New ADA Rules Broaden Definition of 'Disability'

Despite the implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act more than two decades ago, many disabled workers have found it difficult to get their employers to agree to and pay for changes that would help them be more productive.

That's because, historically, the definition of what it means to be disabled has been interpreted narrowly, giving business an upper hand in determining what is or isn't a disability -- and whether accommodations are needed.

Recently revised rules, however, have broadened the interpretation of what it means to be disabled. The new mandates, issued last month by the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, go into effect today.

The changes, which were required under the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, don't change the core definition of what it means to disabled: a physical or mental condition that limits one or more major life activities; or conditions, such as HIV or recovery from alcoholism.

But the new rules now include distinct language that says "disability" should be broadly interpreted to the maximum extent permitted under the ADA. The revised regulations in effect put less attention on employees' disabilities and more focus on whether discrimination has taken place and whether reasonable accommodations can be made.

In other words, the onus is now on employers to prove that an employee is indeed not disabled.

The widening of the law likely means workers, such as someone with hearing loss who wears a hearing aid, may now be considered to have a disability since the appliance may not correct hearing impairment in noisy workplaces, says Bob D'Errico, associate director of Jawonio Inc., a New City-based nonprofit that helps people with emotional and physical disabilities secure jobs.

The organization works with about 300 employers in New York City's northern suburbs. It notes that people with disabilities have an unemployment rate that's roughly two to three times that of the nation's current 9 percent jobless rate.

The new provisions also allow those whose illnesses are in remission to claim disability whereas in the past they may not have been able to, D'Errico says. "From that standpoint, there are more people who could find some recourse through the bill."

Part of Jawonio's mission is to allay employers fears that employing workers with disabilities is a costly venture. That isn't so, says D'Errico. The average cost to accommodate someone with a physical disability, generally, is "a few hundred dollars."

Further, D'Errico says, a request for accommodation doesn't oblige an employer to make that specific request, if the goal can be achieved through different means. Employers also worry that hiring an employee with disabilities will result in higher insurance costs, which isn't true, he says.

Some business owners and groups have expressed concern that a more liberal interpretation of the term "disability" would make it easier for workers to make false claims about disabilities, and abuse accommodation requests and leaves of absence.

The changes, which took effect in January 2009, more than two years before the final rules were issued, are seen as the driver behind the significant increase in the number of disability discrimination cases filed with the EEOC. Last year, 25,165 such claims were filed, up 17 percent from 21,451 in 2009, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation's foremost business lobbying group, has praised the changes, however, noting that the legislation passed Congress with bipartisan support.

In a written statement issued in March, the chamber said, "The ADA Amendments reflect a carefully crafted compromise between the business community and the disability community."


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David Schepp

Staff Writer

David Schepp has spent more than a dozen years covering business news for the electronic and print media, including Dow Jones Newswires, BBC News, Gannett Co., and most recently at AOL's DailyFinance. Nearly 10 years ago, he started writing a weekly People@Work column, looking in depth at issues facing workers in today's workplace. The syndicated column appeared in newspapers and websites nationwide before it made its debut on DailyFinance in 2010. Schepp now continues that tradition at Aol Jobs, covering the jobs beat and providing readers insight and analysis into the nation's challenging employment scene.

Schepp holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from Metropolitan State College of Denver.

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Terry and Mandy

And how many retired Police and Fire personel do we pay disability pensions to? Many are overweight, don't take care of themselves, smoke and drink to excess, and file for disability for "job related" conditions. The systems has so many loop holes in it that it is impossible to determine whether or not someone is disabled.

May 25 2011 at 1:27 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
sableesp

P.S. This law encourages employer's to hire 'perfect' people .

Any hint of a handicap; any person appearing to be over the age of twenty-five --- passed over in favor of a seemingly, healthy-looking, *sixteen year old (*working paper age).

The experienced workers in the mid-thirty range; shutting the door to sixty year old, plus candidates.

Surely, anyone walking with a limp, wringing their hands, wearing a wig, more than five wrinkles, is a 'risk', just not worth taking.

Well, there goes the neighborhood!

May 24 2011 at 11:53 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
sableesp

If this article's no exaggerated, it's ridiculous that an employed 'would have to prove' their worker's not disabled. And, if application to claim a disability is broadend, then would that cover people that have to wear glasses to read or see distance or both?
Incentives to the employer, or some sort of 'affirmative action' would most likely assist the disabled securing jobs. After all, a disability or a handicap would mean more expense for the employer, from wheel chair ramps to larger doors to new bathrooms to specialized desks.
Instead of placing all this burden upon an employer; giving free-rein to each and every person to commit fraud; allow the doctors to determine who is and who is not disabled, instead of this backwards law that the article talks about.

May 24 2011 at 11:11 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
talitalianman

I know many people will abuse the system , were def not going to have the money to cover all the people that are going to use this new system... WHat might sound nice always finds people to abuse and expoit it

May 24 2011 at 9:44 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Laird Wilcox

By defining "disability" in the broadest possible way you are necessarily going to include those whose disability is marginal and requires no remedial procedures. It also lowers standards of probability, not to mention proof, to a point where the system would be easy to game. In other words, you cam expect rampant fraud as a result of this legislation.

The appeal of legislation like this is that it can make legislators and sponsors feel "good" about themselves for "helping" people, it looks good on reelection literature, appeals to special interest groups and no one is willing to challenge it at the risk of being "insensitive" to the needs of others.

Disability "discrimination" lawsuits can be a cash cow for lawyers and can cost employers tens of thousands of dollars. By lowering standards of evidence, it forces employers to settle on claims that otherwise would have been dismissed as unfounded and without sufficient merit. How does one prove that someone is "not" disabled, especially when the definition of disability has been manipulated to include minor conditions? Anyone with any kind of foresight can easily lay down a paper trail at a doctor's office of "nerve pain" or some other condition that is difficult to prove but easy to claim.
I was injured in a pedestrian/automobile accident 14 years ago that left me with leg issues and complications that make it difficult to walk distances or stand erect for periods of time. My case was well documented by accident reports, periods of hospitalization, surgeries and other evidence. I obtained a disability parking permit on legitimate grounds.

What I would encounter time after time is individuals using these permits who were not objectively entitled to them. In a number of conversations with permit holders it became obvious that they had wheedled their permits from doctors with vague complaints knowing that they weren't really necessary but would be convenient to have. They thought it was funny. I even encountered cases of their obviously healthy and vigorous children using their parent’s permits to park! Once you get these, they're routinely renewed.

Gaming the system deprives the seriously handicapped of the benefits it was intended to offer and also places a huge burden on employers to provide unnecessary accommodations. Any attempt to water down or diminish standards for disability is going to have this same effect. This not going to help people who really need it but expand the program and its cost at a time when the country can least afford it.

May 24 2011 at 9:13 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
Practical Nomad

Is about time. Disability should be determined between Doctor(s) and Patient, not by Employers, Insurance Companies, etc. As for Employers, discrimination can't occur in any form and accomodations must be made for the disabled.

May 24 2011 at 8:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
countrydebbij1

information for some of you people who are complaining about people with disabilities... I hope you never have to feel the pain of some of us and never have to figure out how to pay your bills on the grand sum of $674 a month.

May 24 2011 at 8:04 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
patogether

Just more goverment making it more costly to do business in the USA.
More jobs will go overseas

May 24 2011 at 7:59 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
larry

I need to speak from the other side. There are many people that claim to be disabled and know how to "work" and "take advantage" of "THE SYSTEM". As an apartment manager, there have been people that insist they need a 'companion dog" as a service animal. Because our Complex has size and weight restrictions on dogs we have to be skeptical. In all cases, after investigating there was no doctor authorization with reference to having to have a dog, and not even a record or medical reason for needing a dog. Point is: there is a lot of fraud and dishonesty out there.

May 24 2011 at 7:56 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
JON

Im on disability towmoter went through the floor of a truck and messed back up.I know people ask me what I told the doc so they could try to get it too.I think they should drug test for welfare and SS or SSI

May 24 2011 at 7:49 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

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