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Court Takes Narrower View Of ‘Disabilities’ Under ADA

By David G. Savage

The Supreme Court made it harder Tuesday for millions of workers with painful wrist injuries, bad backs or similar impairments to qualify for protection as disabled persons under the federal anti-discrimination law.

As long as they can brush their teeth and wash their faces in the morning, these employees are probably not disabled, the high court said unanimously, even if they suffer pain when typing on a computer or lifting a box at work.

A disabled person is someone who struggles to do basic tasks that are “central to daily life,” not the special tasks that go with a particular job, said Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Moreover, she said, a disabled employee must have an impairment that is “permanent or long term,” not an injury that is likely to heal. Injured workers should seek benefits under state worker’s compensation laws, the court said, rather than claiming to be disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Business lawyers hailed the outcome and predicted it will shield employers from being sued or forced to make special arrangements for the growing number of employees with carpal tunnel syndrome or other repetitive stress injuries.

“Today’s ruling makes it clear that the ADA is still the Americans with Disabilities Act, not the Americans with Injuries Act,” said Patrick Cleary, senior vice president for the National Association of Manufacturers.

Tuesday’s 9-0 ruling is only the latest court decision to limit the reach of the landmark federal law.

Three years ago, the justices ruled that people with correctible conditions such as bad eyesight, or treatable diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes or epilepsy, are not protected from job bias. The court reasoned that these people are not truly disabled because they were able to work.

The case decided Tuesday concerned an assembly line worker who could no longer do her job because its repetitive motions caused intense pain in her wrists and shoulders. Her condition, carpal tunnel syndrome, is one of the fastest-growing work place injuries.

The case also drew wide interest because it asked a basic question: Who is a disabled person?

Ella Williams had worked with power tools at the Toyota Motors plant in Georgetown, Ky. When her pain became crippling, she sought medical treatment and obtained some benefits from Kentucky’s worker’s compensation system.

Typically, a worker’s comp law covers medical expenses and some payment for lost work due to a work-related injury.

Williams chose to return to full-time work but asked to be assigned to lighter duties, such as inspecting cars. Her doctor said she should lift no more than 20 pounds. When her supervisors refused to accommodate her request, she quit and sued the company under the ADA.