2009 Amendments Widen the Scope of the ADA

In 2008, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendment, which broadens the scope of the ADA so that millions more Americans can qualify for the Act’s protections. As before, a disabled individual is one who has “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,” a record of such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment. However as of January 1, 2009 the “regarded as” prong of the definition of disability has been modified to only require that the individual be regarded as having an impairment, without regard to whether it substantially limits a major life activity.

The 2009 amendment also expands the term major life activity to include “caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.” Under the revised ADA, major life activities can include the operation of a major bodily function, including but not limited to “functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions.”

Another significant change is in how episodic conditions are evaluated. Various federal court decisions had interpreted the law in such a way as to exclude episodic or intermittent impairments such as epilepsy and -traumatic stress disorder. The 2009 Amendment makes clear that impairments that are episodic or in remission are considered disabilities if, while in its active phase, the impairment substantially limits a major life activity.

Finally, the 2009 amendment reaffirms that the ADA should be broadly construed, superseding the 2002 Supreme Court decision in Toyota Motor Mfg. of Ky., Inc. v. Williams which held that the terms ‘substantially limits’ and ‘major life activity’ must be “interpreted strictly to create a demanding standard for qualifying as disabled.”

This new legislative guidance should broaden the scope of the ADA to encompass more of those individuals it was designed to protect.