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Disabled May Face Bigger Workplace Hurdles

Supreme Court ruling tightens definition of disability

THURSDAY, Jan. 10, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- While the full impact of this week's U.S. Supreme Court ruling regarding disability law is not yet known, both supporters and critics agree on one thing: The workplace will not be a sanctuary for people with minor or moderate handicaps.

Experts say those workers will likely have to depend on the sympathy of their employers, not the power of the courts, as they try to adapt their disabilities to the demands of their jobs.

The high court issued its unanimous decision in a case that pitted Toyota Motor Corp. against Ella Williams, an employee who developed carpal tunnel syndrome while working on an assembly line in Georgetown, Ky. She claimed Toyota didn't do enough to protect her right to work with her condition under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

When Williams, 42, developed her injury, Toyota initially tried to help her by switching her to a job where she inspected the paint on finished cars as they moved along the assembly line. That job required minimal use of her arms, according to published reports.

But when the company later required her to sponge oil off the cars, her physical problems returned. Toyota refused to give her a new assignment, and she stopped coming to work. The company fired her, and she responded with a lawsuit, The New York Times reported.

The ADA requires employers to do whatever is feasible to protect the right of disabled people to work. However, it narrowly defines the description of disabled people, saying their handicaps must limit major life activities.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court said Williams did not prove that she met that definition. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said the issue was whether Williams couldn't "perform the variety of tasks central to most people's daily lives, not whether the claimant is unable to perform the tasks associated with her specific job."

O'Connor added there was no evidence that Williams had lost the ability to engage in the important tasks of life, even though Williams said she couldn't dance or sweep the floor, and had to limit driving, gardening and playing with her children.

Charles Goldman, an expert in disability law, says the high court is essentially saying the ADA addresses serious disabilities, and doesn't exist to protect people with "hangnails and hernias."

Critics of the decision fear the worst.

The court ruling could "lead to employees feeling that they're not protected by this law," says Brewster Thackeray, a spokesman for the National Organization on Disability. "It's too early to say, but it certainly doesn't help the ADA. There's no question there."

To many people, the ADA appears to guarantee that "a person cannot be refused employment or fired specifically based on their disability," just as it's "no longer conceivable for someone to be fired because of their race, religion or gender. It gives people a legal recourse if they feel they've been discriminated against," he says.

But Josh Ulman, an attorney with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which supports the court's decision, says the new freedom for employers doesn't mean they'll abandon disabled workers and stop providing things like ergonomic chairs and desks.

Goldman, a former attorney for a federal disability rights board, cautions that employers shouldn't use the ruling as an excuse to stop adjusting workplaces for disabled workers. Instead, it means that employees will have to work harder to prove they are disabled.

"The bottom line is that more and more is going to be required of people such as Ms. Williams," he says. "The message is that this is what you have to do to get an accommodation. They [the Supreme Court] put a higher standard out there."

What to Do: Learn more about the ADA from the U.S. Department of Justice. Read about recent developments in disability law from the Pike Institute on Law & Disability.

SOURCES: Interviews with Brewster Thackeray, spokesman, National Organization on Disability, Washington, D.C.; Josh Ulman, labor and employment counsel, National Chamber Litigation Center, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Washington, D.C.; Charles Goldman, attorney, former general counsel, United States Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, Washington, D.C.
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