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Consider Medical Aids When Determining Disability Status

July 1, 1999
Related Topics: Disabilities, Featured Article
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New decisions from the US Supreme Court will limit the scope of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The rulings, which represent a victory for employers, make it clear that people with high blood pressure, poor eyesight, and other common health problems are not covered by the ADA if their conditions can be easily corrected.

Mitigating factors.
Whether or not an individual is disabled under the ADA should be determined by reference to measures (such as eyeglasses, contact lenses, or blood pressure medication) that mitigate the individual's impairment, the US Supreme Court ruled, 7-2, in a pair of high profile cases. The Court rejected the approach taken by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Department of Justice, both of which have issued guidelines instructing that persons be judged in their uncorrected or unmitigated state.

Both cases before the Court involved individuals who could function the same as individuals without similar impairments. In Sutton v. United Air Lines (Dkt No. 97-1943), United did not hire applicants whose eyesight, without glasses, failed to meet the company’s minimum standard for international pilots; the pilots who applied had uncorrected 20/200 vision. Similarly, in Murphy v. United Parcel Service, Inc. (Dkt No. 97-1943), an individual with high blood pressure was disqualified from a mechanic job that required limited driving.

Individualized inquiry.
The EEOC/DOJ guidelines run directly counter to the individualized inquiry required by the statute, according to the majority opinion. Disregarding corrective measures creates a system in which persons would often be treated as members of a group having similar impairments, and deprives courts and employers of an opportunity to consider any negative side effects resulting from the use of mitigating measure--even when those side effects are very severe.

Also significant to the majority was the Congressional finding that 43 million Americans have one or more physical disabilities. That finding requires the conclusion that Congress did not intend to bring under the ADA's protection all those whose uncorrected conditions amount to disabilities, said the majority, because that group would include more than 160 million people.

Artificial measures vs. natural compensating.
In a third case released the same day, the Court clarified that when gauging the existence of a disability, mitigating measures must be taken into account whether the measures are undertaken with artificial aids (like medications and devices) or with the body's own systems. That case involved a truck driver whose vision was effectively monocular. (Albertson's, Inc. v. Kirkingburg, SCt Dkt No. 98-591)

The driver's ADA claim was allowed by a lower court because the manner in which he sees differs significantly from the manner in which most people see. The Supreme Court noted that people with monocular vision "ordinarily" will meet the ADA's definition of disability. However, the Court criticized the appeals court for appearing to suggest that it need not take account of a monocular individual's ability to compensate for the impairment, even though the appeals court acknowledged that the driver's brain subconsciously had done just that. The Supreme Court said that some impairments may invariably cause a substantial limitation of a major life activity but held that monocularity is not one of them. Rather, monocular individuals must offer evidence of the extent of the limitation in terms of their own experience.

SOURCE: CCH Incorporated is a leading provider of information and software for human resources, legal, accounting, health care and small business professionals. CCH offers human resource management, payroll, employment, benefits, and worker safety products and publications in print, CD, online and via the Internet. For more information and other updates on the latest HR news, check our Web site at http://hr.cch.com.

The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion.

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