as support that they were disabled. Now, under the ADAAA the law specifically mentions these two life activities as things to be considered when a Court makes a determination as to whether someone has a substantial impairment of a major life activity.
For many years people had complained that the spirit of the ADA was violated by these limiting Court precedents; that the Courts had impermissibly limited coverage in a way that Congress never intended. Now, the ADAAA has fixed many of these problems returning the law to its original intention; to cast as wide a net as possible in order to limit discrimination against those that suffer from physical and mental impairments. Quite possibly this is of most benefit to sufferers of anxiety disorder because seemingly ever limiting area of Court interpretation adversely affected them.