NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Stretching The Definition Of Disabled

May 17, 1999

Last month the Supreme Court heard arguments on whether the physical condition of persons wishing to sue under the Americans With Disabilities Act should be considered in its "unmitigated" state. For example, is a person with poor eyesight disabled, even though that condition is correctable with glasses?

  • Lawyers for two sisters -- who want to be airline pilots and who must wear glasses to see clearly -- claim their clients should be able to sue under the ADA because their condition should be considered in an unmitigated state, without correction by glasses.
  • In another case before the Court, a United Parcel Service driver wishes to qualify as disabled because he would have a serious problem with high blood pressure if he stopped taking his medication -- although he does in fact take it.
  • Last year, the Hartford Courant reported that nearly one in three high school students in affluent Greenwich, Conn., are now officially regarded as disabled -- entitling them to various benefits ranging from individualized tutoring to laptop computers.
  • Experts say the government has used more than 20 definitions of disability for various purposes -- and the ADA's definition is the vaguest of all.

Ironically, seven of the nine Supreme Court justices hearing the cases wear glasses. Is the nation's highest court, critics ask, being operated by the disabled?

At the time the ADA was passed, experts thought it would boost the rate of workforce participation by the disabled. But the exact opposite has happened. Disabled participation has dropped to 29 percent from 33 percent in 1986.

Further undercutting the case for ADA lawsuits is the fact that workers with sensory impairment are involved in more than their share of industrial accidents, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Source: Walter Olson, "Under the ADA, We May All Be Disabled," Wall Street Journal, May 17, 1999.


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