LegislationWatch: Strengthening Equality Rights for People with Disability in the USA

London, 8 January 2009

On 1 January 2009, the United States Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act of 2008 entered into force. The purpose of the Amendments Act is to restore the intent and protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA 1990). 

On its enactment the ADA 1990 was celebrated as a global benchmark for protecting people with disabilities from discrimination and ensuring their civil liberties. However, the progressive nature of the ADA’s original text has been diluted by a number of Supreme Court decisions, including Sutton v. United Airlines, Inc., 527 U.S. 471 (1999) and Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, 534 U.S. 184 (2002), which have narrowed the broad scope that was originally intended by Congress for the ADA 1990 and have resulted in lower courts interpreting too restrictively what constitutes a protectable persons under that Act.
In response to the concern that the ADA was losing its original purpose, the House of Representatives passed the Amendments Act on 25 June 2008. The Amendments Act addresses these concerns by introducing a number of features which replace, clarify and strengthen the original text of the ADA 1990. Most important amongst these include:

• Section 4 which amends the definition of disability contained in section 3 of the ADA 1990 and clarifies certain terms, such as ‘substantially limits’, ‘major life activities’ and ‘regarded as having such an impairment’.
• Section 5 which amends the general rule on discrimination contained in section 102 of the ADA 1990 which replaces ‘with a disability because of the disability of such individual’ with ‘on the basis of disability’.

In effect these amendments broaden the scope of application of the ADA 1990 and offer increased protection to those who suffer discrimination on the basis of disability. The entry into force of the Amendments Act represents a positive development for the rights of persons with disabilities in the United States. Furthermore, the increased scope offered by section 5 potentially protects against the discrimination by association (recently prohibited by the European Court of Justice in the case of Coleman v. Attridge Law and Steve Law (Case C-303/06)) of those who are not themselves disabled but who may nonetheless suffer discrimination ‘on the basis of disability’.

The Amendment Act also brings US law in line with several international standards on disability, such as Article 2 of the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and Principle 5 of the Declaration of Principles on Equality*, in respect to the definition of discrimination.  

To read the full text of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 click here.

To read the full text of the Americans with Disabilities Act 1990 click here.

*Drafted and originally endorsed by 128 prominent human rights and equality law experts, the Declaration is a unique document which defines the right to equality as a basic human right. To read the text of the Declaration click here.